It’s often said that Fidel Castro is a dictator, and it’s true that there are no presidential elections in the apparently one-party republic of Cuba (although there are local ones, interestingly enough.)
And given what happened in Venezuela for the 40 years of supposed “democracy” (the infamous Punto Fijo pact, which basically made sure the same shit always happened, no matter who the asshole in power was), it’s clear that no true democracy pertained there either. At least, not until Hugo Chavez–formerly a failed military coup plotter!–stood as a civilian and a democrat for the first time in the 1998 elections and bested his nearest competitor by more than a 15-point margin.
Now it turns out that Castro, the once isolated communist dictator, has emerged as an unlikely savior of the young, fragile true democracy of Venezuela. In an interview with Ignacio Ramonet (of Le Monde Diplomatique), he reveals fully, for the first time, the key part he played in the reversal of the 2002 coup that toppled and nearly killed his friend:
Ignacio Ramonet: Have you followed closely the evolution of the situation in Venezuela, particularly the attempts to destabilize President Chávez?
Fidel Castro: Yes, we have followed events with great attention. Chávez visited us after being released from prison before the 1998 elections. He was very brave, because he was much reproached for traveling to Cuba. He came here and we talked. We discovered an educated, intelligent man, very progressive, an authentic Bolivarian. Later he won the elections several times. He changed the Constitution. He had the formidable support of the people, of the humblest people. His adversaries have tried to asphyxiate him economically.
In the 40 famous years of "democracy" that preceded Chávez, I estimate that about $200 billion fled from the country. Venezuela could be more industrialized than Sweden and enjoy Sweden’s levels of education, if in truth there had been a distributive democracy, if those mechanisms had worked, if there had been some truth and credibility in all that demagoguery and all that publicity.
From the time that Chávez took office until currency controls were established in January 2003, I estimate that about $30 billion flew out of the country—capital flight. So, as we maintain, all those phenomena make the order of things unsustainable in our hemisphere.
IR: On April 11, 2002, there was a coup d’état against Chávez in Caracas. Did you follow those events?
FC: When we learned that the demonstration by the opposition had changed direction and was nearing Miraflores [Palace], that there were provocations, shootings, victims, and that some high officials had mutinied and come out publicly against the president, that the presidential guard had withdrawn and that the army was on its way to arrest him, I phoned Chávez because I knew that he was defenseless and that he was a man of principle, and said to him: "Don’t kill yourself, Hugo! Don’t do like Allende! Allende was a man alone, he didn’t have a single soldier on his side. You have a large part of the army. Don’t quit! Don’t resign!"
IR: You were encouraging him to resist, gun in hand?
FC: No, on the contrary. That’s what Allende did, and he paid heroically with his life. Chávez had three alternatives: To hunker down in Miraflores and resist to death; to call on the people to rebel and unleash a civil war; or to surrender without resigning, without quitting. We recommended the third choice, which was what he also had decided to do. Because history teaches us that every popular leader overthrown in those circumstances, if he’s not killed the people claim him, and sooner or later he returns to power.
IR: At that moment, did you try to help Chávez somehow?
FC: Well, we could act only by using the resources of diplomacy. In the middle of the night we summoned all the ambassadors accredited to Havana and we proposed to them that they accompany Felipe [Pérez Roque], our Foreign Minister, to Caracas to rescue Chávez, the legitimate president of Venezuela. We proposed sending two planes to bring him here, in case the putschists decided to send him into exile.
Chávez had been imprisoned by the military putschists and his whereabouts were unknown. The television repeatedly reported the news of his "resignation" to demobilize his supporters, the people. But at one point, they allow Chávez to make a phone call and he manages to talk to his daughter, María Gabriela. And he tells her that he has not quit, that he has not resigned. That he is "a president under arrest." And he asks her to spread that news.
The daughter then has the bold idea to phone me and she informs me. She confirms to me that her father has not resigned. We then decided to assume the defense of the Venezuelan democracy, since we had proof that countries like the United States and Spain—the government of José María Aznar—who talk so much about democracy and criticize Cuba so much, were backing the coup d’état.
We asked María Gabriela to repeat it and recorded the conversation she had with Randy Alonso, the moderator of the Cuban TV program "Mesa Redonda" [Round Table], which had great international repercussion. In addition, we summoned the entire foreign news media accredited to Cuba—by then it must have been 4 o’clock in the morning—we informed them and played them the testimony of Chávez’s daughter. CNN broadcast it at once and the news spread like a flash of gunpowder throughout Venezuela.
IR: And what was the consequence of that?
FC: Well, that was heard by the military people faithful to Chávez, who had been deceived by the lie about a resignation, and then there is a contact with a general who is on Chávez’s side. I talk to him on the phone. I confirm to him personally that what the daughter said is true and that the entire world knows Chávez has not resigned.
I talk with him a long time. He informs me about the military situation, about which high-ranking officers are siding with Chávez and which are not. I understand that nothing is lost, because the best units of the Armed Forces, the most combative, the best trained, were in favor of Chávez. I tell that officer that the most urgent task is to find out where Chávez is being detained and to send loyal forces there to rescue him.
He then asks me to talk to his superior officer and turns me over to him. I repeat what Chávez’s daughter has said, and stress that he continues to be the constitutional president. I remind him of the necessary loyalty, I talk to him about Bolívar and the history of Venezuela. And that high-ranking officer, in a gesture of patriotism and fidelity to the Constitution, asserts to me that, if it’s true that Chávez has not resigned, he continues to be faithful to the president under arrest.
IR: But even at that moment nobody knows where Chávez is, true?
FC: Meanwhile, Chávez has been taken to the island of La Orchila. He is incommunicado. The Archbishop of Caracas goes to see him and counsels him to resign. "To avoid a civil war," he says. He commits humanitarian blackmail. He asks [Chávez] to write a letter saying he is resigning.
Chávez doesn’t know what’s happening in Caracas or the rest of the country. They’ve already tried to execute him, but the men in the firing squad have refused and threatened to mutiny. Many of the soldiers who guard Chávez are ready to defend him and to prevent his assassination. Chávez tries to gain time with the bishop. He writes drafts of a statement. He fears that once he finishes the letter, [his captors] will arrange to eliminate him. He has no intention of resigning. He declares that they’ll have to kill him first. And that there will be no constitutional solution then.
IR: Meanwhile, was it still your intention to send planes to rescue him and take him into exile?
FC: No, after that conversation with the Venezuelan generals, we changed plans. We shelved Felipe’s proposition to travel with the ambassadors to Caracas. What’s more, shortly thereafter we hear a rumor that the putschists are proposing to expel Chávez to Cuba. And we immediately announce that if they send Chávez here, we shall send him back to Venezuela on the first available plane.
IR: How does Chávez return to power?
FC: Well, at one point we again get in contact with the first general with whom I had spoken and he informs me that they’ve located Chávez, that he’s on the island of La Orchila. We talk about the best way to rescue him. With great respect, I recommend three basic steps: discretion, efficacy and overwhelming forc
e. The parachutists from the base at Maracay, the best unit of the Venezuelan Armed Forces, who are faithful to Chávez, carry out the rescue.
Meanwhile, in Caracas, the people have mobilized, asking for Chávez’s return. The presidential guard has reoccupied Miraflores [Palace] and also demands the president’s return. It expels the putschists from the palace. Pedro Carmona, president of the management association and very temporary President-usurper of Venezuela, is almost arrested right there at the palace.
Finally, at dawn on April 14, 2002, rescued by the faithful soldiers, Chávez arrives in Miraflores amid a popular apotheosis. I almost did not sleep the two days of the Caracas coup, but it was worthwhile for me to see how a people, and also patriotic soldiers, defended the law. The tragedy of Chile in 1973 was not repeated.
It’s an amazing interview. Be sure to read the full piece (which is actually a book excerpt) at the link.
Suddenly, it all becomes clear as to why Chavez is engaging in so much trade and other normalizing relations with Cuba. He can’t be unaware that his mentoring, life-saving buddy is getting on in years and won’t be around for much longer. So it’s more than possible that he wants to create a stabilizing transition process, and bring Cuba in from the cold…before Uncle Sam can horn in. And we all know that whatever Uncle Sam has touched in Latin America, hasn’t turned out all that well.
Cuba, which has indisputably given a great deal to Venezuela, surely deserves a better fate!