In the book “Fidel Castro, a two-voiced biography,” published by the Debate Publishing House, the Cuban president told Ignacio Ramonet information not previously released about the events of April 2002 in Venezuela.
Castro states that he phoned Miraflores Palace before Chávez surrendered and told him: “Don’t kill yourself, Hugo. Don’t do like Allende, who was a man alone. You have most of the Army on your side. Don’t quit, don’t resign.”
Later, Fidel directed Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, to fly to Caracas in one of two planes to pick up Chávez and fly him to safety.
Castro contacted “a general who sided with [Chávez]” to tell him that the world knew the president had not resigned and to ask the general to send troops to rescue the president.
Fidel Castro, who delivers so many speeches, has granted very few interviews. Only four long conversations with him have been published in the past 50 years. The fifth such interview, with the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, Ignacio Ramonet, has become the book “Fidel Castro, a two-voiced biography,” a summary of the life and thoughts of the Cuban chief of state, distilled from 100 hours of conversation. The first interview was held in late January 2003; the final one, in December 2005.
Published in these pages is an excerpt from the interview in which Castro talks about the Venezuelan conflict that occurred on April 11, 2002. As the Comandante says, he will remain in office “as long as the National Assembly, in the name of the Cuba people, wishes.” The book, soon to appear, is published by the Debate Publishing House.
Progreso Weekly is pleased to translate and reproduce excerpts from the interview, published in Koeyú Latinoamericano.
Ignacio Ramonet (IR):You have said you feel a great admiration for Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela.
Fidel Castro (FC):Well, yes. There we have another Indian, Hugo Chávez, a new Indian who is, as he himself says, “an Indian mixture,” mestizo, with a little white, he says. But you look at Chávez and you see an autochthonous son of Venezuela, the son of a Venezuela that itself is a mixture. But he has all those noble features and an exceptional, truly exceptional talent.
I make it a point to listen to his speeches. He feels proud of his humble origin, of his mixed ethnic background, which has a little of everything, mainly of those who were autochthonous people or slaves brought from Africa, with a mixture of Indian origin. That’s the impression. Maybe he has some white genes, and that’s not bad. The combination always is good, it enriches humanity, the combination of the so-called ethnic backgrounds.
IR: Have you followed closely the evolution of the situation in Venezuela, particularly the attempts to destabilize President Chávez?
FC: 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 force. 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.
IR: Chávez is a representative of the progressive armed forces, but in Europe and Latin America many progressives reproach him precisely because he is a military man. What opinion do you have about that apparent contradiction between progressiveness and the military?
FC: Look, in Venezuela we have an army playing an important role in the Bolivarian revolution. And Omar Torrijos, in Panama, was an example of a soldier with conscience. Juan Velasco Alvarado, in Peru, also carried out some notable acts of progress. Let’s not forget, for example, that among the Brazilians, Luis Carlos Prestes was an officer who led a march in 1924-26 almost like the march led by Mao Zedong in 1934-35.
Jorge Amado wrote about the march of Luis Carlos Prestes in a beautiful story, “The Gentleman of Hope,” one of his magnificent novels. I had an opportunity to read them all, and that march was something impressive. It lasted more than two and a half years, covering enormous territories in his country, and he never suffered defeat.
In other words, there were prowesses that came from the military. Let’s say, I’m going to cite a Mexican military man, Lázaro Cárdenas, a general of the Mexican Revolution, who nationalized petroleum. He is very prominent, carries out agrarian reform and gains the support of the people. When one talks about affairs in Mexico, one mustn’t forget the roles played by personalities like Lázaro Cárdenas. And Lázaro Cárdenas originated in the military.
One mustn’t forget that the first people in Latin America to rise up in the 20th Century, in the 1950s, were a group of youths who rebelled, young Guatemalan officers, who gathered around Jacobo Arbenz and participated in revolutionary activities. Well, you can’t say that’s a general phenomenon but there are several cases of progressive military men.
In Argentina, Perón also came from military origins. You need to see the moment when he emerges. In 1943, he was appointed Minister of Labor and drafted such good laws that when he was taken to prison the people rescued him — and he was a military chief. There was also a civilian who had influence over the military men, he studied in Italy, where Perón also had lived; he was Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and they were popular leaders.
Perón was an embassy attaché. He worked in Rome in the 1930s during the Mussolini period and was impressed by some of the forms and methods of mass mobilization he witnessed. There was influence, including in some processes, but in those cases where I mention that influence, Gaitán and Perón used it in a positive sense, because the truth is that Perón carried out social reform.
Perón commits, let us say, a mistake. He offends the Argentine oligarchy, humiliates it, strips it of its symbolic theater and some symbolic institutions. He worked with the nation’s reserves and resources and improved the living conditions of the workers. And the workers were very grateful, and Perón became an idol of the workers.