HAVANA TIMES — I first met Hugo Chavez in 1994. He had just gotten out of prison and came to visit Cuba and Fidel Castro, who received him with the honors given a head of state. As I listened to Chavez speak at the University of Havana, I was trying to understand what the Cuban leader was up to.
Chavez was a soldier who had attempted to carry out a coup against a democratically elected government (in 1992). I also remember that he used language that wasn’t very socialist, though he made constant references to social justice and nationalism.
The political cost of receiving a coup leader was too high for it to be done without a specific purpose, so I tried to find out what was behind this new friendship with Fidel. For starters, I found out that the coup had been much more than a military putsch.
I learned that it had also involved civilians, among them some old guerillas who in the past had been closely tied to Cuba. They must have undoubtedly been a valuable source of information for Havana concerning the personality and political ideas of the Venezuelan military officer.
But beyond anything else they must have learned about each other, since between Chavez and Fidel there arose a political love at first sight. I’ve spent two decades in Cuba and I’ve never seen the Commander laugh out loud as he did as when he was meeting with this Venezuelan.
Castro found his successor in Latin America and Chavez his political fox, whose advice allowed him to avoid pitfalls on more than one occasion. They saved each other; Cuba received oil and Venezuela got doctors and teachers for its social missions.
The first time I visited Caracas, a Venezuelan friend who was participating in bilateral negotiations confessed to me that Fidel Castro wanted to send doctors for free but that that would have made it impossible for the island’s balance of trade.
She then explained that Chavez pressured the Cuban president to accept this exchange of health care personnel for oil because Venezuelan law wouldn’t allow that government to send oil to Cuba based on pure solidarity.
To my knowledge, the only “foul play” engaged in by the two was orchestrated by Fidel Castro. Chavez who challenged him to a baseball game between the veteran players from each country and the Cuban Commander sent players from the Cuban national team disguised as old people.
During the 2002 coup, I had an interview (reported over the US Telemundo television network) with Chavez’s daughter. In it, she insisted that her father had never resigned, as was being said by the coup organizers to justify his overthrow.
Telemundo is seen in Venezuela, and I think with that this story to some degree contributed to revealing the truth; I say this because a few days later we were called to Caracas and President Chavez gave us the first press interview after his release.
The meeting was at the Miraflores presidential palace, where we talked about his arrest, the attempt to form another government by force, the role of the press in the coup, and the relations between the coup organizers with the US and Spain. He was quite serene and less antagonistic than in his speeches.
I remember he placed great emphasis on the message he received from Fidel at Miraflores during the first moments of the coup. Castro advised him not to do anything that would make them kill him, to avoid a useless sacrifice and to stay alive to continue fighting later.
We had waited all day at Miraflores to finish the report, and the interview finally ended at midnight. We left running to send the story out over satellite so that the network could announce that we had an exclusive interview with the Venezuelan president.
We were exhausted and when I came back with my cameraman, Victor Buttari, I realized I had left the original cassettes in the taxi. Incredibly, we were able to recover them there in Caracas at 3 a.m. to board the plane for Miami at 6:00 a.m.
This weekend, all of Cuba gasped upon hearing Chavez’s virtual farewell. Several of my friends called to tell me, each of them filled with emotion. Hearing that news, I was reminded of these anecdotes and shortly after I started writing this post to share them.
(*) An authorized Havana Times translation of the original posted by BBC Mundo.