Chavez and Castro

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Oct 30 09:13:17 MST 2000

NY Times, October 30, 2000

Venezuelan Leader Finds a Teammate in Castro


CARACAS, Venezuela, Oct. 29 - Fidel Castro has been known to make speeches
that last up to eight hours, and Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela,
can be nearly as garrulous. So there was no telling what would happen when
Mr. Chávez invited Mr. Castro, who is making a five-day state visit here,
to join him today as the only guest on his weekly radio program, "Aló

What resulted was a four-hour gabfest that offered plenty of star turns for
the two men who personify the past and the future of the Latin American left.

Dressed in matching military fatigues, they discussed Latin American
history, geography and politics, joked, took turns criticizing a world
order dominated by the United States, answered phone calls from listeners
and, at the very end, even sang a song together.

Somewhat surprisingly, though, it was Mr. Chávez, a former army colonel who
led an unsuccessful coup attempt here in 1992, who dominated the proceedings.

He was the one who set the agenda, delivered the sharpest attacks on social
and economic injustices and pressed Mr. Castro to join him in singing a
Venezuelan folk song despite the Cuban leader's protests, well-founded as
it turned out, that "I am always so out of tune."

As is his habit, Mr. Chávez pleaded for Latin American unity, offering the
increasing closeness of ties between Venezuela and Cuba as an example to
the rest of the region, and condemned what he called the "cursed
individualism" of unrestrained capitalism.

His goal, he said, is "the integration of our peoples to find economic
development and economic and social justice," but he added that "we still
have many bridges to cross."

At several points the "Hugo and Fidel Show" turned into little more than an
exercise in stroking and mutual flattery. Mr. Chávez praised Mr. Castro for
"giving us a lesson in Venezuelan history," while Mr. Castro extolled his
host's efforts to revive the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting
Countries, giving him credit for the dramatic rise in world oil prices in
the last 18 months.

As was the case Friday evening in a speech he delivered to Venezuela's
National Assembly, Mr. Castro's remarks had a valedictory tone that seemed
to indicate that he regards Mr. Chávez as his ideological or spiritual
heir. "I have confidence in you," Mr. Castro told his Venezuelan
counterpart. "At this moment, in this country, there is no one who can
substitute for you."

Playing the role of wiser older brother, Mr. Castro, 74, whose voice
occasionally cracked, also offered advice on governance to Mr. Chavez, who
is a very vigorous 46. "Chávez can't be the mayor of all of Venezuela," he
said before urging his host to make more of an effort to mobilize
Venezuelan society behind the "peaceful social revolution" he leads.

The site of the program was a guest house at Carabobo Park in Valencia,
where the troops of Simón Bolívar, the hero of South American independence,
defeated a Spanish colonial army in 1821.

Mr. Chávez and Mr. Castro gave every sign of wanting to stay on the air all
day but said they had to cut the radio program short because Mr. Chávez was
going to take Mr. Castro on a tour of the battlefield before heading back
to Caracas.

The format of Mr. Chávez's weekly program, which began not long after he
took office early last year, calls for him to answer questions phoned in by
listeners, and that was the arrangement followed today. But all four of the
calls taken, two from Venezuela and two from Cuba, were creampuff queries
that allowed both men to sermonize at length.

Much of their conversation had to do with Bolívar, who was born in
Venezuela and is Mr. Chávez's most important intellectual influence, and
José Martí, Cuba's national hero.

At one juncture Mr. Castro approvingly quoted a famous statement of
Bolívar's that "the United States seems destined by Providence to plague
Latin America with misery in the name of liberty," and suggested that Mr.
Chávez had come to the same conclusion.

Perhaps even more eloquent than their words, though, was the affectionate
body language between the two men, whose previous public appearances during
the state visit, which started on Thursday, have been in more much formal

They repeatedly touched each other on the arm and shoulder, and smiled or
made amused faces at each other's jokes during the program, which was also

Much of their ribbing had to do with a Saturday night baseball game in the
city of Barquisimeto that pitted a team of retired Venezuelan all- stars
against a similar Cuban squad. Mr. Chávez had pushed for the game, a
rematch of a contest in Havana last year in which the Cubans defeated the
Venezuelans 5-4 with the help of ringers drawn from roster of the current
Cuban national team.

This time the results were even more lopsided. Despite the presence of the
former major league slugger Tony Armas in the cleanup slot of the
Venezuelan lineup, the Cubans, managed by Mr. Castro, won 17-6, aided by
eight Venezuelan errors.

Mr. Chávez, who started at first base for the Venezuelan team, did not
perform much better than his teammates. He hit into a double play during
his first at-bat, and after coming in as a relief pitcher in the ninth
inning, gave up hits to the first two batters he faced before walking Mr.
Castro, who had decided to insert himself as a pinch hitter, on a 3-2 pitch
that was down the center of the plate but was deemed a ball by the Cuban

At the start of the radio program this morning, Mr. Chávez acknowledged to
Mr. Castro that "you gave us a real beating last night," but then jokingly
complained that Mr. Castro had "negotiated" a walk with a compliant home
plate umpire.

"Everything depends on the size of the strike zone, Chávez," Mr. Castro
retorted, offering a justification that his critics will no doubt say
applies to politics as well as baseball, "and in Cuba, ours is narrow."

Louis Proyect
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