An article yesterday on the relationship between Cuba and Venezuela misidentified Jose Marti, the father of Cuban independence, as a Spaniard. Marti was Cuban. (Published 11/20/99)
When Cuban President Fidel Castro first welcomed a cashiered Venezuelan army officer named Hugo Chavez to Havana, he ordered an airport ceremony fit for a head of state. The incongruous embrace took place in 1994, launching what has become one of Latin America's most fascinating friendships.
At the time, both men were grappling with great uncertainty. Castro was ruling a communist nation mired in its worst stretch of isolation and hardship, precipitated by the collapse of the Soviet Union. And Chavez, a populist lieutenant colonel driven by contempt for Venezuela's corrupt oligarchy, had just been released from a two-year prison sentence for leading an attempted coup d'etat.
But in the years since their initial encounter, much has changed for these two iconoclasts.
Chavez, 45, is visiting Cuba as president of Venezuela, swept into office a year ago in a landslide electoral victory. Castro, 73, has been moving Cuba out of economic and political isolation in the face of a long-standing U.S. embargo, playing host this week to the first summit conference of leaders from Latin America, Spain and Portugal to take place in Cuba.
During the summit ceremonies, it became clear Chavez and Castro have continued to forge an unusual political, philosophical and personal bond that is taking shape as a regional axis between Latin America's oldest and youngest leftist leaders. And tonight they even got in a bit of baseball.
During a speech today at the University of Havana, Chavez, who was flanked by Castro, highlighted how much relations between Venezuela and Cuba have progressed since that day in December 1994 when the two men first shook hands on the tarmac of Jose Marti International Airport.
"Here we are, four years, 10 months and 27 days later, and Cuba and Venezuela are more alive and united than ever before," said Chavez, whose 1994 visit triggered a major diplomatic rift between Cuba and what was then a conservative Venezuelan government.
During this visit, Chavez and Castro have discussed a number of economic initiatives that would include the sale of much-needed oil to Cuba under preferential terms, the purchase by Venezuela of Cuban-made pharmaceuticals and medical equipment and the sale of Venezuelan rice to the island. On Wednesday, Chavez announced that his country's state-run oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, will enter into a joint venture with the Cuban government to refine petroleum at an unused Soviet-built Cuban refinery.
From the minute Chavez arrived Sunday, the camaraderie between the two men has been striking. From the bear hugs and back slaps they exchanged at the airport to the quips and jokes they have shared at public events, the two leaders have gone out of their way to hail each other, notwithstanding the fact that Venezuela is the largest exporter of oil to the United States and Castro is Washington's fiercest critic in the Western Hemisphere.
The Venezuelan president's trip ended tonight on a light note with a baseball game at Havana's Latin American Stadium between a Venezuelan team, whose pitcher was Chavez, and a Cuban squad managed by Castro. The buildup to the game between the two baseball-crazed countries dominated much of Chavez's stay and resulted in friendly barbs between the heads of state over who would prevail.
No sooner did Chavez arrive did he rush off to the stadium to throw warm-up pitches. "The fastball was humming. I surprised myself," he joked earlier this week.
At the stadium tonight, a smiling Castro outfitted in a blue baseball jacket and red cap coached his team from the dugout. Chavez took the mound under a light rain.
He started out wild, walking two batters and giving up three hits and three runs in the first inning. But in the second inning, he managed to strike out a batter, who then ran up and hugged him.
In the end, Cuba prevailed, 5-4. After the game, both leaders signed autographs for the crowd.
Prior to the game, Chavez said, "There's nothing better: sports to bring the souls of our two countries together." Afterward, he quipped: "There is revenge."
Beyond their fondness for baseball, Chavez and Castro have been drawn to each other by a strong similarity in views on a range of political, social and economic issues, as well as their admiration for certain Latin American historical figures.
Chavez has said that his so-called peaceful revolution is a continuation of the work of 19th century Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar. For his part, Castro has wrapped himself in the cloak of Spaniard Jose Marti, viewed as the father of Cuban independence. Referring to the newfound Venezuelan-Cuban solidarity, Chavez ended his university speech today with the words, "Bolivar and Marti: one country, one future."
Chavez and Castro, both known for their high-voltage and lengthy oratory that is peppered with military jargon, have also found common ground in their beliefs that Latin America should become a united region to deal with its manifold social and economic problems and that it must protect its culture and ultimately its sovereignty from the encroachments of globalization and the influence of the United States. Chavez has gone as far as to call for the formation of a military alliance within Latin America that would be similar to NATO, while Castro has decried the United States as not only a threat to Cuba but to the region's stability.
"Castro embodies the politics of victimization and I believe Chavez admires his ability to play Cuba and Latin America off of the imperial designs of the United States," said Eric Ekvall, a political consultant in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital.
He added, "They both have somewhat larger views of themselves as going up against the bigger and greater forces . . . the debasing influences of the globalized market economy . . . in order to create a just society for people."
Additionally, both are severe critics of the imposition of economic measures on developing countries as conditions for restructuring their foreign debt and obtaining new loans from international donors.
Despite the political and social goals shared by Chavez and Castro, some analysts said they believe that in the end their ideologies fundamentally differ and that Chavez will have to make that distinction to ease the fears of Venezuelan investors, who have reacted with great trepidation since he came to power.
"It is not about communism or anything like that. That is what Chavez wants to avoid," said Luis Vicente Leon, an official at the Datanalysis polling firm in Caracas. "He wants to avoid the fear that arose in the business sector and international community during the presidential campaign when the opposition spotlighted a video of him showing his support for the Cuban revolution at the University in Havana after the attempted coup."
CAPTION: President Hugo Chavez pitches for the Venezuelan team. Castro did not play for the Cuban side, but he did serve as manager and coached his team to a 5-4 victory.
CAPTION: Cuban leader Fidel Castro, center, removes his hat prior to the start of a friendly baseball game between veteran Cuban and Venezuelan players.