“I don’t know whether to call you brother or father,” Hugo Chávez wrote to Fidel Castro one evening after receiving a handwritten note from him—several pages crammed on both sides with advice. Chávez told Aleida Guevara, a pediatrician who is the daughter of Che Guevara, about the correspondence when she interviewed him in 2003 (no uncomfortable questions were asked). Fidel, Chávez went on to say, has great influence on him: he is always after him about his diet, and then takes himself to task about the shipments of Cuban ice cream—an excellent product—that he fondly sends to his protégé. Fidel watches over him in other ways as well: the older man seems to have convinced Chávez that “they”—the referent is unclear—are out to kill him, so that now the Venezuelan is rarely seen in public. The two are on the phone constantly, and there have been a half-dozen state visits in the last six years, causing mem-bers of the Bush administration to mutter darkly about the new Cuba– Venezuela axis.
Since October 2000, Cuba has obtained oil from Venezuela, at market prices but on very easy credit—90,000 barrels per day this year. Since 2001, Venezuela has also paid hard cash for Cuban goods and services—everything from prefab housing to sports trainers. But the personal bond between the two men was not always so strong; when Chávez staged his failed coup against President Carlos Andres Perez in 1992, for example, Fidel came immediately to the defense of his old friend “CAP,” who had established normal relations with Cuba in defiance of US wishes, and set up daily flights between Havana and Caracas.
In 2003, at a time when Chávez was in deep political trouble—the GDP was shrinking by nearly 8 percent, after having shrunk 9 percent the year before, his ratings were sinking, and the opposition was in the process of gathering signatures for the referendum against him—he turned to Fidel for help. Fidel agreed to provide Chávez with nearly 30,000 internacio-nalistas: doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, sports coaches, trainers, teachers, and literacy experts—that is, with the staff and administrative and planning expertise that has allowed Chávez to constantly expand the misiones, and to ensure his popularity with the great majority of the elec-torate who are poor. In exchange, he helps an old man, who after forty-six years is still unwilling to give up power, shore up his moribund regime.
The most numerous internaciona-listas are the doctors, but I had no luck in finding one to talk to: they avoid the press. But I did enjoy a long chat with a Cuban friend living in Venezuela, whose two cousins are doctors outside Caracas. They work for the Misión Barrio Adentro, which has provided health care within easy walking distance to nearly every poor neighborhood in the country. The terms under which Cuban internacionalistas set out abroad, I gathered, have not changed much in the two decades or so since the …