By LOUIS A. PÉREZ JR. | Chronicle of Higher Education
No foreign head of state has defied U.S. efforts at regime change longer than Fidel Castro. Since 1959 he has survived an armed invasion, repeated assassination attempts, years of political isolation, and decades of economic sanctions.
Forty-six years later, Castro is alive, if not so well, 90 miles away, still in power, still defying the United States.
Survival under such circumstances is tantamount to at least one kind of success, and success draws a crowd. Americans have displayed a curious ambivalence toward Castro, not necessarily disagreeing with their government’s stance toward Cuba but nonetheless fascinated by the man who has so confounded 10 American presidents.
That fascination has transformed Castro into a veritable cottage industry. Castro biographies—by academics, journalists, and at least one psychiatrist—have become almost an American literary genre. Then there is Fidel in fiction: an “unauthorized autobiography,” a play, and such
fantasy titles as Fidel Castro Assassinated and A Bullet for Fidel. In the marketplace, that most remorseless measure of public interest, Castro sells.
He has also achieved something of an iconic status in myriad news interviews, documentaries, and docudramas, among them Saul Landau’s Fidel (1969) and, with Dan Rather for CBS, Castro, Cuba, and the U.S. (1974). Rather interviewed Castro again in 1996 for CBS’s The Last Revolutionary. The cigared one has been featured in Marita Lorenz’s film Dear Fidel, Estela Bravo’s Fidel, a CNN interview with Ted Turner, a docudrama for Showtime, a 10-part series on Univision featuring Castro’s home movies, an Oliver Stone documentary for HBO, and on and on. Never mind his portrayal by Jack Palance, Joe Mantegna, Anthony LaPaglia, and others in overheated comic or melodramatic turns.In 1993 The Miami Herald ranked Castro as the second “most influential” person in South Florida history, preceded only by the Florida tourism developer Henry Flagler. It is fitting, then, that PBS should include Castro within the scope of the American Experience series, although I hope it’s not too radical to suggest that he’s more integral to the Cuban experience.
Castro is a political Rorschach test. All Castro documentaries presume to inform, but they mostly inform on their own sympathetic or hostile political views. It could hardly be otherwise. He is not a man about whom one is likely to be neutral.
PBS’s Fidel Castro is true to type. It pulls no punches, setting the tone in the first 15 minutes as it describes Castro’s youth and university years.
He is “the hick” (el guajiro), an outsider, illegitimate, unruly, and disruptive at the school from which he is said to have been expelled; a boy whose “reckless behavior” earned him the name of “the crazy one” (el loco); a “ferocious son” alleged to have threatened to burn his parents’ house down; a combination of “genius and juvenile delinquent” who showed “signs of brilliance and then behaved like a hoodlum,” influenced by fascist priests, and incapable of empathy for the normal needs of ordinary people. He is implicated in two murders during his university years and characterized by his ex-brother-in-law as a paranoid psychopath who might just as soon throw his wife out of a 10-story window as buy her a mink coat.
That perspective, reinforced by interviews with exiles and defectors, shapes the narrative arc of the documentary, which was written, produced, and directed by Cuban-born Adriana Bosch. She draws on the memories of Castro’s boyhood friends and estranged family members, allies turned adversaries, former government officials and political prisoners. These are not disinterested voices, of course, but together they serve the film well, bearing witness to disappointment and disaffection.
The historical Castro is infinitely more elusive, however. More than half of the program attempts, with only partial success, to explain how the first six decades of the Cuban republic (founded in 1902) set the stage for Castro’s political ascent. The documentary chronicles decades of public immorality and official malfeasance, particularly under Gen. Gerardo Machado y Morales and Fulgencio Batista; the deepening popular revulsion with the prevailing order; and the subsequent rebellion and, ultimately, revolution, including student protests and labor strikes in the 1930s and urban warfare and rural insurgency in the 1950s. But the film is loath to concede to Castro anything more than secondary significance in that process. His motives are questioned, his importance minimized. Castro is acknowledged as historical agent but denied historical agency.
His role, as presented here, is self-serving and suspect, a function of vanity (“glory and fame” are what the young Fidel is said to have coveted) and opportunism. (“Without money,” recalls one interviewee, “his marriage on the rocks, no work, he doesn’t know what to do. ... He says ‘I have to deliver a blow. I have to make a revolution.’”) Castro’s stature, we are told, does not result from his bold, practically suicidal 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks to dislodge Batista’s dictatorship, but from the “published photographs of the mutilated bodies of Cuba’s youth [that] repulsed the nation and made a hero of [him].” The reporter Herbert Matthews and The New York Times “launched the legend of Fidel Castro.” The Castro-led rural insurgency was not as important as the urban resistance, the program suggests, for while “Fidel played up his war for an American television audience, a much larger war was being waged in Cuba’s cities.”
One could certainly make a case for any one of those propositions. But to advance all of them on flimsy evidence is to advance a cause. Surely Castro must receive some credit for organizing the 26th of July Movement, for raising money, for directing the insurgency, and for summoning a nation to rise against the U.S.-backed dictator.
Once Castro is in power, however, the documentary overcompensates, investing him with full, not to say superhuman, agency, but of a mischievous and malevolent kind, fueled by unrestrained ambition and unimpeded purpose. Nation, government, and people are subsumed into one man; politics and policy are personalized. The Cuban revolution, we are told, was “from the very first moments ... a one-man show.” The dominant story line settles into a recurring motif: “Castro would drive two million Cubans into exile”; “Castro fans the flames of Cuban nationalism”; “Castro opened Cuba to foreign investors”; “Castro exported discontent”; “Castro’s doctors and teachers were serving as far away as Yemen”; “Castro’s troops were fighting in Angola and Ethiopia”; the Cubans in Grenada were “Castro’s men”; the Sandinista triumph in Nicaragua was “Castro’s victory”; the Sandinistas were “Castro’s allies.”
Those are breathtaking assertions, of course, and must be received with reservation. To attribute reach of that magnitude to Castro alone is unduly facile. It is, more accurately, a measure of the fear and loathing in which Castro is held by his detractors. Worse still, such claims serve to dismiss the efforts of countless numbers of the other men and women who—with ill will or good intentions—played an important part in outcomes that are here attributed to one man. Many tens of thousands of men and women, not just Castro, mobilized to defend the island during the Bay of Pigs invasion, in 1961. Similarly, the Sandinista triumph over Somoza was a Nicaraguan achievement, not Castro’s, one born by the heroic sacrifice and selfless struggle of the Nicaraguan people.
The new revolutionary government in 1959 immediately mobilized to do something about historic grievances, especially chronic unemployment and the high cost of living. Reform could not have been undertaken without challenging the historically privileged place the United States occupied in Cuba. The Cuban determination to advance the primacy of national interests led inevitably to confrontation with the United States. It is, of course, no surprise that the United States responded with all the means at its disposal to defend its interests.
At that point, Cuban actions, U.S. reactions, and Cuban counteractions become very complex, climaxing in the rupture of U.S.-Cuba relations and the establishment of Cuban-Soviet ties. The film accurately details the island’s economic hardships during the 1990s, in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, but is silent on the issue of the U.S. response. The documentary fails to mention the Torricelli Act (1992) and the Helms-Burton Act (1996), both of which contributed to making hard times in Cuba even harder. That omission invites the inference that Cubans were operating in a vacuum. U.S. policy has consequences: It is designed to. But those consequences are often not the ones intended or desired.
Biography is difficult because it is contingent and contextual, fashioned out of creative engagement with multiple historical realms. Castro is actor but he is also acted upon, shaping history but also shaped by it. A two-hour documentary could at least give a sense of that by alluding to those circumstances. Castro is a member of the second-born generation of the republic, the men and women formed with the knowledge of the obstacles posed by the United States to Cuban self-determination, first from 1898 to 1902 and later in the 1930s. It is impossible to understand the character of the Cuban revolution and Castro’s role in it without an awareness of that history.
The program’s emphasis, in service to its harsh judgment, is the filmmaker’s prerogative. There are many versions of Castro. The Estela Bravo documentary, for example, relies on sympathetic first-person reminiscences to advance a very different point of view. Nelson Mandela praises Cuba’s contributions to African liberation struggles, the writers Gabriel Márquez and Alice Walker reflect on the achievements of the Cuban revolution, and a host of interviewees speak well of the Cuban leader.The PBS program is as much a document of the present as it is a documentary about the past. Precisely because it is so much an artifact of Cuban angst, the film is a moving representation of one historical perspective. It speaks to dashed hopes and broken hearts, of a nation that envisioned the possibility of a better future and mobilized on its behalf, only to be pulled by the ideological undertow of the East-West conflict during the cold war.
Castro’s vision, as well as his failures, can be explained only by the historical crosscurrents, material circumstances, moral systems, and transaction and transmission of power. So it is not without irony that a documentary that seeks to keep a critical distance from its subject is, in the end, drawn inexorably under that subject’s sway.
“Ultimately,” Bosch explains in a news release, “the film is a cautionary tale. It is the tragic story of a nation who saw a Messiah in just a man.”
The Cuban people, the film tells us, “turned their good will, their faith, and their judgment to Fidel Castro,” and he cast “a spell over” them. The film ends with a solemn lament of the consequences when “an entire nation placed its hopes in just one man.”
And so it is that the filmmakers also succumb to the spell of Fidel Castro. To attribute to Castro alone—just one man—the power to have shaped the destiny of so many people is to elevate him to the level of the gods. He would be pleased.
Louis A. Perez Jr. is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The most recent of his many books about Cuba is On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 1999). His next book, To Die in Cuba: Suicide and Society, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press this spring.