Friday, December 21, 2007

The Castro Experience - A new PBS documentary takes a hard-headed look.

January 21, 2005, 7:59 a.m.
The Castro Experience
A new PBS documentary takes a hard-headed look.

The latest sign that PBS may be indeed moving away from reflexive
lefty politics is its hardheaded and compelling new documentary Fidel
Castro, which premieres Jan. 31 and is the first non-American
biography in the network's American Experience series. (As executive
producer Mark Samuels pointed out at the PBS news conference, an
argument can be made that Castro, with his half-century-long "impact
on American history," is an American experience, besides being "also a
tremendous story.")


Veteran documentarian Adriana Bosch clearly shows the appeal of a
charismatic revolutionary like Castro to a populace suffering from the
oppressive Batista regime, but refuses to sentimentalize the
cigar-smoking, iconic leader they got as a replacement. "It is the
tragic story of a nation who saw a messiah in just a man," she says of
her film, which doesn't flinch from detailing the brutal reality
beneath Castro's charm: 500 Bastistianos tried and executed in less
than three months, 20,000 people arrested after the Bay of Pigs, and
so on.

Was Communism the reason for the treason of Castro's revolution — as
Cuban exiles protested in the early '60s? (Castro never actually
admitted that the Cuban revolution was socialist in nature until after
the Bay of Pigs.) Or was it that Castro himself, as the film reveals,
is simply a megalomaniac — someone who as a small boy threatened to
burn his family's house down if they didn't send him to the school of
choice, and who confiscated land from his own mother when he grew up?
A University of Havana classmate interviewed by Bosch describes young
Fidel as a combination of genius and juvenile delinquent, which seems
pretty much on the mark.

At the very least, Fidel Castro is a welcome antidote to last year's
Looking For Fidel, Oliver Stone's pro-Castro documentary for HBO. "I
think it approached a work of fiction," Bosch said, describing the
infamous moment in that film when a Cuban prisoner insists to Stone's
cameras that 30 years in jail for stealing a boat seems quite fair to
him. ("I was shocked at that," Stone told Ann Louise Bardach in a
priceless Slate interview, "but Bush would have shot these people, is
what Castro said...")

"I agree with everything that Adriana just said," added Marifeli
Perez-Stable, a Fidel Castro contributor and author of The Cuban
Revolution: Origins, Course and Legacy. "But I think nonetheless that
the Oliver Stone film, in spite of Oliver Stone, is an important
historical document because it is the Commandante in his twilight
years, and because Stone sympathizes with him, there are no filters."

I asked Bosch, who was born in Cuba and has done several American
Experience documentaries about U.S. presidents, whether she sees
Castro as a better or a worse man than he's generally depicted in the

"If you have seen Fidel Castro portrayed as a Robin Hood, that was
driven into the arms of the Soviet Union by the United States'
unwillingness to accept Cuban nationalism, this film will portray
Castro as a worse man," she responded. "If you think he's a murderer
that imposed his rule on a Cuba that wasn't really wanting some of the
changes he was bringing forth, then this film portrays him as a better
man. It is up to you in the end to tell me how you see Castro after
watching this film."

I see him as a ruthless dictator, of course. Yet watching the film's
depiction of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it's hard not to feel rather
nostalgic for the days when ruthless dictators weren't generally
contaminated by the suicidal poison of Islamic lunacy; if they began
acting too crazy, at least bigger ruthless dictators could rein them
in. Khrushchev thought Castro was a madman and told him to back down;
Castro called Khrushchev a bastard, but obeyed.

Timothy Naftali, a University of Virginia professor and co-author of
One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964,
describes in the film just why Khrushchev thought Castro, who'd sent
him a letter during those tense days in 1962, was crazy.

"Ultimately, what the letter says is, `Nikita, if you have to use
nuclear weapons against the United States to defend my country, and
even if that means the Americans will retaliate by blowing up my
country, do it for the sake of international socialism," Naftali said
at the news conference. "It's a remarkable document. It scared the
hell out of the Soviets...and we only learned this a few years ago."

"The thing about Castro, with the exception of the Cuban Missile
Crisis, which is this really weird moment, he's generally a smart
man," Naftali added. "There's one moment in 1964 he gets really angry
at Lyndon Johnson and threatens to turn the water off to Guantanamo,
but that's about as close as they come to invading Guantanamo."

The film depicts Castro's uncanny charm in connecting with common
people. And yet to Bosch, what was most shocking during her research
was Castro's "inability to really understand what normal people need
and want, and to always try to impose on a population heroic dreams
and heroic feats."

— Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog
Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.

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