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


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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.”)

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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 media.

“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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