[Paleopsych] CHE: Castro Out of Context
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Castro Out of Context
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.21
By LOUIS A. PÉREZ JR.
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 Univisión
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
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
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
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
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 García 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. Pérez 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.
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