[Paleopsych] CHE: Castro Out of Context

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Castro Out of Context
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.21



    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
    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
    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 Garc&iacutea 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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