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After Fidel

We waited two hours for el lider máximo to appear. Havana is rarely cool and the day was hot. I was glad of the sombrero I’d bought in Mexico. If Fidel did turn up and speak it might be another four hours before I could get away; meanwhile a determined-looking young woman dressed in olive fatigues—a Revolutionary Guard of some kind—pushed her way up to me and firmly pinned a fidelista badge on my shirt, her expression a smirky but insistent command.

I made no resistance. In retrospect it was smart to be wearing the badge, since as an apparent norteamericano I had an ambiguous status in this assembly. Sure, I didn’t have a US passport, which is why I could travel to Cuba in 1960, but you wouldn’t want to rely too heavily on that if things turned nasty. And I was only there out of curiosity on my way back from Mexico. I dislike to the point of loathing all mobs and mob behavior, and a cool and distancing Anglo reserve might have been rather provocative when the cheering began.

But nothing happened. Castro never appeared. Hiring a cab I visited huge mansions commandeered as orphanages, with workman making alterations inside, noticed the big ESSO signs torn down at gas stations, and when the stopover ended I went out to the airport and boarded my Cubana Airlines flight for New York. Popular euphoria was still palpably in the air after Batista’s overthrow. It was something inescapable, unique. It was also something I was lucky to experience, and which those who have not personally felt it at a time of revolution, but have only read about it, will never quite understand. But the Cuban plane was something else. The US had embargoed maintenance for the airline; one engine failed over Miami; then the air-conditioning stopped and the cabin temperature soared. We were exhausted by the time we got to La Guardia.

* * *

Then I pretty much forgot about Cuba. I left the US, made some films, and it was only some years later that I ran into a cinematographer in Paris who brought me up to date. He had seen one of my documentaries at a festival and wanted to talk. Born and raised in Barcelona, he himself had worked as a documentary director in Cuba from 1959 to 1961, but propaganda was not his forte, and only those prepared to push the party line were wanted.

He knew he would have to get out. So he left Havana, moved to Paris, and made a distinguished name for himself working for Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut: My Night at Maude’s, Claire’s Knee, The Wild Child, and many other notable French features were all his work. Yet the grim reports that kept coming out of Cuba about political prisoners haunted him—reports of state executions and unending terms in jail—and in the early 1980s he helped produce two short films about Cuba’s dismal record on civil rights. It seemed like something a filmmaker who knew Cuba should do.

* * *

Which brings us to Oliver Stone. Stone of course is a filmmaker too, though hardly a man of honor, and he got very snakey when HBO pulled the broadcast of his admiring portrayal of Castro, Comandante, in April 2003. In a notably thoughtless gesture Castro had just shot three men for hijacking, and had had another 75 dissidents thrown into jail for long periods, all this at the very moment Stone was trying to polish up the dictator’s image on TV. Later he went back to Cuba and made another supposedly more objective documentary, Looking for Fidel. Slate’s Ann Louise Bardach interviewed him in April 2004 about his Cuban publicity efforts and here are some of the things Stone said:

OS: You know, the advantage I have is to be a filmmaker. Castro seemed to love my movies. Apparently he liked my presence, and he trusted that I wouldn’t edit him in a way that would be negative from the outset…

[One scene has Castro in front of eight men charged with hi-jacking. The dictator says to them, “I want you to speak frankly and freely.” They look well-scrubbed and their shirts are well ironed, and Stone thinks this is all fine and dandy.]

ALB: But Cuba’s leader for life is sitting in front of these guys who are facing life in prison, and you’re asking them, “Are you well-treated in prison?” Did you think they could honestly answer that?

[Stone makes no clear answer in the Slate transcript, or none that makes any sense, so the interviewer tries again.]

ALB: So you think they thought this was their best shot to air grievances? Rather than that if they did speak candidly, there’d be hell to pay when they got back to prison?

OS: I must say you’re picturing a Stalinist state. It doesn’t feel that way. You can always find horrible prisons if you go to any country in Central America.

ALB: Did you go to the prisons in Cuba?

OS: No, I didn’t.

* * *

Picture this. Stone is not allowed to talk to the accused in the absence of Castro. And they are not allowed to speak without Castro or his agents being present. So our radical filmmaker accepts a controlled governmental set-up in which men over whom the dictator has powers of life or death, three of whom he has already shot, are lined up before Stone, before Castro, and before the camera, while being grilled. Back in the days of Stalin this was common. Scenes like this were presented as “evidence” in Stalinist trials.

The same thought must have occurred to Ann Louise Bardach, because she then suggests to Stone that the prisoners had no choice but to appear when ordered, “and that in some ways it was a bit of a mini-show-trial…”

OS: It does have that aura, absolutely. But I do maintain that if it were a Stalinist state… they certainly do a great job of concealing it.

ALB: To me, one of the most interesting exchanges in the film is when you ask “Why did you decide to shoot these three hijackers on the eighth day?” And he (Castro) bristles and says, “I didn’t shoot anyone, personally.” You then respond, “Well, OK, the state shot these three guys on the eighth day.” And he then says, “Of course, I take my share of responsibility.”

So el lider máximo takes responsibility for the murders. Or rather, he takes his ‘share’ of responsibility. Which is nice to know, and must be a great comfort to the families of the dead.

Posted in Artists And Politics, People, Notes.

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