Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Fidel Castro Tapes (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

One of the PBS documentaries last night was called The Fidel Castro Tapes and was actually a rerun from September 2014, a unique and engaging program in that it told the story of Fidel Castro from his early days as a college radical to his retirement from power in 2008 (replaced by his only slightly younger brother Raúl) largely in Castro’s own words, from interviews and clips of his speeches. What was fascinating is that before Castro became the black-hearted enemy, the face of Communism’s one beachhead in the Western Hemisphere, according to the incessant U.S. propaganda against him, before he took power he was seen in the U.S. either as a sympathetic figure or at least an ambiguous one, a nationalist revolutionary who fought against the government of his predecessor, Fulgencio Batista (who had taken power in a military coup staged in 1952 on the eve of a national election in which Cubans would have voted for president and a legislature, and Castro was actually planning to run for a seat in the Cuban Congress) and who said all the right things about not seeking power for himself but only in the name of the Cuban people, to whom he promised democracy, free elections and freedom of thought. During his time in the Sierra Maestre mountains in 1958, as his guerrillas gained strength and defeated Batista’s supposedly professional army in one battle after another, he was quite frequently interviewed and even visited by U.S. news reporters, to whom he spoke in delightfully fractured English and explained that he was a nationalist and a democrat, not a Communist.

Just how Fidel Castro changed in U.S. propaganda from sympathetic democrat to loathsome Communist (recently Charles and I watched a 1959 movie from TCM called Pier 5, Havana, in which the Castro government were depicted as good guys and the hero foiled a counterrevolutionary plot by Batistanos to overthrow him) is unclear; relations between Castro and the U.S. in the first year and a half or so were a weird mess of misunderstandings. Castro actually went to Washington, D.C. in 1959 and sought a meeting with President Eisenhower, who begged off and instead sent his vice-president, Richard Nixon. Castro told reporters he thought the meeting had gone well, but Nixon told Eisenhower Castro was “a man to be watched” (though, as Charles joked, Nixon seems to have felt that virtually everybody ought to be “watched” in that pejorative sense) and the U.S. Congress first froze Cuba’s sugar quotas and then cut them off completely. That seems to have driven Castro into the arms of the Soviet Union, who sent their vice-chair to Cuba and negotiated an agreement to buy 1 million tons of Cuban sugar per year, and with that foot in the door the Soviets then negotiated a series of mutual aid treaties and, ultimately, a military alliance that led to Cuba definitively taking the socialist road, nationalizing the U.S. companies (there’s an interesting clip here of the names “United Artists” and “Warner Brothers” being chiseled off the façades of Cuban movie theatres) that had dominated Cuba’s economy before the Revolution, and ultimately leading to the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba which (despite the wishful thinking of the writing staff on the compelling CBS series Madam Secretary) continues to this day, with no end in sight. (Indeed, given that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both sons of anti-Castro Cuban émigrés, are currently top contenders for the Republican Presidential nomination, it seems likely that even the small “opening” to Cuba President Obama had made in resuming diplomatic relations may well be reversed by the next President.)

The second half of the documentary is more familiar, covering the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 (and in particular the fact that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev withdrew the missiles from Cuba without consulting Castro, who was predictably livid that he’d been sold out), the brief “opening” to Cuba during the Carter thaw (during which I got to go to Cuba myself on a trip my mother arranged, and my greatest memory is the spectacular beaches, the pre-Revolutionary Meyer Lansky-build Habana Riviera Hotel where we stayed, the nightclub where at least part of the Cuban musical and cultural tradition was preserved, but best of all the ability to spend one week in an environment without public advertising: the only billboards to be seen had revolutionary slogans and pictures of people like Lenin and Ché), the Mariel boatlift of 1980 (which was largely an opportunity seized on by Castro to get rid of criminals and Queers; indeed Oliver Stone seized on this when writing the script for the 1983 remake of Scarface by changing the central character from an Italian-American to a Cuban immigrant with a criminal record in his own country who came over during the boatlift), the “special period” in which Cuba had to respond to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the overnight drying-up of the spigots of aid Castro had been relying on to keep his country afloat (earlier writer-director Tom Jennings had made the point that when the Batista government had fled into exile they had done such a good job taking the Cuban treasury with them that Castro and his crew literally didn’t have enough money on hand to run the country and they desperately needed emergency aid from somebody, and when the United States didn’t come through and the Soviet Union did, they got the influence they had sought and an unforeseen but welcome “beachhead” in the Western Hemisphere), the hysterical (in both senses) controversy over Elian Gonzalez, and ultimately the modus vivendi, including a partial (but often rescinded and then re-established) reopening of the possibility of private enterprise in Cuba and enough deals with non-American companies (despite a Congressional law passed in the early 1990’s that actually tightened the trade embargo by enforcing it against not only U.S. but other countries’ companies doing business in Cuba — the idea was to get the world’s capitalist enterprises to abandon Cuba en masse by forcing them to choose between selling to the U.S. and selling to Cuba, but most companies worked around it by routing their Cuba trade through subsidiaries and cut-out that had no U.S. presence) to maintain an economy.

There’s enough residual hatred against Cuba from the long-ago émigré Cubans in the Miami diaspora to keep the U.S. and Cuba at loggerheads for years or even decades to come, even though younger Cuban-Americans with no direct memory of life on the island would like to see the embargo lifted so they can see their relatives who stayed behind, and there are plenty of farmers and businesspeople in the U.S. who would like to see it fall because they’d like to sell to Cuba — but as with gun legislation (on which the National Rifle Association has the power to kill any reform, no matter how mild or how sensible or how broadly supported by the American people, because they can mobilize voters on their side and the gun-safety groups can’t), it’s the anti-Castro minority, still fighting the battles of the Cold War, that hold sway on the issue.