Friday, February 04, 2005

Review: PBS' Documentary On Fidel Castro

An Honest Portrait of Fidel
The new PBS biography of Castro is fair, balanced, and unafraid.
by Duncan Currie
02/04/2005 12:00:00 AM

ADRIANA BOSCH'S much-touted documentary Fidel Castro made its PBS debut Monday night, as part of the network's "American Experience" series. I can already picture conservatives rolling their eyes. "A PBS special on Castro?" But Bosch's piece is remarkable--remarkably good, that is. It explains (1) Castro's messianic appeal to the Cuban people in 1959; (2) his countless failings as a leader; and (3) the barbarity of his rule. Bosch, a Cuban-American, pulls no punches. She interviews former political prisoners and documents the ghastliness of Cuba's jails. She also includes testimony from ex-Castro confidants who fell out of favor with the regime for their anticommunist beliefs, such as Huber Matos.

Yes, there are a few asides about the Cuban revolution's achievements in education and medicine (achievements that are highly debatable, to say the least). But on balance, Bosch paints an objective portrait of El Jefe. She does a bang-up job illustrating how the fatigue-clad strongman of a Caribbean island grew so influential on the world stage.

Specifically, Bosch makes at least three points about Castro that often go unmentioned or under-emphasized. First, Castro exhibited volatile, brutal tendencies at an early age. For example, he was expelled from boarding school for being too unruly. When confronted by his mother, Castro threatened to burn her house down if she didn't get him back into the school. And in the late 1950s, while waging his anti-Batista guerrilla campaign from the Sierra Maestra, Castro governed his forces with an iron fist. His later cruelty was hardly unforeseeable.

Second, the United States didn't "lose" Fidel Castro to communism any more than it lost Mao Zedong or Ho Chi Minh. Sometime in early 1959, Bosch demonstrates, Castro decided he must drive America out of Cuba. The ideological nature of his revolution demanded it. And by extension, the revolution gave him an instinctive pro-Soviet bent. On his famous September 1960 trip to New York, Castro flaunted his relationship with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. In sum, no matter what mistakes Washington initially made in handling Castro, dissuading him from "going Red" was a futile enterprise.

Third, when the Ford administration sought d├ętente with Havana, how did Castro respond? He poured troops and military advisers into Angola to aid the Marxist-Leninist MPLA. (Moscow saw Angola as a potential linchpin of Soviet interests in Africa.) A few years later, when the Carter administration pushed for rapprochement, what did Castro do? He sent thousands of Cuban fighters to Ethiopia, supported the Sandinista insurgency in Nicaragua, endorsed the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and unleashed the Mariel boatlift. So it's not fair to say a "softer" American line on Cuba would've de-radicalized Castro. We tried that. It failed.

There are a few nuggets Bosch leaves out. She might have addressed Castro's pro-fascist and pro-Axis leanings during the Second World War. He only jettisoned fascism and adopted "socialism" because, well, the Axis powers lost. Bosch briefly hints at Castro's persecution of homosexuals, but could say much more. Also, she does not discuss the regime's tourism apartheid, which segregates ordinary Cubans from foreign travelers, or the fact that blacks ("Afro-Cubans") make up a hefty portion--perhaps a majority--of Cuba's dissident movement. But these are minor quibbles. Fidel Castro is a superb bit of filmmaking. Anyone interested in twentieth-century Cuban and American history should watch it.

Duncan Currie is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

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