Castro: a guerrilla in the mist

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The Independent Culture
It's 40 years since Fidel Castro's revolution triumphed in Cuba and it's impossible not to wonder what the old man really thinks when he looks out of the window at what it has all become. He has, as Channel 4's epic documentary Fidel repeatedly stressed, survived, against considerable odds, for these four decades. But after a while, two questions suggest themselves: has he survived despite the hostility of the US or because of it, and, was it worth it?

Neither question got a look in on Wednesday evening. This was Fidel as the Cuban school textbooks would wish him to be presented: the charismatic student leader who grew into the fearless guerrilla commander, the revolutionary orator who promised justice and socialism (and democracy, but let's not carp) to his adoring crowds, the David who stood against Goliath, feted by right-thinking Third World leaders and American radicals (remember Angela Davies?), forced by US hostility into the arms of the Russians only to be, as Princess Di might have put it, badly let down. Undaunted, our hero pulls Cuba up by its threadbare bootstraps and hey presto, next thing we know he's hosting the Pope's visit. This is Castro the protean revolutionary icon, inspiration to the downtrodden everywhere. It's fine as far as it goes, but it adds up to a whole that leaves the viewer with a more than itchy feeling where his critical faculties should be.

The first problem with this approach - essentially that of extensive archive plus talking heads - is that the outlines of Castro's story are well known. So 70 minutes of Castro, even on an anniversary, can best be justified either with new material or with new insights. On the first front, much of the archive was new and entertaining, if not exactly substantial.

The aged Castro revisiting his old home and primary school with Gabriel Garcia Marquez yielded little insight, but Castro having fun in the United States, both in the early days and later, reborn as a man who can talk business with the Wall Street Journal, at least showed that the man still retains some of that famous charisma. Castro telling funny stories about Khrushchev was amusing, but Castro claiming that he had found a better road to democracy than holding elections simply pointed up the journalistic holes.

The biggest hole in the middle of this uncritical documentary portrait was the lack of an interview with the man himself. There was an abundance of clips of other interviews, many of them skilfully employed, but they did not answer that journalistic need to confront Castro with the shortcomings of his revolution. Castro is coy about giving interviews: he likes to tease and keep journalists waiting for months, running up inflated hotel bills only to leave empty handed. But he does it when it suits him and mostly it suits him to talk to America.

In CNN's recent Cold War series, for instance, after a tease that lasted more than a year he did, finally, give an interview on the Cuban missile crisis. The absence of an interview here meant that many questions went begging. The rather large question of human rights, for instance, was touched upon, but dismissed in the commentary with the extraordinary assertion that "human rights are in the eye of the beholder". Human rights, I would have thought it was pretty much agreed, are enshrined in the Universal Declaration. Several of the rights set out there are systematically violated in Cuba, and Cuba's achievements in health and education are not a sufficient answer to the question "why?"

In the absence of a Castro interview or any particularly new information about his career, there was another option that would have freshened up the account: new insight into the man and his revolution. Unfortunately there was little of that either. The talking heads were used largely to support the view that Castro was a great man or to fill in parts of the narrative for which no footage was available. The picture of Castro's relationship with Che Guevara, for instance, was utterly conventional, despite the fact that far more interesting stuff is readily available. Why not, for instance, interview John Lee Anderson, whose definitive biography of Che was published a year ago? Why bring in Celia Sanchez, Castro's lover for two decades, without touching on the mystery of her death? And why settle for the coy script line that Cubans know remarkably little about Castro's private life when several members of Castro's immediate family, including his daughter, are living in the US and in a position to round out the man's personality?

But perhaps the biggest disappointment was that the Cuba that Castro created and defended was, in this documentary, little more than a cipher, a stage set on which Castro was permitted to strut to general applause. Yes, Castro did put Cuba on the map, as one of the contributors said, but his economic policies were a disaster, and not simply because of the US blockade. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba was revealed as a remittance man, living on the subsidies of inflated sugar prices and cheap oil from the Eastern Bloc. When it all fell to bits, Cuba nearly starved before Castro would agree to relax his orthodoxy. Castro's Cuba may have been a revolutionary inspiration, but it was also so stiflingly bureaucratic that, in the end, the only man who could count on getting things done was Castro himself. It's not enough to praise him for rolling up his sleeves in a crisis. He was responsible for many of the problems in the first place.

The Cuba that Castro sees out of his window now is staggering back onto its feet, but its people are weary and apprehensive. A professional salary will scarcely buy a bottle of milk a day and anyone without access to US dollars goes hungry. Tourism is booming, yes, but surgeons and architects are moonlighting as hotel porters for the dollar tips.

Prostitution is booming, too as plane-loads of young men from Europe and Latin America arrive in Havana to enjoy the delights of the teenaged girls who have decided that there is little point in staying in education if the reward is penury. Long-standing supporters of the revolution are in despair, struggling to put food on the table and to keep their own granddaughters off the streets, and when the Pope arrived a year ago, Cubans turned out in their tens of thousands to greet him, hungry to share in an act of faith and in the sense that the world had not entirely forgotten them in their misery.

Castro describes his revolution as David against Goliath and it is not an unfair description. But the difference is that David defeated Goliath.

Castro has made Goliath's continuing menace the pretext for his own continuing power. Cuba has survived, but these days, it looks less like a revolutionary victory than a feat of personal endurance. Many Cubans now wish that he had not made them endure him quite so long.