An old dictator obscured by glowing praise
Monday 18 August 2003
In the final minutes of Commandante, Fidel Castro clasps Oliver Stone in a big, manly hug. And he has a lot to hug him for: this documentary, in which Stone follows Castro around a series of clearly stage-managed events in the old dictator's personal fifedom of Cuba, is the most blatant piece of unreflective propaganda that I have seen since - well, since I last watched Fox News.
You almost have to admire Castro for the sheer brazen cheek he displays throughout the film. As the two men wander the streets of Havana, Stone - replete with a Hitler-style moustache - says with widened eyes: "Everyone seems to like you. Why don't you hold an election?" And Castro says - this is not a joke - that Cuba is already "the most democratic country in the world". Stone nods politely, rather than yelling: "Uh, yeah Fidel - it's one of those great democracies where you can never change the leader, or even criticise him, and if you try to organise political change, you'll be slammed in prison or exiled or worse."
Later, Castro says: "I do admit I am a dictator. A dictator to myself. A slave to the people. That is what I am." This kind of blather is permitted to go unchallenged time and again. The result allows blatant dishonesties to be presented to the viewer as fact. My favourite outrage is when Stone - in one of the few hints at anything negative at all about Cuba - asks Fidel about the systematic persecution of gay Cubans. "Before the revolution, there was a male chauvinist spirit and prejudice," Castro replies. "That has been fading away. This has been hard though, because we were a very chauvinist society."
The impression is clear: benevolent Fidel tried to help gays, but it took time for his own broad-minded approach to filter through to the population. This is a lie from beginning to end. In fact, Fidel was personally responsible for the mass expulsion of gay people and (in his words) "other scum" from Cuba in 1980.
He has referred on several occasions to gay people as "pigs" and "dogs". Gay people are still banned from joining the Communist Party of Cuba - and therefore from advancing at all in that one-party state - and are subject to harassment and persecution. Yet Stone feels no moral responsibility to explain this to his viewers, or to put these points to Castro.
Indeed, Stone strains every cinematic sinew to glamorise him. As Fidel waxes lyrical on how he is just like Eva Peron (a comparison more apt than he might realise, since Eva was rallying support for a brutal dictatorship that falsely claimed to speak for "the people"), his waffle is underscored by the instrumental music to "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina". The naked power-worship is at times embarrassing to watch. Sitting in a limo with the dictator, Stone picks up Castro's gun and says: "Do you still know how to use it, Fidel?" with a repulsive teenage grin.
Yes, Cuba has good literacy and healthcare levels, and Stone advertises this to the full. But he seems to think that these achievements justify any amount of dishonesty, violent political repression and complete denial of democracy. He even asks Castro for his advice on global environmental problems, despite the fact that Castro advised Nikita Khrushchev to use nuclear weapons in 1963. If he had listened, there would be no environment worth speaking of and we would all be dead.
The unintentional black comedy of Commandante is squirm-worthy. Stone's attempt to portray Castro as a wise old man is a stinking failure.
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