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Oliver Stone's Cuban Lovefest By: Myles Kantor
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, May 04, 2004


In the battle between tyranny and truth, artists shouldn’t be on the side of tyrants.

“And the simple step of a simple courageous man is not to partake in falsehood, not to support false actions,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn remarked in his 1970 Nobel Lecture in literature.[1] For artists living in free societies, abstention from such support requires conscience more than courage. 

 

In the early 1980s, filmmaker Oliver Stone went to Soviet Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia to research an unmade movie about dissidents called Defiance. He brought them radios and other goods and was detained for a few hours in Georgia after one of his assigned guides reported him.[2]

 

When it comes to Cuba, though, Stone’s solidarity isn’t for the oppressed but the oppressor.

 

On March 15, HBO premiered Stone’s documentary Looking for Fidel, which it publicized as more critical than his previous documentary on Castro, Comandante. HBO cancelled Comandante last spring after the imprisonment of 80 Cuban human rights activists sentenced to 20 years or more in most cases. Stone returned to Cuba in May to film Looking for Fidel.

 

As its chummy title indicates, Looking for Fidel retains an admiring tone toward Castro. Sure, Stone poses human rights issues to Castro and includes brief remarks by dissidents Oswaldo Payá, Elizardo Sánchez, and Vladimiro Roca, but his heart isn’t in it. Stone is smitten with Castro – “one of the Earth’s wisest people,” he said last February [3] – and it begets obscene indulgences.

 

The rankest is when Castro appears with eight men charged last April with attempting to hijack a plane to leave Cuba. Stone asks if they are treated well in prison, and they all say yes. He asks why they wanted to leave, and they all say economic reasons. They then demand long prison sentences for themselves, and Castro urges their attorneys to do their best to seek reduced sentences.[4]

 

Stalin, your techniques are alive and well in Havana.

 

While discussing this scene in an interview with Cuba Confidential author Ann Louise Bardach, Stone said, “I must say, you're really picturing a Stalinist state. It doesn't feel that way.” This exchange followed:

 

Bardach: Did it strike you as interesting that at one point in the scene with the prisoners, Castro turned to the prisoners' defense lawyers, who just happened to be there, and he says, “I urge you to do your best to reduce the sentences”?

 

Stone: I love that. I thought that was hilarious. Those guys just popped up.

 

Bardach: Is there a show-trial element here?

 

Stone: Yeah. I thought that was funny, I did the prosecutor and Fidel admonishing them, to make sure they worked hard.[5]

 

Stone considers totalitarian bullying and the mockery of due process real knee-slappers.

 

Cuban human rights activists appear in Looking in Fidel in an almost deracinated manner, without background on how much they have suffered for being conscientious. Viewers unfamiliar with Oswaldo Payá won’t know he endured forced labor from 1969 to 1972 for opposing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, which Castro supported.[6] They won’t know Elizardo Sánchez was purged from the University of Havana faculty for opposing the invasion and imprisoned, among other times, from 1980 to 1985 for “enemy propaganda.”[7]  They won’t know Vladimiro Roca spent 1997 to 2002 in prison and over two years in a cell that “resembled a cage meant to hold wild animals.”[8]

 

As Payá remarked of Stone last year after being interviewed by him, “I thought he was very misinformed about what is going on in Cuba. He was more interested in the love life of Fidel Castro than what is happening to 11 million Cubans.”[9]

 

Stone appeared on the Charlie Rose Show the night Looking for Fidel premiered. “I attack him,” he claimed of his interviewing style. 

 

Oh really? Consider this exchange: 

 

Stone: You have been in power….?

 

Castro: I am not the one in power.  It is the people who are in power.

 

Stone doesn’t follow up and ask how the people can be in power in a one-party regime where it’s a crime to criticize Castro and his functionaries,[10] criticize socialism,[11] assemble conscientiously,[12] establish independent media,[13] or travel outside Cuba without permission[14] – with secret police, paramilitary Rapid Response Brigades,[15] and neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution[16] crushing dissent.[17] When Castro later tells Stone, “Let’s respect each other’s viewpoints,” he doesn’t ask why Cubans like Oscar Biscet and Jorge Olivera are suffering 25-year and 18-year sentences for expressing viewpoints and seeking this elementary respect for their countrymen.[18]

 

When Rose asked about objections to Castro on human rights grounds, Stone responded:

 

I can’t answer the question because, frankly, I don’t know the answer…Human rights is a very, very delicate (concept). It goes both ways.  I mean, there can be those people who are authentically violated and those people who are not, those people who are supported by the United States financially and those who are not.

 

Stone further equivocated, saying the Thought Police were on the loose in America.  “There is conformity in our thinking, and we do tend to political correctness,” he said. That’s how Stone described America during the Rose appearance.

 

But it seems the filmmaker swallowed Fidel’s propaganda whole, particularly his undeserved image as a Man of the People. “I don’t think that Castro has a dime outside of what he believes in, a dime,” Stone also asserted, showing either colossal ignorance or colossal mendacity. Forbes estimates Castro’s worth at 110 million dollars minimum,[19] and former Cuban army political officer Servando González notes:

 

He has a private fleet of yachts and luxury cars, and keeps stately homes in each of Cuba's 14 provinces. While the Cuban people struggle with housing shortages, Castro reserves hundreds of houses in Havana's Jaimanitas beach section for the use of his security guards and aides. While Castro demands austerity from the people and watching American TV is prohibited, he and his close associates buy foreign luxury items and use government satellite dishes to tune in to U.S. televised movies and sporting events.[20]

 

Stone indicated another factual handicap during the interview with Bardach:

Bardach: Now, when you were talking to the prisoners who tried to hijack a plane, one told you he was a fisherman, and you said, “Why then didn't you take a boat?” Why did you ask that?

Stone: Well, it seemed to me that if they were familiar with boats, it seemed to be the best way.

Bardach: Did you know that in Cuba there are virtually no boats? The boats that are used for fishermen are tightly controlled. One of the more surreal aspects of Cuba, being the largest island in the Caribbean, is that there are no visible boats.

Stone: I see.

Stone’s vocation exacerbates his affection for Castro.  Here’s a man who has crushed artistic freedom for 44 years, criminalizing satire in film and other forms of imagination.[21] Yet Stone, someone for whom artistic freedom is precious,[22] doesn’t ask about this.  He accepts for Cubans what he would never accept for himself.  

 

“It is high time to acknowledge that Cuba is now a totalitarian and bureaucratic state in which one man, with the aid of a small group of associates, controls the economic, social, and political life in the country,” wrote socialist political scientist Samuel Farber in Revolution and Reaction in Cuba, 1933-1960.[23] That book was published in 1976, and many people still won’t acknowledge this simple, savage reality. 

 

People like Oliver Stone.

ENDNOTES:

 

[1] http://www.nobel.se/literature/laureates/1970/solzhenitsyn-lecture.html Solzhenitsyn didn’t attend the ceremony for fear of being denied re-entry into Russia.  See D.M. Thomas, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1998), pp. 358-359, 362-363, 365.  The Soviet regime expelled him in 1974.

 

[2] James Riordan, Stone (New York: Hyperion, 1995), pp. 129-130.

 

[3] “HBO Shelves Oliver Stone’s Castro Pic,” Associated Press, April 17, 2003, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/04/17/entertainment/main549870.shtml.

 

[4] Professor Marifeli Perez-Stable of Florida International University remarks, “The helplessness of the men before the Comandante—whose mere presence constitutes psychological despotism—sears the heart.”  “A glimpse at Castro’s delusions, Stone’s imagination,” The Miami Herald, April 15, 2004, http://www.cubanet.org/CNews/y04/apr04/16e9.htm.  Five of the men were sentenced to life, three to 30 years.

 

[5] Ann Louise Bardach, “Oliver Stone’s Twist,” Slate, April 14, 2004, http://slate.msn.com/id/2098860/.

 

[6] Biographical information on Payá is available at http://www.proyectovarela.org/participantes.html. Payá has commemorated the mass imprisonments of 2003 by announcing a “Cuban Spring,” inspired by the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia that preceded the Soviet invasion.  On August 23, 1968, Castro stated of the Prague Spring in his speech endorsing the invasion: “A real liberal fury was unleashed; a whole series of political slogans in favor of the formation of opposition parties began to develop, in favor of openly anti-Marxist and anti-Leninist theses, such as the thesis that the Party should cease to play the role there of a guide, supervising some things, but, above all, exerting a sort of spiritual leadership—in short, that the reins of power should cease to be in the hands of the Communist party…A series of slogans began to be put forward, and in fact certain measures were taken such as the establishment of a bourgeois form of ‘freedom’ of the press.  This means that the counterrevolution and the exploiters, the very enemies of socialism, were granted the right to speak and write freely against socialism.”

 

[7] Biographical information on Sánchez is available at http://www.radicalparty.org/member/sanchez.htm.

 

[8] See Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso, “Smuggled from a Cuban prison,” The Miami Herald, April 18, 2002, http://www.cubanet.org/CNews/y02/apr02/19e4.htm.

 

[9] Anthony Boadle, “Oliver Stone reworks Cuba documentary,” Reuters, http://havanajournal.com/culture_more/A408_0_3_0_M/.

 

[10] “Disrespect.”

 

[11] “Enemy propaganda.”

 

[12] “Illicit association.”

 

[13] Article 53 of the Castro regime’s constitution states, “…press, radio, television, movies, and other mass media are state-owned or socially owned, and can in no event be privately owned.”  For an idea of media repression under Castro versus the preceding regime of Fulgencio Batista, consider: “Batista and the political elite…even allowed the publication of twenty-five attacks against them by Fidel Castro in the Cuban press.  The nine statements published—mostly in daily newspapers with wide circulation—either before Castro’s attack on the Moncada military barracks in July 1953 or in 1955, after he had been released from prison and remained in Cuba thanks to Batista’s political amnesty [emphasis added], do not pose so much of a question.  But the Cuban press was also allowed to publish thirteen statements when Castro was already a political exile dedicated to the violent overthrow of the Batista regime, and two major revolutionary manifestoes, in 1957 and 1958, while Castro was in the mountains fighting Batista.  Castro’s interview with Herbert Matthews for the New York Times was also published in Bohemia, the leading Cuban news magazine, as were sixteen of Castro’s twenty-five anti-Batista statements.”  Jorge I. Domínguez, Cuba: Order and Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 124.  Such latitude is inconceivable in Cuba today.

 

[14] “Illegal exit.”

 

[15] The Rapid Response Brigades were formed in 1991 “to defend the country, the Revolution and socialism in all circumstances, by confronting and liquidating any sign of counter-revolution or crime.”

 

[16] In This Is Cuba (Cambridge: Westview Press, 2002, p. 71), Ben Corbett describes the structure of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (formed in 1960): “Every three hundred citizens are organized into a barrio, a neighborhood of the CDR, which is presided over by a volunteer president responsible for keeping tabs on everything that goes on in the lives of his or her three hundred neighbors.  The president looks for anything suspicious, right down to the smallest details of what furniture is bought, who attends what marches, where everyone earns his money, and which neighbors are on leave to other parts.”  In this vein, a Cuban remarks in Christopher Hunt’s Waiting for Fidel (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998, p. 238), “Here you can live near somebody for years and not know what type of person they are.  Anybody can be a spy.”  This also applies to human rights groups.  It was revealed during last April’s trials that at least a dozen spies had infiltrated the groups.  For instance, independent economist Marta Beatriz Roque’s assistant Aleida de la Mercedes Godinez (aka “Agent Vilma”) testified against her.  See Kevin Sullivan, “Dissidents Were Informers,” The Washington Post, April 24, 2003 and Lucia Newman, “Cuba’s climate of paranoia, CNN, May 8, 2003, http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/americas/05/08/cuba.dissidents/.  It wasn’t for nothing when the late Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas wrote in his memoir that “inside Cuba you exist under absolute terror.”  Before Night Falls (New York: Penguin, 1993), xv. 

 

[17] Left-wing Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes’ description of the Castro regime as “a suffocating dictatorship” comes to mind.  Traci Carl, “Criticism from leftists surprises Cuba,” Associated Press, April 25, 2003, http://www.cubanet.org/CNews/y03/apr03/25e3.htm.  Corbett notes the terror intertwined with just saying Castro’s name: “It is strange to hear Cubans utter the word ‘Castro.’  They could be flying along, explaining a thought, but the moment the word gets to ‘Castro,’ the voice drops almost to a whisper, the eyes look suspiciously back and forth, ‘Castro’ is spoken, and the voice resumes its normal volume.  Fluid thinkers simply pull on their chins as if stroking an invisible beard when the sentence comes to the word ‘Castro,’ and they often replace the chieftain’s name with El Dios or El Hombre, ‘God’ or ‘The Man.’”  This Is Cuba, pp. 170-171.

 

[18] Biscet and Olivera are black, as are most Cubans.  The Castro regime’s leadership, however, is overwhelmingly white.  Castro’s apologists, who would no doubt profess concern for the rights of people of color, thus defend the subjugation of a black-majority country by a white autocrat and master class.  For more on this issue, see my “Blacks of a Lesser God,” FrontPageMagazine.com, April 18, 2003, http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=7366.

 

[20] Servando González, The Secret Fidel Castro: Deconstructing the Symbol (Oakland: Spooks Books, 2001), p. 137.  When former Stone employee Eric Hamburg went to Cuba, he was provided with “a black Mercedes, which I was later told belonged to Castro’s personal fleet of cars.”  Hamburg, JFK, Nixon, Oliver Stone and Me (New York: PublicAffairs, 2002), p. 84.  In November 2002, the Univisión network’s Miami affiliate aired the ten-part series “The Secret Life of Fidel Castro,” based on a video brought out of Cuba by an ex-girlfriend of one of Castro’s sons.  The video includes footage of Castro’s decidedly un-proletarian “Point Zero” compound in west Havana. 

 

[21] In Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens recounts an exchange in 1968 with Santiago Alvarez, “the grand old man of Cuban cinema”:Film was the special medium of the Cuban revolution and he assured us that it was unfettered. Completely unfettered? Well, he said with a slight laugh, there is only one thing that is not done. No satirical portrayal of the leader will be permitted. (The slight laugh was at the very idea that anyone would even dream of proposing such a thing.) I said, quite simply, that if the main subject of Castro was off-limits, then, in effect, there could be no real satire or criticism at all.”  While he lived in Cuba periodically for three years, Corbett often watched American movies with Cuban friends broadcast on Cuban television.  He noted of their response, “Several friends have commented to me as the credits rolled, ‘I can’t believe the U.S. lets these filmmakers get away with criticizing your government like this.  We would never be allowed to make movies criticizing Castro or the Revolution.’”  This Is Cuba, pp. 190-191.

 

[22] "I like being able to communicate freely," Stone has said.  Riordan, Stone, p. 481.

 

[23] From the preface, xiii.


Myles Kantor is a columnist for FrontPageMagazine.com and editor-at-large for Pureplay Press, which publishes books about Cuban history and culture. His e-mail address is myles.kantor@gmail.com.


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