It may not have been on a par with Chelsea's wedding or Meghan McCain turning into a journalist, but Oliver Stone's visits to Cuba between February 2002 and May 2003 were certainly noteworthy as they were essential to two films put together by the director: South of the Border and Looking For Fidel, the latter not being the rather shabby 2006 Leonardo Corbucci mess, but rather the 2004 production shared between HBO and France 2. According to a report in the Miami New Times, Stone was fined by the Office of Foreign Asset Control, a division within the U.S. Department of Treasury, for violation of the U.S.-Cuban Embargo. The director's production company, Ixtlan, agreed to a settlement of $6,322.20 for violating the rules that then forbade Americans traveling to Cuba, a nation ninety miles off the coast of Key West, Florida. The embargo does permit journalists to travel to Cuba; however, Oliver made the mistake of admitting that in his role in Cuba he did not consider himself so much a journalist as a filmmaker.
That's too bad because Stone proves himself to be precisely the kind of journalist we in America have had in short supply for many years now. Anyone expecting a puff-piece directed at the secret behest of Fidel Castro will be very much surprised. For instance, in the film's most dramatic scene, Castro himself shares a room with eight men charged with trying to hijack a plane to Miami. Castro encourages the men to speak freely and to be mindful that in that room they are not on trial. In response, all eight men insist that their motivation for their crime was economic rather than political. I have tried and failed to think of a parallel in the history of the United States where people accused of a crime "against the state" had the opportunity to confront the national leader, even for the purposes of "show." It might be interesting to have situated Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a small room crammed with journalists from across the globe along with George W. Bush so that we could hear the US commander say, "Go on, say whatever you want" and Mohammed saying something like "Look, this was nothing personal, you understand." The exchange is fascinating as we watch Fidel thinking about every word the men speak, insisting that their fate is in the hands of the courts. Stone asks the men what they believe would be a fair sentence for their crimes and several of them declare thirty years imprisonment would fit the crime. In the end, three of them received that exact sentence, while the other five received life terms. Stone suggests that five years with parole would be suitable, but Castro interjects that Cuba has no such system of justice.
One of the things anyone who watches this hour-long film will come away with is the sheer presence of the man in the title role. Castro refers to himself at one point as the "spiritual leader" of his country and watching him with the people on the streets, you get the sense that this is a fair self-assessment. Back in my college days I watched some pro-Pol Pot academic visitor show a film he had made to our school and the film showed all sorts of smiling children gazing into the camera and the visitor then stopped the film and announced that this was proof that rumors of mass exterminations were just so much imperialist propaganda. Well, it was no such thing, as one of our own professors angrily stood and pointed out. But I don't think this interview with Castro was necessarily a Stalinist-style staged performance. These folks in the crowd with Fidel weren't scripted. They appeared genuinely enthused with the opportunities the Cuban government has afforded them, not the least of which being a free education all the way through doctorate-level work, free healthcare for all Cubans, an infant birth survival rate that is better than the one in the United States, full employment, etc. Most of these people are too young to have the Batista regime to use as a contrast, but they are not idiots, either. They are able, as I suspect most people living anywhere are able, to discern the crap from the creole. And they know their own history, a history that is inseparable from that of the USA.
For anyone looking for a film that sets Castro within his proper historical context, thereby permitting some of his more newsworthy actions to make any kind of sense, the movie to see is Comandante, which also happens to be directed by Mr. Stone. Of course, HBO, which originally commissioned the 2003 documentary, decided they didn't like what they took to be the pro-Castro tone of the film and chose not to air it. However, if your Spanish is decent you can still find it easily on YouTube and I would recommend watching it even if you don't speak a word of the language if for no other reason than the the archival work Stone assembled is brilliant in setting up the reality that way back in early 1959 the United States actually endorsed the Cuban revolution led by Mr. Castro. It bears recalling as well that many of the positions of the Cuban government have been what they viewed as reasonable responses to U.S. actions, such as the 734 known attempts on the life of the Cuban leader, the attempted coup at the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the ongoing Cuban Embargo which forced Castro's government to trade with countries sometimes unfriendly toward the USA, the CIA-sponsored terrorist activities against Cuba carried out by Orlando Bosch, Luis Posada and others, the conspiracy at Watergate, the Iran-Contra ordeal, the stolen U.S. election of 2000: all of these have direct ties to the so-called Cuban dissident movement, much of which has been run through the Dallas-New Orleans-Miami corridor and which remains in full force to this day.
In the famous words of Jim Garrison, "Some people think I'm crazy." Well, there are ways to determine if I am making up all these connections. You can read a Cuban history book. You can read books on the history of Cuban-American relations throughout the twentieth century. You can follow the trail of money from U.S. front organizations into the hands of trained mercenaries who in turn train a small section of disaffected Cubans to act as traitors. Or you can read the following, quoted verbatim, from the National Security Archive, circa 2002. "In his new exposé of the National Security Agency entitled Body of Secrets, author James Bamford highlights a set of proposals on Cuba by the Joint Chiefs of Staff codenamed OPERATION NORTHWOODS. This document, titled “Justification for U.S. Military Intervention in Cuba” was provided by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on March 13, 1962, as the key component of Northwoods. Written in response to a request from the Chief of the Cuba Project, Col. Edward Lansdale, the Top Secret memorandum describes U.S. plans to covertly engineer various pretexts that would justify a U.S. invasion of Cuba. These proposals--part of a secret anti-Castro program known as Operation Mongoose--included staging the assassinations of Cubans living in the United States, developing a fake 'Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington,' including 'sink[ing] a boatload of Cuban refugees (real or simulated),' faking a Cuban airforce attack on a civilian jetliner, and concocting a 'Remember the Maine' incident by blowing up a U.S. ship in Cuban waters and then blaming the incident on Cuban sabotage. Bamford himself writes that Operation Northwoods 'may be the most corrupt plan ever created by the U.S. government.'"
Ultimately people everywhere are free to believe whatever they want, even in a democracy, even in an authoritarian system, even somewhere in between. "Nobody's perfect," quips Oliver Stone at the end of an interview conducted by Slate.com upon the release of Looking For Fidel. True, that. But, at least in Comandante, we get a serious, even somewhat academic look at one of the most fascinating and certainly one of the key human beings of our life time. As I say, it may not be on a par with the release of the latest Janet Evanovich novel or the merger between Nabisco and Typhoid, but it'll do in a pinch.