Louis A. Pérez Jr.: Castro ... Political Rorschach Test

Roundup: Talking About History

Louis A. Pérez Jr.in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (1-19-05):

[Louis A. Pérez Jr. is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The most recent of his many books about Cuba is On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 1999). His next book, To Die in Cuba: Suicide and Society, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press this spring.]

No foreign head of state has defied U.S. efforts at regime change longer than Fidel Castro. Since 1959 he has survived an armed invasion, repeated assassination attempts, years of political isolation, and decades of economic sanctions. Forty-six years later, Castro is alive, if not so well, 90 miles away, still in power, still defying the United States.

Survival under such circumstances is tantamount to at least one kind of success, and success draws a crowd. Americans have displayed a curious ambivalence toward Castro, not necessarily disagreeing with their government's stance toward Cuba but nonetheless fascinated by the man who has so confounded 10 American presidents.

That fascination has transformed Castro into a veritable cottage industry. Castro biographies -- by academics, journalists, and at least one psychiatrist -- have become almost an American literary genre. Then there is Fidel in fiction: an "unauthorized autobiography," a play, and such fantasy titles as Fidel Castro Assassinated and A Bullet for Fidel. In the marketplace, that most remorseless measure of public interest, Castro sells.

He has also achieved something of an iconic status in myriad news interviews, documentaries, and docudramas, among them Saul Landau's Fidel (1969) and, with Dan Rather for CBS, Castro, Cuba, and the U.S. (1974). Rather interviewed Castro again in 1996 for CBS's The Last Revolutionary. The cigared one has been featured in Marita Lorenz's film Dear Fidel, Estela Bravo's Fidel, a CNN interview with Ted Turner, a docudrama for Showtime, a 10-part series on Univisión featuring Castro's home movies, an Oliver Stone documentary for HBO, and on and on. Never mind his portrayal by Jack Palance, Joe Mantegna, Anthony LaPaglia, and others in overheated comic or melodramatic turns.

In 1993 The Miami Herald ranked Castro as the second "most influential" person in South Florida history, preceded only by the Florida tourism developer Henry Flagler. It is fitting, then, that PBS should include Castro within the scope of the American Experience series, although I hope it's not too radical to suggest that he's more integral to the Cuban experience.

Castro is a political Rorschach test. All Castro documentaries presume to inform, but they mostly inform on their own sympathetic or hostile political views. It could hardly be otherwise. He is not a man about whom one is likely to be neutral.

PBS's Fidel Castro is true to type. It pulls no punches, setting the tone in the first 15 minutes as it describes Castro's youth and university years.

He is "the hick" (el guajiro), an outsider, illegitimate, unruly, and disruptive at the school from which he is said to have been expelled; a boy whose "reckless behavior" earned him the name of "the crazy one" (el loco); a "ferocious son" alleged to have threatened to burn his parents' house down; a combination of "genius and juvenile delinquent" who showed "signs of brilliance and then behaved like a hoodlum," influenced by fascist priests, and incapable of empathy for the normal needs of ordinary people. He is implicated in two murders during his university years and characterized by his ex-brother-in-law as a paranoid psychopath who might just as soon throw his wife out of a 10-story window as buy her a mink coat.

That perspective, reinforced by interviews with exiles and defectors, shapes the narrative arc of the documentary, which was written, produced, and directed by Cuban-born Adriana Bosch. She draws on the memories of Castro's boyhood friends and estranged family members, allies turned adversaries, former government officials and political prisoners. These are not disinterested voices, of course, but together they serve the film well, bearing witness to disappointment and disaffection....

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