The most striking and most telling piece of footage in this celebration of Fidel Castro’s life is also one of its quietist and most melancholy.
It’s 1997 and Cuba is just beginning to emerge from the post-Soviet “special period”; a time of extreme deprivation and uncertainty. A somber group, including Castro, has gathered near an airport runway at dusk. They’re there to meet about a half-dozen small, dark-wood boxes as they’re carried off a plane. Inside the boxes are the remains of Che Guevara and his comrades, finally recovered from the unmarked Bolivian grave in which they had been dumped 30 years before.
Later, after the sun has set and the floodlights have been flipped on, Aleidia Guevara, the daughter of Che, is shown addressing the crowd. Guevara, who like her late father is a physician, speaks with a steady voice, the only sign of emotion are the tear-tracks drying on her fleshy but handsome face.
“Over 30 years ago, our relatives bid us goodbye,” she says. “They left to promote Bolivar and Martí’s ideal of a united Latin America—we never saw them again. Today their remains are returned to us. They have not been defeated. They come as heroes… forever young, brave, and strong.”
With these last words, the camera cuts to the deeply lined, fragile-looking face of an elderly Fidel Castro. His down-turned eyes are moist and he’s gumming his lips. It’s easy to imagine that the Comandante en Jefe isn’t just mourning his comrade, that instead he’s feeling regret, even jealousy. There’s Che, the pure, perpetual revolutionary, and here he is with a dying body and a sprawling bureaucracy to oversee.
Made in 2001, Fidel: The Untold Story is intended as a counterweight to the demonization of Castro prevalent in the West and especially in the US. Expertly assembled by the prolific Cuban-based filmmaker Estela Bravo, Fidel: The Untold Story demonstrates that the image of Castro as a tropical Stalin is not shared universally; that, indeed, he is viewed as a hero by many, many people of the Global South.
Combining archival footage and interviews with figures ranging from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Arthur Schellisnger, Jr., the film covers Castro’s entire life, from his privileged upbringing as the son of a Spanish plantation owner, to the aged, fatigue-clad figure on the airport runway. It’s not, however, a typical biopic offering pop-psychology insights. What it provides instead is a fascinating look at the evolving image, the changing significance, that Fidel and his revolution has provided to leftists and anti-imperialists since he first took to the Sierra Maesta with 20 comrades.
In the early ‘50s Castro, a little chubby and sans beard, was a young lawyer and an aspiring politician. His candidacy for the Cuban parliament, as well as Cuba’s fledgling democracy, was cut short when a general named Fulgencio Batista launched a coup and overthrew the elected government. After his attempts to challenge the new dictatorship on legal grounds failed repeatedly, Castro became convinced that revolution was the only option. In 1953, the underground resistance movement Castro had founded struck against Batista, attacking two military barracks. It failed… miserably. Nearly half of the rebels were killed and Castro was thrown in prison.
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro
Less than two years later, Batista, under international and domestic political pressure, released a number of political prisoners, Castro among them. Fidel went into exile in Mexico, where he met a young, militant Argentine named Ernesto Guevara, better known as El Che. Fidel, Che, and about 80 others planned to sail to Cuba from Mexico, where they would launch an unconventional guerrilla war against the Batista government.
They left Mexico in late November 1956 on the ship Granma. They landed at Playa Las Coloradas, in the rural eastern part of Cuba, much later than expected, blowing their chance of launching a coordinated attack with supporters in Cuba. Their arrival went almost as badly as the earlier barracks attack. Only about a quarter of the rebels were left after their initial skirmishes with Batista’s army. Castro and Che limped into the Sierra Maestra with the less than two-dozen remaining fighters.
It didn’t take long for the rebels to regroup. They gained recruits, shelter, and support from the campesinos of the Sierra Maestra. Soon they were winning victories against the larger, US-armed Cuban army.
While the documentary relies on old reenactments to visually present the earlier actions, the rebels’ romantic image and Castro’s media savvy brought increased attention from the international media, providing extraordinary footage of a historic, almost mythic, revolution, as it happened. For generations of people used to thinking of Fidel as a Dr. Evil-type character, sitting in a secret lair smoking a cigar, it may be shocking to watch this documentary and see Fidel, the young, handsome guerrilla, laughing and joking in a mountainside clearing, lugging a rifle and a bulky backpack.
Two years after his nearly disastrous landing at Playa Las Coloradas, Castro and his comrades entered Havana as heroes. They were greeted by ecstatic crowds and a battery of news cameras. The documentary includes footage of Fidel’s first major speech after assuming the position of Prime Minister. While he’s speaking, a flight of doves is released. And, in one of the greatest photo-ops in history, one of them lands on Fidel’s left shoulder—and stays there. There’s a collective gasp from the crowd, then stunned silence, then, literally, rapturous cheering. In the syncretic spirituality of Cuba, a dove is the both the messenger of the goddess Oshun and a symbol of Christ.
Going from the sublime to the surreal, we also see a televised, long-distance interview between the new Cuban leader and Edward R. Murrow for his Person to Person show. Fidel, dressed in pajamas, is sitting on a couch in what looks like the living room set from a ‘50s sitcom. Murrow, sitting in a studio in New York, asks Fidel softball questions like, having overthrown a government not too long ago, “You must be very tired.” Fidel responds demurely, almost coquettishly, holding his head at a tilt and looking up shyly. The scene seems so strange not just because of its Leave it to Beaver set, but also because it reflects a brief period in which Castro and the US were not as antagonistic as they are now.
The relationship between the US and its former protectorate, however, quickly soured as the Revolution’s land and economic reforms brought swift retaliation from the States, whose corporations had been used to treating the island like a personal colony. These retaliations, in turn, led to increasingly radical policy decisions by the revolutionary government, culminating in the unthinkable: the nationalization of all US-owned businesses.
Bravo treats this moment with all the historic import that it deserves. Fidel stands before a huge and feverish crowd, listing, one by one, the familiar names of US corporations being kicked out of this newly independent nation. The biggest and lustiest cheers come after Fidel hoarsely calls out: “United Fruit Company!” As he speaks, the documentary cuts to scenes of US flags and corporate logos—Texaco, Chase Manhattan—being lowered and Cuban flags raised in their place.
Eventually, Fidel becomes so overcome with emotion that he can’t finish reading the names, and his brother Raúl has to finish. Whatever one thinks about the policy of nationalizing major industries, watching this speech will send a charge through your spine—whether from fear or from pleasure. If that moment seemed unthinkable at the time, it seems simply impossible now. We can imagine governments being overthrown… but Texaco!?! Looking back at the footage, it’s almost easier to believe that it was a fake, a hoax, rather than to believe that the leader of a small, impoverished nation could and would chase out all US corporate interests.
This is, you could say, the story of the “Young Castro”: smoking a cigar with Che in the Sierra Maestra; a handsome and brave man standing up to a dictator and to corporate giants. This is how he was seen by the young radicals of the ‘60s, who put up his picture in their dorms and communes. This is the Castro who was a hero to irreverent anti-authoritarians like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.
Much of Bravo’s documentary is dedicated to a different Castro, who could be called the “World-Historical Castro”. This is the Castro meeting with Nehru, Nasser, and Malcolm X in a Harlem hotel room; sending 36,000 Cuban troops to Angola to fight in a 13-year campaign to chase out the military of apartheid South Africa; shooting birds with Khrushchev; haunting the dreams of 10 US presidents.
In many ways this is the more important Castro. Young Castro’s falling out of favor with radical college students hasn’t meant much; Che picked up his slack for the poster industry. However, many people of the Global South adore the old, rumpled, hoarse Castro. He is the one who has sent doctors to their countries. He is the one who has come to their country and spoken the language of egalitarianism and dignity. He has made the people of the Global South feel visible and powerful when they were either ignored or treated as picturesque backdrops by the West.
Bravo asked the activist and scholar Angela Davis, who volunteered cutting sugarcane in late ‘60s Cuba when it still had it’s post-revolutionary glow, what she would write about if she were to write a history of Castro. Davis doesn’t talk about the battles with Batista or the post-revolution literacy campaigns or the struggles of a government trying to maintain a socialist economy 90 miles from Miami. Instead, she says she would write about the Castro who, “as the leader of one of the smallest countries in the world, helped to shape the destinies of millions of people across the globe.”
While Fidel: The Untold Story may mostly reflect on World-Historical Castro, it is really about a third Castro: the one who was present when this documentary was made and the one who is with us now. Let’s call him Dying Castro. This is the Castro who watched as the people of the former “socialist camp” mobbed a McDonalds during its opening under the shadows of Soviet-era apartment blocks; who watched as the victors of the anti-colonial, Third World liberation struggles descended into internal conflict, or corruption, or succumbed to neo-liberalism. This is the man who fainted during speeches and whose hand shook when gesturing against the Empire. But it’s not his dying per se that’s important—it’s fact that he’s still living. It’s the fact that socialist Cuba is still living.
Writer Alice Walker paints the best portrait of Dying Castro. “He is an old-growth redwood tree,” she says in the documentary. “And all around him has been clear-cut, and they’re lusting to make that final cut.” Castro has gone from revolutionary hero to “leader of the Third World” to being a “redwood”, partly fossilized, partly living, and imbued with the history of a half-century of liberation struggles.
Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev
It’s his living, his still standing, that’s so important. This is why opponents of Castro in Miami and Washington can’t really take much pleasure in the gastro-intestinal infection that’s slowly bleeding him of life. Or in his tremors. Even when we falls and breaks his hip in public, it’s not enough; he needs to die for them to be satisfied.
The fact that so much is invested in the personal, bodily persistence of Castro should concern even those sympathetic to his revolution. Because he won’t survive forever. And, while people around the world may remember him fondly for the inspiration he provided, his solidarity with their liberation struggles, or his courage, he will ultimately be judged by what Cubans do after he’s buried. Will his insistence on egalitarianism and self-determination for small nations inform his countrymen as they move to a more democratic government? Or will his hand-picked successor, his brother Raúl, do as many pundits in Washington seem to hope: follow the Chinese model in using the authoritarian apparatus of the State and Party to enforce stability while they transition to a particularly brutal form of capitalism?
I think the persistent note of nostalgia and regret in this documentary—epitomized in the scene of Fidel meeting Che’s remains at the airport—evidences a lack of confidence in this remarkable island’s future. While Castro was helping socialist-inspired, anti-colonial revolutions around the world, he never really finished his own. All power, as they used to say, didn’t go the people.
Director Estela Bravo doesn’t include many criticisms in her film. For instance, there’s no mention of Fidel’s support for the Soviets crushing a flowering of independent, truly democratic socialism in Czechoslovakia, nor is the Revolution’s early persecution of gay Cubans discussed. But she does leave a tiny hint of dissatisfaction. In that surreal interview with Edward R. Murrow, the newsman asks Castro when he’s going to shave his unruly beard. Castro, laughing, says he’ll cut it off when he’s fulfilled his promise of good government. While Bravo passionately defends Castro and the benefits of his revolution, she must know that he’ll die with that beard unshaved.
The DVD extras are limited to a brief but enlightening profile of Estela Bravo and five short deleted scenes, whose relegation to the cutting room floor was appropriate.