Steve Sachs Duke


Saturday, May 01, 2004


Interview with the Apologist: Filmmaker Oliver Stone, whose new movie on Fidel Castro will be released shortly by HBO, was recently interviewed by Slate's Ann Louise Bardach. Castro has always received something of a pass from many people who otherwise claim to despise dictatorship; my friend Ross Douthat once memorably characterized Cuba as the "Tickle-Me Elmo" of totalitarian states. (While in Russia, I had a conversation with a bright, well-educated American student who had visited Cuba as part of a government-approved academic tour. She told me that Castro had "only" 300 political prisoners, fewer than the number of accused terrorists held in Guantanamo Bay, many of whom may be innocent. My dumbfounded suggestion that a falsely suspected Taliban member and a librarian who stocks the wrong books might be "innocent" in different ways was met with a change of topic.)

Stone's take, which is apparently harder on Castro than his previous glowing biopic Commandante, falls squarely within this trend: it's chock full of excuses, omissions, and breathtaking moral equivalence. Some excerpts:

ALB: Let me ask you about the part [in the film] where Castro's in front of eight prisoners charged with attempting to hijack a plane [to Miami]. He says to them, "I want you all to speak frankly and freely." What do you make of that whole scene, where you have these prisoners who happened to be wearing perfectly starched, nice blue shirts?

OS: Let me give you the background. He obviously set it up overnight. It was in that spirit that he said, "Ask whatever you want. I'm sitting here. I want to hear it too. I want to hear what they're thinking." He let me run the tribunal, so to speak.

ALB: But Cuba's leader for life is sitting in front of these guys who are facing life in prison, and you're asking them, "Are you well treated in prison?" Did you think they could honestly answer that question?

OS: If they were being horribly mistreated, then I don't know that they could be worse mistreated [afterward].

ALB: So in other words, you think they thought this was their best shot to air grievances? Rather than that if they did speak candidly, there'd be hell to pay when they got back to prison?

OS: I must say, you're really picturing a Stalinist state. It doesn't feel that way. You can always find horrible prisons if you go to any country in Central America.

ALB: Did you go to the prisons in Cuba?

OS: No, I didn't.

ALB: So you don't know if they're any different than, say, the prisons in Honduras then?

OS: I think that those prisoners are being honest.

ALB: What about when you ask them what they think is a fair sentence for their crimes, and one of them starts to talk about how he'd like to have 30 years in prison?

OS: I was shocked at that. But Bush would have shot these people, is what Castro said. ... I don't know what the parole system is.

Stone seems hardly concerned by the anti-democratic elements of Castro's government, in part because he's not too hot on democracy himself:

ALB: Did you ever think to bring up why he doesn't hold a presidential election?

OS: I did. He said something to the effect, "We have elections."

ALB: Local representative elections. But what about a presidential election?

OS: We didn't talk about it, especially in view of the fact that our own 2000 elections were a little bit discredited.

ALB: In the first film, Comandante, he asked you, "Is it so bad to be a dictator?" Did you think you should have responded to that question?

OS: I don't think that was the place to do it. ... You know, dictator or tyrant, those words are used very easily. In the Greek political system, democracy didn't work out that well. There were what they called benevolent dictators back in those days.

ALB: And you think he might be in that category?

OS: Well, not benevolent to everybody, no.

But at least Stone pays attention to what's important:

ALB: I've called him the movie star dictator. Did you get that sense about him?

OS: Totally. I think it would be a mistake to see him as a Ceausescu. I would compare him more to Reagan and Clinton. ... They were both tall and had great shoulders, and so does Fidel.

True, I don't know how Bardach's might have been hidden in those ellipses, but Stone can hardly claim that his comments were taken out of context. What still puzzles me is, why is shilling for a dictator taken as a legitimate political position? How can a reportedly anti-fascist movement take such people under its wing?

Personally, I'm still agnostic as to the wisdom of the U.S. embargo; maybe it's hindering our efforts, and the best way to establish a democratic regime would be to open up more contacts with Cuba. Whatever the possible failures of our current policy, though, they shouldn't change our ultimate goal of replacing Castro with a legitimate government. And they don't excuse the ambivalence towards human freedom displayed by people like Oliver Stone--and their refusal to call tyranny by its true name.

(Link thanks to ALDaily.)




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