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by Georgie Anne Geyer
O, Great Hollywood Film Producer Oliver Stone -- the poor dope! If only he'd listened! Why, some of us have tried to tell him for years what Fidel Castro was really like -- but Stone chose to see him from his inimitably, to put it kindly, "revisionist" viewpoint.
The man who has used his immense but perverse film talent to portray just about every American political figure from Kennedy to Nixon as a sap has turned out to be the biggest sap of all.
I refer, for the unschooled reader, to the unrepentant Oliver Stone's latest documentary film, "Commandante," which had him chumming around with the Cuban president for three days last year and emerging enchanted. At the Sundance Film Festival recently, Stone said he found Castro to be "warm and bright," and that he's "a very driven man, a very moral man. He's very concerned about his country. He's selfless in that way."
But just before the film was supposed to be aired on HBO in May, first-class seducer Fidel did in his new admirer, and most probably Stone's newest work. It might have seemed to Stone that Fidel summarily executed three hijackers and sent 75 Cuban writers, poets and thinkers to jail for a accumulated 1,454 years just to thwart his film. But the truth is both more complicated -- and more perfectly clear.
As HBO canceled the planned May premiere of Stone's film, a company spokesman said only that the film appears "somewhat incomplete" in light of recent events, adding, "what's important in Cuba today was not important in Cuba" when Stone did his work there last year. But of course, it was. The Fidel Castro you see today is the Fidel Castro of yesterday, of the day before yesterday and of every future day that he lives.
The young revolutionary Fidel, within months after taking over in the winter of 1959, executed upward of 5,000 "counter-revolutionaries" after raucous kangaroo trials in the sports stadium. These were followed by the infamous "airmen's trial," when Fidel set up 43 innocent airmen to go to jail for 30 years and 10 years' hard labor, by the appalling trial of his "friend" Huber Matos the next fall, by the odd disappearances of virtually every possible political competitor over the years, and with the execution of Cuba's greatest military hero, Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, in the summer of 1989 on totally trumped-up charges.
Nor did Fidel show the slightest gratitude for the many journalists and writers from all over the world who flocked, like Oliver Stone, to breathe in the miasmic revolutionary air and to rest in awe at his feet. In fact, he always despised the people who worshipped him most -- perhaps, I always thought, because he knew himself what he was really like.
I recall, for instance, a time in the summer of 1966 in Cuba, where I interviewed Fidel a number of times for my biography, "Guerrilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro," which was made into a Showtime miniseries last year. This moment showed clearly the derision that the loyalty of his acolytes evoked in him. I was being taken by one of his men to see Fidel and, as we drove across town, the officer started to laugh and gesture at the former Havana Libre Hotel. "Herbert Matthews is there," he said disdainfully. "He's been waiting for eight days to see Fidel. They keep telling him not to go out because Fidel might come. But Fidel hates him and won't see him." Then he laughed, and laughed some more.
Lest anyone forget, Herbert Matthews was the New York Times correspondent who risked his life and his career to report on Fidel while he was holed up in the Sierra Maestra. It was Matthews' glowing reports that first brought Fidel to the rapt attention of the world. Yet in fact, after his victory, Fidel continued to insult Matthews, in public, for the rest of his life.
Once again this winter, the Cuban leader shocked his true believers by suddenly reversing apparent steps toward liberalization. The timing was bad for Oliver Stone and, because of Fidel's unfortunately timed acts, HBO dropped "Commandante" from its May showing.
As a follow-up to Fidel's acts this winter, which were pushed fully to the fore by the Iraq War and new fears of American intervention, a session was held this week at the Brookings Institution here. Latin American specialist Robert Pastor described the moment perfectly: "It's because Fidel Castro will not allow peaceful change or for his people to choose their own leaders."
Oh, there is one more thing. The title of Oliver Stone's film is misspelled. The word in Spanish is not "Commandante," but "Comandante." This is the kind of thing that happens when amateurs play revolution.