Last April, HBO planned to broadcast Comandante, a sympathetic documentary of Fidel Castro made by Oliver Stone. Around the same time, Castro rounded up some 75 dissidents and threw them in jail, and three men charged with hijacking were executed by the Cuban government following summary trials. The film, criticized by the press for its soft approach to Castro, was yanked by HBO and never aired on the network. Instead, HBO sent Stone back down to Havana for a second take. The result, Looking for Fidel, airs tonight, April 14, at 8 p.m. ET on HBO. Looking for Fidel takes a harder line toward Castro than Comandante did, yet even Stone concedes that it is primarily a platform for Castro to explain the thinking and motives behind his crackdown on dissidents the last two years.
Last week, Ann Louise Bardach questioned Oliver Stone about both films, and about the 60 hours he spent with Fidel Castro, Cuba’s ruler since 1959.
ALB: Do you know that the Cubans are refusing visas to virtually all reporters and not allowing them back in the country?
OS: You know, the advantage I have is to be a filmmaker. [Castro] seemed to love my movies. Apparently he liked my presence, and he trusted that I wouldn’t edit him in a way that would be negative from the outset. But I did tell him, the second trip, that I would try to be tougher, not disrespectfully so. As you see, several times [in the film] he does get upset.
ALB: I gather you rejected the idea of demonizing him.
OS: Of course. My role here was not as a journalist. It really was as a director and filmmaker. In my job, I challenge actors. I provoke them.
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.
ALB: There is none unless Fidel Castro decides to give you clemency.
ALB: They seemed very willing to bring up sound bites that Castro is partial to—that they wanted to leave Cuba only for economic reasons, not political ones, etc.
OS: You’re going to the theory that they were trying to get good time in front of the camera to get lighter sentences.
ALB: I’m going even further than that. I’m suggesting that they had no choice but to appear there, and that in some ways it was a bit of a mini-show-trial, sort of “Look how well we treat our prisoners.”
OS: It does have that aura, absolutely. But I do maintain that if it were a Stalinist state … they certainly do a great job of concealing it.
ALB: To me, one of the most interesting exchanges in the film is when you ask, “Why did you decide to shoot these three hijackers on the eighth day?” And he bristles and says, “I didn’t shoot anyone, personally.” You respond, “Well, OK, the state shot these three guys on the eighth day.” He then says, “Of course, I take my share of responsibility.”
OS: He was a huge part of the state, and now, as he points out, he has less power. … There is a functioning congress.
ALB: Do you really think that anything happens in Cuba without his approval?
OS: I don’t know.
ALB: You don’t know?
OS: I’ve heard that the reform elements tried to move in after the Soviet Union’s [collapse] … in ‘92 and ‘93, and Castro took the hard line on that.
ALB: That’s right. As far as I know, Comandante has the first footage of Fidel with his son Fidelito and grandson, aside from formal receptions, etc. How did they respond to each other?
OS: I think Fidel said something to the effect that, at the end, he could have been a better father.
ALB: Now, when you were talking to the prisoners who tried to hijack a plane, one told you he was a fisherman, and you said, “Why then didn’t you take a boat?” Why did you ask that?
OS: Well, it seemed to me that if they were familiar with boats, it seemed to be the best way.
ALB: Did you know that in Cuba there are virtually no boats? The boats that are used for fishermen are tightly controlled. One of the more surreal aspects of Cuba, being the largest island in the Caribbean, is that there are no visible boats.
OS: I see.
ALB: How did you end up in a hospital with him getting an EKG?
OS: I went with him to see a functioning hospital in the heart of the city. Spontaneously, he took his shirt off, and said, “Well, I need one. Give me one.” The [EKG results] looked good.
ALB: In other words, he’s saying to you, “All these rumors about me dying and my poor health, let me dispel them once and for all”?
OS: No, he didn’t say that.
ALB: But by doing this, in essence, he’s saying that?
OS: In essence. But I had not heard these rumors about him dying. In the first documentary he showed us his exercise regime in the office, pacing back and forth. He walks three miles in his office.
ALB: Did it strike you as interesting that at one point in the scene with the prisoners, Castro turned to the prisoners’ defense lawyers, who just happened to be there, and he says, “I urge you to do your best to reduce the sentences”?
OS: I love that. I thought that was hilarious. Those guys just popped up.
ALB: Is there a show-trial element here?
OS: Yeah. I thought that was funny, I did—the prosecutor and Fidel admonishing them, to make sure they worked hard. There was that paternalism. I mean “father knows best,” as opposed to totalitarianism. It’s paternalism, that’s what I meant. It’s a Latin thing.
ALB: So after 60 hours with Castro, what do you make of this man?
OS: I’m totally awed by his ability to survive and maintain a strong moral presence … and we ignore him now at our peril if we start another war with Cuba.
ALB: You say we ignore him at our peril. It seems to me that we’re obsessed with him.
OS: No, I think the focus is wrong. Fidel is not the revolution, believe me. Fidel is popular, whatever his enemies say. It’s Zapata, remember that movie? He said, “A strong people don’t need a strong leader.”
ALB: So you think that if he went off the scene the revolution would continue?
OS: If Mr. Bush and his people have the illusion that they’re going to walk into an Iraq-type situation, and people are going to throw up their arms and welcome us, [they are] dead wrong. These people are committed. Castro has become a spiritual leader. He will always be a Mao to those people.
ALB: Did you ask him about his relationship with Juanita in Miami?
OS: God, I don’t remember. There were so many women.
ALB: Juanita is his sister.
OS: Juanita’s his sister? …He seemed to be a very straight-shooter, very kind of shy with women.
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.
ALB: For the second film, you received permission to see the dissidents Osvaldo Paya, Vladimiro Roca, and Elizardo Sanchez. They spoke critically of the government. Obviously, that couldn’t have happened unless permission for them to see you was granted, right? What do you make of Castro allowing that to happen?
OS: I don’t think he was happy with it. I don’t think he wants to be in the same film with Paya. In his mind they are faux dissidents.
ALB: He actually calls them faux dissidents? He called them the so-called dissidents?
OS: Yeah, so-called, right. I was in Soviet Russia for a script in 1983, and I interviewed 20 dissidents in 12 cities. I really got an idea of dissidents that was much rougher than here. These people in Cuba were nothing compared to what I saw in Russia.
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.
ALB: Can’t it be said in fact that Castro is quite cynical—the master debater, master lawyer?
OS: Well, nobody’s perfect.