Fidel Castro on PBS' American Experience

By Humberto Fontova

PBS ran a documentary on Fidel Castro last night under its American Experience series that was widely billed as "ground-breaking" and "eye-opening."

Perhaps for some. We learn, for instance, that Castro incarcerated many political prisoners and in ghastly conditions. Fine, this is too often glossed over, especially by the likes of Oliver Stone and Dan Rather. But the number of such prisoners cited in the show seems suspiciously low. We hear, for instance that up to "20,000" were rounded up during the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Maybe in Havana alone, because the number given by Armando Valladares is several hundred thousand. Most estimates recounted in the Cuban-exile community range from 350,000 to 150,000 island wide.

We also learn that in the early months of the Castro's Revolution 500 'Batistianos" were executed by firing squad. We even see two such executions, and very graphically. Again, fine. Ted Turner, Oliver Stone and Barbara Walters would have sidestepped this for sure. But the bloodbath didn't stop in the early months of the Revolution and it didn't end with a few hundred "Batistianos'--not by a long shot. An eminently scholarly book backs this up. The Black Book of Communism, published by Harvard University Press itself, estimates 14,000 firing squad executions in Castro's Cuba, mainly in the 1960's.

The sources who dominate this documentary help explain some of these "oversights."

"There are two narratives in this story." Said the producer Adriana Bosch in an interview. "One was the one hammered by the Cuban government, and then there is the narrative of the Cuban exile community," she says. "Both of these narratives complement each other, and the objective of this documentary is to give voice to both narratives and to tell the complete story."

Both? Please, senora Bosch. Professors Marifeli Perez-Stable and Jorge Dominguez dominate the airtime. Yes, both are technically Cuban exiles. Both also belong to a think-tank named The Inter-American Dialogue who on Sept. 15, 1995, released a report concluding that the Castro regime "no longer poses a conventional security or ideological threat to any of its neighbors, and certainly not the United States ... [and] has curtailed its interference in the affairs of other countries." Last year both professors Perez-Stable and Dominguez signed a letter issued by the inter-American Dialogue blasting President Bush's Cuba policy; "This is not good politics, intelligent economics, or smart diplomacy." huffed the letter.

From 75 to 82 per cent of Cuban-exile community has voted for George Bush in two elections. Yet such as Perez-Stable and Dominguez represent the "narrative of the Cuban exile community?"

The Bay of Pigs Veterans Association has over two thousand members, mostly in south Florida. Miss Bosch interviews one Bay of Pigs veteran, Alfredo Duran, who was expelled from the organization over ten years ago for his visits to Cuba and his parroting of Castro's propaganda against the U.S. blockade, so-called. Mr Duran represents the "narrative of the Cuban exile community?"

We also hear and see much about Castro's overwhelming popular support in the early years of the Revolution. This is a standard sing-song in practically all "scholarly" works on the Cuban Revolution. But how to prove this without elections? Think about it. If you relied on TV shots of crowd scenes in the U.S. from 1968-1972 (Democratic Convention in Chicago, Kent State, Woodstock, Moratorium Day, etc.) you'd get the unmistakable impression that Richard Nixon was universally loathed and that George McGovern's leftist anti-war stance was the overwhelming mind-set across the nation.

Then came the 1972 election, where Mc Govern got the ghastliest stomping in modern Presidential electoral history. Some say that "overwhelming support" Castro supposedly enjoyed in the in the early years of his rule falls in much the same category. Of course, no elections were ever held to prove (or disprove this.) So most "scholars" base their assertion on the crowd scenes in newsreels.

Actually there's a better source, a letter dated August 5, 1960 from Eberhard Bauman, who served as 2nd secretary of the West German embassy in Havana, to the U.S. embassy. The U.S. counselor-general at the embassy, Daniel Braddock, had asked the German ambassador and his staff for an honest appraisal of Castro's popular support at the time. The German diplomats (with no ax to grind either way, remember) traveled the island from end to end mingling and talking and concluded that Castro had around 30 per cent of the Cuban population supporting him, a far cry from that " overwhelming support" we always hear and read about--including in this documentary.

By the end of his first year in power Castro's jails already held probably three times the number of political prisoners as during the height of Batista--that unspeakable tyrants's!--rule. Why should Castro remain so popular when Batista was regarded, by scholars, as having essentially no popular support whatsoever?

It's an old story really. For a Cuban-exile to be taken seriously by "scholars" reporters, documentarians and such he must first prove that he's either a fool or a scoundrel. To have swallowed Castro's initial ruse about his "democratic' and "humanist" aspirations works nicely. To have been a willing accomplice in his mass butchery and larceny for many years works even better.

Thus we see such as Norberto Fuentes, (a Castro court scribe for two decades)Carlos Franqui, (Castro's de- facto propaganda minister until 1968) Alcibiades Hidalgo (Raul Castro's Chief of staff until 2001)interviewed at length, while Raphael Diaz-Balart (who had Castro's number from 1955 as a totalitarian psychopath) and Armando Valladares (imprisoned on bogus charges in 1961) get brief cameo spots.

The documentary also left out an important detail. Though it mentions JFK's pledge not to invade Cuba, it left out the second part of the President's pledge to Khrushchev that solved the Missile Crisis: that the U.S. wouldn't allow anyone else to invade Cuba. Cuban-exiles learned this very bitter lesson when, to avoid the U.S. Coast-Guard and INS under these agencies' new post-Missile Crisis orders, some moved their anti-Castro operations to places like the Bahamas, Dominican Republic and Costa Rica. The hammer came down there too, through diplomatic pressure to the local governments.

Small wonder Curtis Lemay called the Missile Crisis "the biggest defeat in our history!" And Alexander Haig termed it, "a deplorable error resulting in political havoc and untold human suffering in Cuba and throughout Central America."

This indefatigable Cuban "David" (against the U.S."Goliath") has in fact survived all these years by hiding behind the skirts of the two most powerful nations in history. "Mutually Assured Protection," you might have called it.

"How could it happen?" Asks professor Dominguez, repeating the old song about Castro surviving lo these many decades under America's very nose, and Cuba assuming such a important role in challenging U.S. policies worldwide.

The answer should be easy, even for a Harvard professor. But the documentary gives no clue. Richard Nixon lost in 1960. That's how it happened. Had the Republicans in 1960 been the same whiny brats as Democrats in 2000, asking for "investigations" and "recounts" etc., (especially in Cook County Illinois) Nixon, a man known while Vice President as the White House "point man" for the Cuban invasion. might have squeaked in.

Then no imput from any "Best and Brightest" into the Cuban invasion, no gutting and emasculation of the Cuban liberation plan. Today the term "Bay of Pigs" wouldn't be synonymous with fiasco and betrayal; it would be linked instead, with liberation (actually it would probably be known as the Trinidad Invasion.) And some "Fidel Castro" chump would merit less textbook space than Pancho Villa-- and no PBS documentaries.

Regarding the Bay of Pigs and Missile Crisis Richard Nixon summed it up best: "We goofed and invasion then gave the Soviets squatters rights in our backyard." That little nugget explains Castro's longevity better than the reams of "scholarly" humbug from all the sources in this documentary.

Well, I guess a genuine expose of Fidel Castro was too much to expect, especially from PBS. But compared to the usual pap served up by the media on Castro it was a grand improvement.

From Oliver Stone, for instance, we've learned that Castro--who jailed and executed more people, per capita, than pre-war Hitler, "favors Nike Sneakers!"

From Barbara Walters's "exclusives" we learn that Castro--who begged, and even tried to cajole Nikita Kruschev into a pre-emptive Nuclear Strike against the U.S.--"has brought very high literacy and great health to his country!"

From Dan Rather we've learned that Castro "could have easily been Cuba's Elvis..The adulation for him seems genuine!"

So I guess we shouldn't complain.

Humberto Fontova is the author of Fidel; Hollywood's Favorite Tyrant, a Conservative Book Club 'Selection of the Month" available starting March 30th.

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