The Dallas Morning News
Thursday, April 15, 2004

Stone puts tough questions to Castro for documentary

Cuban dictator provides candid answers, offers personal glimpses

By TRACEY EATON / The Dallas Morning News

TARARÁ, Cuba A select few Cubans witnessed the unthinkable Wednesday night: American filmmaker Oliver Stone shone a bright light in Fidel Castro's face and grilled the Cuban leader.

Why, Mr. Stone asked, did the Cuban president have three hijackers executed last April after trials in so-called kangaroo courts? Why did he jail 75 peaceful dissidents? And why does he insist on remaining in power after more than four decades?

Defiant and unflappable, Mr. Castro defended his rule in Mr. Stone's latest documentary, Looking for Fidel, which aired on HBO. And he predicted the socialist revolution that he forged in 1959 would endure long after he's gone.

Some critics say Looking for Fidel and an earlier Stone documentary on Mr. Castro, El Comandante, are soft on the Cuban president.

"In Looking for Fidel, Mr. Castro "reveals himself in ways that, frankly, I haven't seen on film," said Marifeli Perez-Stable, a Cuba expert at Florida International University. "Criticizing Stone is fine. But the focus should be on Fidel, not Stone."

Looking for Fidel wasn't shown on Cuba's state-run TV stations. But it did air at many hotels and in the homes of foreigners who have access to cable television.

Some Cuban hotel employees who saw the documentary were stunned by Mr. Stone's dogged questioning of Mr. Castro. Cuba's state-run newspapers and TV stations never take that approach, portraying Mr. Castro as a larger-than-life, almost-godlike figure.

Cubans shocked

Cubans were also shocked to see nine hijackers talking about their legal case in a room with Mr. Castro, Mr. Stone and others.

"Those are hijackers? And they're talking right in front of the man? In front of Fidel?" said one employee at Villa Armonía Tarará, a state-run community catering to tourists and foreign residents east of Havana.

The nine men had tried to hijack a plane last spring. "We figured it would be easy," one said in the documentary. Trying to reach the United States legally is so difficult that it's "a waste of time," another said.

In the end, the documentary noted, three of the hijackers got 30 years in prison and five got life.

The film also gave Cubans a fleeting glimpse into their leader's private life, long a taboo subject on the island. It showed, for instance, the 77-year-old president bare-chested on an examining table as doctors gave him a checkup and declared that he had a heartbeat of a fit 32-year-old.

Mr. Stone, the producer of Platoon, JFK and Natural Born Killers, made Looking for Fidel after spending 30 hours with the Cuban leader in May. It was a tumultuous time in Cuba. Just one month earlier, Cuban authorities had sentenced 75 dissidents to long prison terms and executed three men who had hijacked a ferry.

Mr. Castro said the hijackers were executed to stave off a rafter crisis that could have led to a confrontation with the United States. And he said the dissidents were paid by the United States to subvert the Cuban government.

"If the same situation arose, I would do exactly the same thing," he said.

He also said he's not going to step down simply because President Bush is trying to force him out.

"I'm not willing to please Mr. Bush," he said. "Why am I going to help him in his work?"

In the documentary, Mr. Castro also spoke about his own mortality and said he was confident the socialist revolution would survive his death.

"I am completely certain that if I die tomorrow, my influence could grow," he said.

Joking about Viagra

Mr. Stone, who has described Mr. Castro as one of the world's wisest people, journeyed to Cuba in 2002 to make El Comandante. It was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2003.

In the 93-minute documentary, the Oscar-winning filmmaker jokes with the Cuban leader about Viagra. He brazenly opens some of his mail and rummages around in the back seat of his Mercedes, finding a pistol. And he shows the leader of one of the last socialist nations wearing a symbol of capitalism Nikes.

HBO had planned to show the film last spring. But the network later pulled the plug, calling the documentary incomplete and outdated given the dissident crackdown and the widely condemned executions.

Instead of redoing El Comandante, Mr. Stone made the second documentary. At its screening in March, he said viewers should at least listen to what Mr. Castro says. "For better or worse, whether he is lying or not lying, he's speaking in his own words."