April 14, 2004

A stone for Castro

Outspoken director of JFK tosses some hard ones at the Cuban leader

Only a handful of people are likely to remember this, but in the late 1950s, about the time Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro embraced the Soviet Union and became the bane of U.S. presidents, a novelty song about him was a minor hit. A chorus that went something like "Fee-del, Feeee-del, why don't you go back to Oriente Province, go back to the hills?" occasionally would be interrupted for spoken-word zingers such as "When poor Fidel was only nine, he lost his mother - man, what a crap game that was!"

I thought of the ditty while screening "Looking for Fidel," Oliver Stone's documentary for HBO commemorating his trip last year to Cuba for a series of interviews with El Presidente. Stone's questions don't rise to the song's level of impudence, but he does give the old Communist one of the most undiplomatic goings- over that he's had in decades. And the amazing thing is, Castro takes it. He doesn't throw Stone out on his ear.

It makes you wonder about the leader's motivation. Does he just like rubbing elbows with the director of "JFK" and "The Doors"? Perhaps he's getting a little senile, even if he does submit to a blood-pressure test in Stone's presence and is pronounced by a doctor to be as fit as a man of 32.

If Castro's checkup strikes you as odd, it's nothing compared to the surreal roundtable interview that Stone's cameraman records. Stone had previously interviewed Castro for a film called "Commandante." He went back to Cuba just a couple of months after Castro's government executed three hijackers and jailed 75 dissidents. Castro arranges for Stone to question another group of hijackers awaiting trial - and he joins the party.

The hijackers tell Stone and Castro they tried to steal a plane so they could fly to America and make some decent money. They insist they're apolitical and float the suggestion that since they didn't endanger any Cuban lives, they don't deserve to be shot, just sent to prison. Castro chides them like wayward children for being seduced by America's "consumer society," but he tells their lawyers, who are also present, that he expects them to present the most aggressive defense they can.

We're subsequently told that three of the men got 5 years in jail, while the other five got 30 years.

Stone's one-on-ones with Castro are remarkable. In a semi-bumbling, Columbo-like way, he challenges Castro's assertion that the dissidents he jailed are American lackeys, unrepresentative of the adoring Cuban people from whom springs any power he has. When Castro insists Cubans can and do speak their minds freely, Stone asks if someone could go on TV and say Fulgencio Bautista, the right-wing dictator Castro overthrew, wasn't really so bad, or that Castro has betrayed the revolution. Castro's answer could be paraphrased as, "Duh!"

Stone's effort to get Castro to talk about his succession plans ultimately induces the dictator to ask wryly why Stone is so interested in his retirement.

The camera is more unforgiving than Stone, zeroing in so closely at times that Castro's age-splotched hands and face look like something beamed back by the Mars rovers. The dictator, at age 77, seems more frail than ever, 30-something heart or not, especially when Stone cuts away to archival clips of black-bearded Fidel giving marathon speeches.

Stone also intersperses interviews with some dissidents who haven't been jailed (yet) and the spouses and families of some of those incarcerated. They speak of a routinely repressive regime that belies Castro's proud citation of low infant mortality, high literacy rates and people-on-the-street testimonials to his generosity and compassion.

Whatever Castro's reasons or hopes for these interviews, he comes across like an old merchant who can't bring himself to step away from the business he built, even though he's getting weary of it, because he refuses to give that sort of satisfaction to his lifelong rival. And we know who that is.

E-mail Noel Holston at


LOOKING FOR FIDEL. A film by director Oliver Stone ("Salvador," "JFK," "Platoon") documents his visit to Cuba in 2003 to interview Fidel Castro about his jailing of 75 dissidents that spring, and his retirement plans, if any. Premieres April 14 at 8 p.m. on HBO.

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