Castro's Casting Couch

When I arrived last November, Cuba felt like a private paradise. Thanks to a steep decline in tourism, empty white-sand beaches were easy to find. My favorite Havana restaurant -- a seven-table outdoor café with cheap beer and the best picadillo in town -- contained only Cubans. I could even walk the Malecon, a wide seaside avenue that rings Havana, without hearing anything but Spanish, salsa music, and the heavy growl of old American cars. Everything slick, new, consumer-friendly, and advertised -- everything from home, in short -- seemed to be not just miles but also decades away. I thought I'd finally found the perfect escape, a true island apart.

Then someone asked me if I had arrived with Steven Spielberg. A few days later, during the Latin American Festival, a friend pointed to an old man shuffling across the marble tiles of Havana's Hotel Nacional and said, "That's Grandpa Munster." (It was, indeed, actor and Green Party gubernatorial candidate Al Lewis.) Later that week, I listened to Harry Belafonte rail against a lack of press freedom in the United States -- but not Cuba -- and then found myself in the odd position of fighting with Matt Dillon for a taxi. By the time Danny Glover and Julie Taymor crossed my path, I thought I'd seen it all, until I discovered that Oliver Stone had spent three days with Fidel Castro a few months before I arrived.

Stone, unlike most of the glitterati, came to Cuba to make a film. The resulting effort is a frustrating caramelo Castro portrait that should have been titled "From Cuba With Love" instead of "Comandante." For me, the film simply confirmed what I had already suspected -- that Stone is still more audacious, or maybe more shameless, than anyone else in Hollywood. Who but the director of "JFK" would quote Castro saying that he never believed Kennedy was killed by a lone gunman? Who but the director of Salvador, a preachy indictment of U.S. policy in Central America, would take Castro at his word when he says "we have never practiced torture," a statement that Human Rights Watch contradicts pretty much annually?

You can see Stone's handiwork for yourself in May on HBO. But even before I subjected myself to his worshipful effort, at a private screening held recently at the cable channel's offices, I began to wonder about the relationship between Hollywood and Cuba's ultimate jefe. Stone may occupy the outer ring of idiocy, but as I later discovered, Spielberg, Jack Nicholson, Chevy Chase, Ted Turner, and several other big shots have all visited and publicly praised Castro in the past few years alone. Today, as George W. Bush makes the case for a new American empire in the Middle East, Hollywood is rushing to an island that the United States once ran as a de facto colony, and rallying around a man who threw "American imperialists" out of his country in 1959.

There's clearly a mix of personal and political motivations at play. Castro and American celebrities seem to be playing a powerful, fascinating game of seduction. The question is, who's the Don Juan and who's the dupe?

Fidel Fidelity

When Spielberg told reporters at a film conference in Havana that he would love to make a film in Cuba, it merely confirmed the fact that for many filmmakers, the island isn't just a rediscovered paradise, it's a modern Atlantis, a 1950s pastel poster set to the music of 'Buena Vista Social Club,' an island of retro, re-issued dreams. Cuba is "beautiful, exotic, musical, sexy, and still not far from the past alluded to in 'The Godfather Part II'," says David Thomson, author of "The Biographical Dictionary of Film."

Everyone who visits Cuba regularly, of course, has a soft spot for the island, myself included. It's difficult for any Western tourist to see past the restored hotels and lush physical splendor to the decrepit homes and sputtering economy -- and it's even harder for actors, directors, and other celebrities to do so. Like Matt Dillon, whom I last saw speeding off to a popular nightclub, they're whisked from one hot spot to another by guides who always give the country a rave review. More often than not, the humiliating no es facil struggle that ordinary Cubans face is glimpsed only through taxicab windows, a shallow, quick blur of color and noise.

Then, too, there is the colossal persona of Fidel, a charismatic man whose harshest critics still call him brave and brilliant. American film culture, moreover -- with its love of the underdog, its happy-ending romanticism, and its inclination to resolve moral ambiguity into categorical good and evil -- is fertile territory for Castro canonization. For those willing to look past the harshness of everyday Cuban life, Castro is the ultimate visionary, a Robin Hood who understood long before anyone else that battling the United States "will be my true destiny," as he wrote in a 1958 letter to Celia Sanchez, his longtime lover and confidant. Castro, who has outlived nine U.S. presidential administrations, embodies more than just pragmatic perseverance. His life is an epic. Here's a man who courted death, humiliated John F. Kennedy at the Bay of Pigs, and is rumored to have slept with thousands of women. Simply put, says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Culture, "for character, this guy is hard to beat." He hasn't just lived the traditional Hollywood script -- man faces conflict, overcomes difficulties, and wins big. He's done it on the world stage, before an audience of billions. No wonder Stone seems wholly unconcerned with Cuba's lack of free speech. The romanticized version of Fidel's story -- which ignores the fact that he grew up rich, among other things -- is difficult to resist. For those living in a town that lionizes larger-than-life figures, Castro isn't just a star. He's an archetype.

Miami Vice

It's not just romanticism, however, that pushes stars toward Fidel's corner. It's also frustration with U.S. foreign policy -- much of it justified. In the 200 years that the United States and Cuba have had a relationship, Cuba hasn't exactly been showered with love and respect. President William McKinley hijacked Cuba's fight for independence in 1898 and unjustly made the island a protectorate in name, a colony in practice. The resulting political culture was rotten; gangsterism oozed from every institutional pore. But year after year, American politicians turned a blind eye to the island's problems. Fidel's sins aside, filmmakers were right to portray the period as poisonous. Scholars of Cuba generally agree that some kind of revolution was inevitable, which is exactly the feeling you'll get from Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather Part II" and Sydney Pollack's failed Robert Redford romance, "Havana" -- both of which end with a defeated Fulgencio Batista fleeing Havana for Miami.

It's true that, during and after the Cold War, Hollywood has appeared to have little interest in portraying life under Castro's reign. Conservatives argue that this proves that Hollywood is trying to avoid making Fidel look bad. But the major U.S. studios almost never make movies that don't have Americans in them, and the simple truth is that there haven't been many Americans in Cuba during the last 50 years. (Unless you count the troops at Guantanamo.) Watch the two recent major movies that touched upon U.S.-Cuba relations during that period -- "Thirteen Days" and Stone's "JFK" -- and you'll see that neither of them portrays the dictator in a flattering light. If these movies, like "The Godfather" and "Havana," concern themselves less with Castro than with the way Americans relate to Cuba, perhaps it's only because Hollywood prefers to address the familiar.

Even today, when American directors and actors go to Cuba, it's not really about Cuba -- it's about America's policy toward Cuba. "I personally feel that this embargo should be lifted," Spielberg said at a conference this November. "I do not see any reason for accepting old grudges being played out in the 21st century." The director went on to wonder why the United States trades with China, but not Cuba -- a question the mainstream foreign policy elite has been asking for years. The embargo hasn't undermined Castro for four decades. Meanwhile, we're engaging with China under the theory that trade and tourism undermine repressive regimes. That may or may not be true, but if the logic is good enough for China, surely it's good enough for Cuba.

The problem, of course, is Florida's cadre of politically powerful Cuban emigrés, whom both parties are wary of offending, and who thus exert disproportionate influence in setting policy (and who, as the Elian controversy showed, aren't exactly poster children for the rule of law).

"Movie Star Dictator"

But Castro doesn't just offer contact with an historical legend, nor is he simply a convenient surrogate for those who long to criticize U.S. policy. He also attracts adulation because he has the ability to make ego-conscious stars feel close to him. "All we hear about is his long-winded speeches. But one-on-one, he's as good a listener as he is a talker," says Ann Louise Bardach, who interviewed Castro in the mid-'90s and was the first to label him a "movie star dictator." "It's the same with Warren Beatty; they look at you like you're the only person in the world."

Castro, unlike many of his guests, also understands the value of preparation. "One of the things that Fidel is very good at is that he will be very well briefed on the person brought into his presence," says Dennis Hays, head of the Cuban American National Foundation's Washington office. "He'll know their interests; he'll stroke these guys up one way and down another." In Stone's case, Castro seems to have read up on the one experience that he and the director shared: combat. Like a brilliant lawyer, he then put that knowledge to use when he needed it most. After Stone asked the film's toughest question, about Cuban soldiers' role in the torture of American soldiers in Vietnam, Castro used it to create a diversion. "You won medals, right," he said to Stone. "It takes the same type of courage to do what you're doing now." Head down but nodding, Stone simply listened -- as if he'd been convinced that interviewing Castro was as dangerous as dodging Viet Cong bullets. And then the camera cut away. Score one for Castro.

The charm doesn't fade over time, either. Several years after meeting Ted Turner, for example, Castro sat for an interview with CNN's Bernard Shaw and was asked which major league baseball team he rooted for. His reply was simple but telling: "Perhaps because of my friendship with Ted Turner," he said, "the Atlanta Braves." Conservatives like Michael Medved, author of "Hollywood vs. America," argue that this kind of constant attention helps celebrities assuage their liberal guilt. Because Castro fought for the poor, Medved argues, rich entertainers who support him feel better about their own extravagant wealth. He essentially soothes their self-loathing.

This doesn't seem quite right. People like Steven Spielberg, if they even feel liberal guilt in the first place, have better ways to cure themselves -- like by giving away large sums of money, as Spielberg has done in creating the Shoah Foundation. Medved is right, however, to focus on stars' hunger for attention and personal connection. One of the most interesting aspects of Castro's relationship to celebrity is the way he and stars find common bonds. Powerful men in particular (and not just from Hollywood) can't stop reveling in how they relate to a man whom they see as historically important. Whether it's Stone saying "he reminds me of my father" in "Comandante" or Ted Turner, who at one point described Castro as "a dictator just like me," it's clear that alpha males have an urge to remake Fidel in their own image.

This is partly Castro's brilliance: "He hits all the right notes," says Bardach, author of "Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana." "He's the right man for the machista culture. He doesn't complain in public, he doesn't talk about women." Showbiz, however, is an industry that thrives on flattery and power. Stars are thus more vulnerable than most to Castro's wiles -- Stone, most notably. He doesn't just take Castro at his word when he says "we have never practiced torture." He also jokes with Castro about Viagra, lets him off the hook on the issue of free elections, never even mentions Cuba's lack of free speech or assembly, and has nothing to say when Castro dismisses Huber Matos as "a coward." Wasn't Matos the man who almost single-handedly saved the Cuban revolution by securing a planeload of arms from Costa Rica in the spring of 1958? Didn't Castro bestow upon him the rarely used title of "comandante" for his sacrifices, only to imprison him for resigning from the regime in 1960?

Stone didn't get around to asking such questions. He instead focused on Castro's exercise regimen (a lot of office pacing) and his favorite starlet (Brigitte Bardot). Not that he has any shame or regrets about how Castro is portrayed. "I thought he was warm and bright," Stone reportedly told an audience of reporters at the "Comandante" Jan. 18 Sundance premiere. "He's a very driven man, a very moral man."

Fidel Film Lore

The fact is, stars become too distracted -- by the romance of Cuba, the urge to dissent, or their own egos -- to truly understand Cuba's heart and soul. Celebrities essentially become children when it comes to Cuba, just, as one could argue, Jane Fonda did on her 1972 visit to Vietnam. (Today Barbra Streisand, who misspelled Saddam Hussein's name in a letter of anti-war protest she sent to Congress, seems to be the favorite example.)

And yet, even though in many cases Hollywood's love affair with Fidel is fueled by egotism and moral obtuseness, the end result looks a lot like progress. Cubans' hunger for outside information is nearly insatiable. American films that make it to Cuba draw large crowds. The underground market for VCRs and videotapes has been thriving for years and nearly every film at this year's Latin American Film Festival sold out. At one point, police even had to repel hundreds of shouting fans who were trying to jam into a theater showing "Balseros," a documentary about Cuban refugees who floated to the United States in home-made rafts during the 1994 immigration crisis.

More outlets are needed for this kind of passion. Cuba is more open than it was 20 years ago because Castro now has to depend on European and Canadian investors rather than Soviet aid. The most efficient way to capitalize on this shift -- and undermine Castro's regime -- would be to flood his country with venture capital, tourists, and American consumer goods. The next best thing would be to have more American movies, with their expensive cars and freedom, showing up on Cuban screens.

Enter Hollywood. Castro clearly understands the danger that film poses to his regime. He's worked hard to master television and it's no coincidence that most of the movies reaching Cuba -- like "The Majestic," which focused in part on Hollywood's anti-communist blacklist -- show America at its worst. Still, the "Comandante" can't seem to help falling for star appearances. Though he often promises never to concede to the capitalists, and prefers the phrase "socialism or death," Hollywood represents an exception. It's one of only two American products (sport is the other) that Cubans and Castro are now somewhat free to enjoy.

Celebrity visits in particular put Castro on his best behavior. He doesn't just tolerate questions from stars that he would never accept from his own people or foreign journalists. He also, in his attempt to show Cuba at its best, often lets down his country's guard. When Steven Spielberg arrived, for example, Castro put on a retrospective of the director's work. Lines snaked around the block outside central Havana's 1,000-seat Payret Theater for nearly every movie. "A.I." and "E.T." became hotly debated items in the chisme gossip circuit. But one film in particular gained attention: "Minority Report," a tale of what can go wrong when a Big Brother police state gains too much power. The film probably wouldn't have been shown if not for Spielberg's visit, and Cubans clearly understood its message: The enemy is within. As one Cuban told me, "it got me right here, en el corazón."

Damien Cave is a contributing writer for Salon.com and a Phillips Foundation Fellow.

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