Movie Review
Looking for Fidel
Directed by Oliver Stone
2011, 60 minutes, Not Rated

In Looking for Fidel, award winning director Oliver Stone interviews Fidel Castro on a wide range of issues. While the discussion took place in Havana in 2003, before Castro stepped down as president for health reasons, the documentary is still informative and thought provoking.

Castro garnered lot of respect for being one of the principal founders of the first socialist state in the Caribbean, 94 miles off the shore of Florida. However, he also has his detractors, who view him as an authoritarian leader who tolerated no dissident. Stone begins by grilling Castro on the treatment of dissidents. In 2003 the Cuban government arrested, tried and imprisoned 75 anti-government activists. Castro indicates that he does not have any problems with criticism of the Cuban government. He says, though, that these activists are not prisoners of conscience but rather “mercenaries” financially supported by U.S. government agencies such as the US Agency for International Development to work for regime change. He says the Cuban government does not have a policy of harassing government critics.

Stone includes interviews with anti-government activists in Havana, two of whom verify Castro’s allegation of being paid U.S. agents. One dissident freely admits that he is living on a $50,000 US grant given to him by the New York Parkinson Foundation, an enormous amount in Cuba where salaries average U.S. $30-40 per month today. The wife of one imprisoned activist says she is living on money sent to them every month by a Miami-based newspaper sponsored by the anti-Castro community.

 This U.S. financing of dissidents in Cuba is also confirmed by independent organizations such as the U.S.-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

Castro shows Stone pictures of the U.S. ambassador meeting with these dissidents and remarks that he was supplying them with electronic equipment and money. Stone includes news clips of US sponsored terrorist attacks against the island.

Apart from harassing phone calls and graffiti painted on their houses, none of these Cuban dissidents are able to demonstrate that they are being persecuted by the Cuban government, as they allege.

Stone takes Castro to task for the execution of three hijackers that kidnapped a ferry in Havana harbor in 2003 and threatened passengers at knife point if the captain did not take them to U.S. shores. Castro says that the executions were an extreme measure to discourage a wave of kidnappings. The U.S. government will grant residency to any Cuban citizen who reaches the U.S. by any means, including kidnapping planes and boats.

The Cuban leader even takes Stone to a prison to meet a group of 8 men who were caught plotting to kidnap a plane to Miami and were awaiting trial. One prisoner remarks that the U.S. Embassy in Havana grants few visas to Cubans wanting to legally immigrate to the U.S.

Stone asks Castro why he did not step down after being president for 43 years and let younger leaders take over. The Cuban leader answers calmly that he sees himself more as a spiritual leader and that, unlike American presidents, the country’s constitution strictly limits his powers. Castro says he is not president of the country but rather President of the Council of Ministers, and he does not even have the power to appoint cabinet ministers, ambassadors or friends to key posts. He says that he believes he can assist his country because of the experience and knowledge he has gained over many years. Castro never angers at Stone’s probing questions.

The documentary ends with Castro taking Stone around Havana in his car, discussing among other things several of the 700 CIA attempts to kill Castro. The one that nearly got him was when a U.S. paid mercenary at the Havana Libre hotel nearly dropped cyanide into a chocolate milk shake Castro had ordered. The man lost his nerves at the last moment and the half frozen pill disintegrated in his hand.

Looking for Fidel provides needed balance to the negative media portrayal of the former Cuban president, who is demonized by the mainstream corporate owned media. Stone’s documentary is a fascinating watch.