I have never been to Cuba. But as the world waits with varying degrees of patience to see whether Fidel Castro has assumed room temperature, I can't help wondering why Hollywood films about Cuba almost inevitably portray that island nation in pre-Revolutionary times. Think Buena Vista Social Club, The Lost City, and the Cuban cameo in The Godfather, Part II.
The Batista regime was corrupt and thuggish, and the American embargo on trade with Cuba continues to give many libertarians heartburn (particularly now that Soviet subsidies for Cuba have dried up), but if Castro was as benevolent and misunderstood as apologists for him are always saying, (Dan Rather called him "Cuba's Elvis") then why does so much celluloid look longingly at the time before Castro elbowed his way onto the geopolitical stage? Why is (or more hopefully, was) Castro so averse to even the merest zephyr of criticism?
Reporter Juan Manuel Cao, who works for a Spanish-language TV station in Miami, followed Fidel Castro to a summit meeting in Argentina. When he asked Castro why he refused to let Mrs. Hilda Molina of Cuba visit her son and grandchildren in Argentina, Castro screamed that the reporter was "a mercenary paid by the Bush," who will "probably try to assassinate me with a bomb." Castro's bodyguards put Cao in a chokehold for his impertinence. Humberto Fontova, who wrote a book about Hollywood's favorite dictator, filed a July 27 story on the incident for Newsmax.com, but other media outlets let it slip down the memory hole without comment.
You can be thin-skinned even without being confronted. In January of this year, per a wire service dispatch from (ahem) Reuters, Castro ordered a wall built to hide an electronic ticker in front of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana because that billboard was displaying human rights messages. Heaven forbid that ordinary Cubans be tempted to commit thought crimes by reading eye-level quotes from the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Lech Walesa as they strolled by, rejoicing in their literacy and universal health care.
The truth, as Cuban-Americans and Cuban exiles have been saying for years, is that very few people will mourn Fidel Castro's passing. Even fellow travelers like Venezuela's Hugh Chavez will muster only crocodile tears, if pundits like Bridget Johnson are right. Her August 1st synopsis for National Review Online minced no words: "As much as they've snuggled and back-patted, as much as they act like dysfunctional father and bratty son, the death of the linchpin of Latin American Communism will probably be the best news Hugo Chavez has gotten since he met his useful anti-Bush idiot dream girl, Cindy Sheehan," Johnson opined.
Still, a sizable number of the glitterati in the United States think "anti-Castro extremism" is an additive in Miami's municipal water supply, or a well-thumbed appendix in the neocon playbook. You can talk ad nauseam about health care and literacy rates if you ignore the two-tiered nature of Cuba's health care system and the dearth of non-Communist reading material to be literate for, and so they do.
One wishes these Castro apologists could visit Havana with Theodore Dalrymple. Like that fair-minded doctor and City Journal essayist, they might come to realize that Havana had to die because its pre-Revolutionary beauty and prosperity gave the lie to Castro's preferred narrative. Dalrymple floated this hypothesis in 2002:
Who created Havana, and where did the magnificence come from, if before Castro there were only poverty, corruption, and thuggery? Best to destroy the evidence, though not by the crude Taliban method of blowing up the statues of Buddha, which is inclined to arouse the opprobrium of the world: better to let huge numbers of people camp out permanently in stolen property and then let time and neglect do the rest. In a young population such as Cuba's, with little access to information not filtered through official channels, life among the ruins will come to seem normal and natural. The people will soon be radically disconnected from the past of the very walls they live among. And so the present ruins of Havana are the material consequence of a monomaniacal historiography put into practice.
A-list actors and directors might know a little about monomania, don't you think? Not that they would admit to seeing it ninety miles off the tip of Florida. For too many of them, Che Guevara's erstwhile boss is (was?) just a charismatic revolutionary in fatigues, and Cuba's just a country where people who are "fiends for mojitos" can find a bartender who knows how to make a good one. If you think I jest through the fragrant smoke from a Cohiba, you haven't seen the theatrical release of Miami Vice, where undercover cop Sonny Crockett spends an idyllic night in Cuba while seducing a beautiful Chinese woman with connections to a drug cartel. The movie retains an appropriately somber tone throughout most of its run time, but for me the idyll in Cuba conjured images of Grease-era John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John warbling their way through "Summer Nights." This is what those two crazy kids might have done with a better cinematographer and a thirst for life at the dark end of the street.
It's not just Cuban exiles who despise Castro and his cult of personality. In a July 24 story headlined "Cuban regime feeling heat from Czechs," Miami Herald reporter Pablo Bachelet summarized the current climate this way: "Once a subservient member of the Soviet bloc, the Czech Republic is now one of Fidel Castro's top foreign tormentors, providing material and moral support to dissidents, leading efforts to condemn the island's human-rights record in U.N. bodies and pushing a reluctant European Union to take a tougher stance on Castro." Czech support for Cuban dissidents goes beyond badgering the United Nations and funding clandestine radio broadcasts. This detail could have come straight from a pitch meeting for a movie of the week, but it really happened: "Czech supermodel Helena Houdova slipped into the island and took photos of Cuban slums. Police detained her for 11 hours, but she managed to smuggle out the camera's memory card in her bra -- creating a media stir in Prague and later displaying the photos in an exhibit."
''The revolution's watchmen rose up because I was taking pictures of something they do not like,'' the 1999 Miss Czech Republic told journalists.
Helena had it right, as almost any Cuban in Miami could tell you. Sadly, in the tonier parts of New York and Los Angeles, it's still as though Ricky Ricardo had more 'splainin' to do than his red-haired wife.