In this interview, Cuban-born filmmaker Adriana Bosch describes working on Fidel Castro.
Bosch has written, directed, and edited acclaimed political and social documentaries for nearly two decades. She is known for her presidential biographies for American Experience, including Ulysses S. Grant, Jimmy Carter, Reagan, and Ike, as well as her work on The Rockefellers and The Churchills. Her other credits include series editor for Americas and Mexico, associate producer for two programs in the series War and Peace in the Nuclear Age, and associate editor for Frontline Special Report: Crisis in Central America. Bosch is the recipient of numerous awards, including a primetime Emmy Award, the Christopher Award, and Peabody Awards for Reagan and Ike.
How did you feel about making a program on Castro?
I looked at Castro as the opportunity of a lifetime. After having done Carter, and many other biographies, I thought I could bring those skills into a subject that really meant a great deal to me and that was very close to my heart. I had an opportunity not just to do an analytical and an intelligent job, but something that was more personal... even though it remains within the bounds of American Experience.
I left Cuba at age 14... I lived through nine years of that revolution as a conscious person, and I have vivid experiences and vivid memories, not only of what the process was like, but what it felt like and what people around me felt like, on both sides of the issues. My parents were initially very, very much enamored with Fidel Castro, as were most Cubans, the vast majority of Cubans. And, in a very short period of time, became deeply disillusioned.
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Do you have any personal memories of Castro?
My first memory of Fidel Castro is when I was four years old. I remember the entry into Havana... I remember him from television, and I used to kiss the television set. I used to just, like, kiss, kiss, kiss the TV set when I was four years old. When I heard that Fidel was coming to Santiago de Cuba, which is where I'm from -- and I think this must have been three, four weeks into the revolution in '59 -- my father took me to the airport... I was right next to the stairs where [Castro] descended. And he picked me up and kissed me. Hey, all politicians kiss babies, you know.
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What were some of your challenges as a filmmaker?
One of the great challenges in making this story was to try to capture a lifetime into a two-hour documentary. That is true of most American Experience documentaries, with the difference that most presidents are in power two terms, or one term. Castro has been in power [the equivalent of] 12 terms... So you end up with almost an unmanageable history. The way I approached it was by jumping into events that I thought would best highlight not only his personality, but also the key issues in the revolution.
The film is heavy on archive [film footage]. We thought that it was better to show it than to try to tell it. And it is also very, very heavy on Fidel. We have a lot of Fidel. Fidel at the Plaza de la Revolucion, Fidel with peasants, Fidel doing his thing, Fidel at the U.N., and if you watch carefully, you will see a remarkable character...
Hour one really sets out to explain the origins of Fidel Castro and the origins of the Cuban revolution. And also, how did it get to be what it became? I picked a date, which is the right date for the consolidation of his power, and that is Bay of Pigs. So the first hour ends at Bay of Pigs, and that is April 1961. Now, between April 1961 and the year 2004, that's a lot of years to cover. So what I did is I jumped into stories that I thought revealed the most about him. For example, Fidel Castro, the great revolutionary in the 1960s. Fidel Castro, the world statesman in the 1970s. Fidel Castro, the ruthless dictator around the issue of human rights in the 1980s. Fidel Castro, the leader that stubbornly clings to power and has the will to power that will defy anything and survive anything, including ten American presidents and the collapse of the Soviet Union that not only subsidized the Cuban economy, but gave it ideological legitimacy. That is quite a remarkable achievement... he has been in power longer than anyone else, any other leader of the 20th century. I think maybe Queen Elizabeth has been in power longer than he has, but that's it.
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Is there a key to understanding Castro's success?
There was one thing his daughter [Alina] said to us that we did not use in the show, which I think, retrospectively, is a very important thing: how he himself was surprised at the reaction of the Cuban people. You look at the footage of his entry into Havana, and it's just overwhelming.
There was of course the feeling of liberation from Batista... Batista made it a point to show the bodies of the people that were tortured, the bodies of the people that were killed. He thought he could frighten Cubans. Instead, he revolted them. And I think there was a sense of enormous liberation when Batista was overthrown. All of Cuba, or most of Cuba, was against Batista.
But there is more than that. I think that Cubans have this concept of a revolutionary... Fidel comes in and he was the messiah, the savior. He was going to deliver people and deliver Cuba to its true greatness.... There were pictures of Fidel in every living room. There were signs in every house, just about, that said, Fidel, esta es tu casa. "Fidel, this is your home." When Fidel announced that he was Communist, they started a campaign, and the campaign simply said, Si Fidel es comunista que me pongan en la lista. Yo tambien, yo tambien, yo tambien. "If Fidel is a Communist, add my name to that list. Me too, me too, me too." No matter what Fidel was, the Cuban people were going to be, and there was this overwhelming sense that this man had all the answers.
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Why have so many Cubans come to the United States?
There's always been this bone of contention about the true motivation of Cubans coming to the United States, between political and economic. Some people say, it's an economic migration. Other people say, no, we came looking for freedom. Well, both. Both are true, to an extent, in everyone, because you cannot separate politics from economics. But it is true that there are layers in Cuban migration, and that the later people, the people who have come, particularly the people who came in 1980, in the Mariel boat lift, were from a different class than the people who came earlier. This is not entirely true, but it is pretty much true.
And you could argue that those people came to the United States for economic reasons, but if you have a government that runs the economy as the Cuban government has, and the people leave the country because they can't stand how their lives are, you know, what their lives are like -- the absence of hope. They're tired of scarcity, they're tired of working, they're tired of all that struggle. Is that politics or economics? I mean, you're rejecting a government that has impoverished your life, and in that way it's very hard to distinguish between economics and politics.
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Looking back, how do you view the Cuban revolution?
You have to look at the Cuban revolution as two revolutions. First, the revolution against Batista. And that was a revolution that basically included everyone in Cuba, except the people that were with Batista... From all walks of life. You know, from sugar mill owners to shoe shiners. And black and white and everyone.
There was a second revolution, which is a social revolution that is put in place very, very slowly. Within a year or two. Where you begin to see that this was not everyone's revolution. The program identifies the moment in which Fidel says this for the first time... Land reform has just passed. He looks at the crowd and he says, this is democracy. Like Athens, but better, because this is not the democracy of the oligarchs or the military. And so, he says, this is democracy of the people. So immediately, at that moment, he's separating. This is not democracy for all. That social revolution is the second revolution, where he mobilizes a lot of the lower classes and the youth. The storm troops of the Cuban revolution were the young people.
I can't tell you the exact date, but I think when the nationalizations began, when las intervenciones, "the interventions" -- basically, the expropriation of businesses began, I think a lot of people turned against the revolution. And then there was the increasing sense of that this was also a reign of terror, and that there were arbitrary arrests... Slowly, Fidel began to abandon the idea of elections. Once the revolution came to power, elections were to be held in 18 months, and he began to move away from that. Newspapers began to come under a great deal of pressure.
But I think the main thing that turns [some] people against the government is the idea that this is going to be a Communist country. At that time, Communism was a very bad word, and had very, very bad implications.
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How do Cubans today feel about the revolution?
There are conflicting narratives about the Cuban revolution. There is the narrative of Fidel Castro, the narrative of the romantic revolution, and then there is the narrative of the Cuban exile community... My objective was to break through that, and to try to take out of each narrative what seemed to me historically accurate, and to try to construct another narrative that took into account [all] sides... Within each narrative, there are kernels of truth. And what I tried to do is save those truths and stay as far away as I could from some of the more wild allegations on both sides.
I am not a Cuban revolutionary. I am a Cuban exile. But at the same time, I recognize that there are some truths to the narrative of the Cuban revolution as viewed by the revolutionaries, and that those deserve to be in the show because, unless you include those things, you end up with a partial and unexplainable picture of that revolution. How do you understand, how do you comprehend the amount of popular support that Fidel Castro had? And I don't mean in 1959 when he came to power, I mean into the 1960s, into the 1970s. The exile community, and the narrative of the exile community, is incapable of explaining that, and I thought that that needed to be brought to the table.
At the same time, when you talk to people in the Cuban revolution, [according to them] there was no opposition in Cuba to the regime. [Opponents] were all traitors, imperialists, created by the United States, and that is very, very wrong. There was a genuine, home-grown opposition, mostly made up of people who had once opposed Batista. The people who were with Fidel got turned against Fidel because they wanted another type of revolution. And it was very, very widespread.
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What do you want people to take away from the program?
Coming up with an ending to the film was very hard. We didn't want to be too judgmental, we had maintained a pretty careful objectivity... And at the end, you're expecting judgment. And that's a tough thing. So executive producer Mark Samels came up with a great idea, which was to end the film at the very beginning of the film. The film ends with the notion that there was one day in Cuba where all seemed possible, and when the hopes of an entire nation were put on the shoulders of one single man. I was very happy with that... because it leaves you with the question, was that good or was that bad?... I think the viewer has to make up their own mind.
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