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The Last Communist

Original Air Date: February 11, 1992
Produced, Directed and Edited by Stephanie Tepper
Written by William Cran


ANNOUNCER: Last month the passions that have split the United States and Cuba for 30 years spilled into the streets of New York City as anti-Castro protesters confronted a Peace for Cuba rally.

WILLIAM KUNSTLER: The people of Cuba are a hell of a lot better off now than they were under Batista when American gangsters ran the island.

RALLY SPEAKER: Enough is enough! Castro has to go! This is the year now! Ninety-two is the year!

DEMONSTRATORS: Castro must go! Castro must go!

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, the rise and fall of Fidel Castro.

GEORGIE ANNE GEYER, Author, "Guerrilla Prince": He had reformed a corrupt Cuba. He was the hero of the world.

ANNOUNCER: How was this revolutionary hero transformed into the isolated dictator who has brought his country to the edge of ruin?

VLADIMIR RAMIREZ, Executive Director, Latin American Study Center: [through interpreter] Right now the biggest enemy of Fidel is the dictator Castro. He's doing more damage to himself than all his enemies.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, "The Last Communist."

NARRATOR: Once Soviet ships carried three fourths of Cuba's imports and all of its oil, but now there is no Soviet Union. Cuba's lifeline is unraveling. Havana grows more dilapidated every day. Auto parts are unobtainable. Gasoline and food are rationed. Crime and prostitution are on the rise. Cubans have seen the collapse of communism abroad, but the man who has ruled them for 30 years has not changed his message.

FIDEL CASTRO: [subtitles] Now this country is asked again for an extraordinary international mission. Save the Cuban revolution. Save socialism in Cuba.

NARRATOR: Thirty-three years after the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro's grip on power has not weakened and his charisma has not faded. Many Cubans will never forget how once he restored their national pride.

In 1959 Fidel paraded his victorious guerrillas through Havana. The young revolutionary shut down brothels and casinos, expelled the American Mafia. He seemed fearless and incorruptible.

Mr. CASTRO: What I have said is that I have no ambition at all. I feel myself sincerely I don't have ambition for power, money, nothing, only to serve my country.

NARRATOR: The internationally acclaimed Cuban poet Herberto Padilla was one of many intellectuals who welcomed Fidel's revolution.

HERBERTO PADILLA: We were in the same fight, so I had many reasons to admire him. At that moment he represented the best of our revolution--I mean, the coming revolution--I mean, the best of our society.

NARRATOR: Americans, too, fell under Castro's spell. Then a young reporter, Georgie Anne Geyer got to know Castro in the early days of the revolution. Now a syndicated columnist, she has written a biography that searches for the man behind the myth.

GEORGIE ANNE GEYER, Author, "Guerrilla Prince": The amazing thing is that for 30 years, the world has thought it really knew Fidel Castro. He had reformed a corrupt Cuba. He was the hero of the world, of the United States, for a long time. The amazing thing is that 30 years later nobody knows Fidel Castro at all.

NARRATOR: Cuba's one-time guerrilla hero now calls himself "the maximum leader." Both he and his country are under siege politically and economically. The force of his personality has dominated the life of his country and so the story of what has happened to Cuba is the story of what happened to Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro Ruz was born in 1926. His father was a self-made man who owned a sugar plantation. He sold his sugar to the United Fruit Company, which completely dominated the local economy and politics.

BARBARA GORDON: Well, my father was in the sugar business and he was the administrador or the manager, as we say in English, of the United Fruit Company properties in Benes, Oriente and he went down there when I was a very little girl. My father and his father knew each other when my father first went to Cuba because his father's colonia abutted United Fruit Company property. And in fact people used to sort of kid about the fact that at night his father would move the fences so as to enlarge his property.

NARRATOR: A tough, autocratic former soldier from Spain, Angel Castro had an affair with Lina Ruz, the family maid, who gave birth to Fidel. The parents married to legitimize their son. This enabled them to send Fidel to respectable Catholic schools, among them Belen College, one of the most prestigious private schools in Cuba.

Tall, athletic and intensely competitive, Castro excelled at sports. He was a star of the debating society who enjoyed showing off his photographic memory. Historian Enrique Baloyra believes his Jesuit teachers reinforced Fidel's determination to succeed.

ENRIQUE BALOYRA, Professor, University of Miami: What he got out of that upbringing was a ferocious desire to excel, on his own, reinforced by Jesuit training and by the extent to which he was an oddball among his friends. He felt that he had to be better in order to establish himself as a leader and as an equal.

NARRATOR: Castro's elite Jesuit education seems to have had a powerful effect on his political, if not his religious development.

Ms. GEYER: I think the effect was one that people don't really expect. These were Spanish priests. They were mostly Spanish falangists--i.e., followers of Franco. They were very conservative Spanish priests. And Fidel's--his heroes in those teenage years were Hitler, Mussolini and the Spanish falangist Primo de Rivera. They were not any of the democrats of the world. He used to walk around the Jesuit high school at Belen with a copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf, in Spanish, La Lucha, which he was always reading. I think he was much more affected by Mussolini than by Hitler. Mussolini was, after all, a Latin leader. Fidel loved his speeches. He used to--he got an early tape recorder, one of those ones with just the little wire, and he bought it from a friend of his for quite a bit of money and he stood for hours in front of the mirror giving Mussolini's speeches over and over and over.

Mr. PADILLA: Mussolini, specifically, he admired his approach to politics, to real politics, mixing real politics with emotions, for example. That's very Latin, as you know. And I remember when I first heard a Mussolini speech, I said, "My God, he speaks in the Fidel Castro way." Castro was not a fascist, an ideological fascist. He thought that the technique of Mussolini was very useful for any leader in the world to conduct his country.

NARRATOR: During his school vacations Fidel would return to Oriente, his home province in eastern Cuba.

Ms. GORDON: Most of us in our 20's thought he was simply fabulous because he was so--he was tall and handsome and good-looking and very strong. And they all just swooned over him, even older women. So his charisma has something to do with his sex appeal, too, I think.

NARRATOR: Fidel began courting Mirta Diaz-Balart, whose brother later served in the government of Cuba's dictator, Batista. Mirta liked Fidel to take her to dances held at the United Fruit Social Club.

Ms. GORDON: He was not interested in dancing particularly. He thought that was really a waste of time. He just seemed to be a very dedicated person to what his future was going to be. I mean, he wanted to dominate. He wanted to be a politician and that's where he was going.

NARRATOR: Castro preferred to talk politics with the older men. Growing up in a United Fruit Company town had convinced him that Cuba was a victim of American colonialism and economic exploitation.

Ms. GORDON: He said on a couple of occasions, "If I ever get into the top part of politics, and I hope to do that," he said, "I'm going to rid the island of all the Americans"--because he was very nationalistic. And being very nationalistic, he had this feeling, like a lot of university graduates and students in Latin America, of being anti-American.

NARRATOR: In Castro's day the University of Havana was a hotbed of student activism. Fulgencio Batista was a hated figure. The U.S. government's warm support for Cuba's corrupt dictator fanned the flames of anti-Americanism. Castro began to play a leading role in opposition politics and street demonstrations. In these violent times, Castro was moving to the left, according to a university contemporary, Vladimir Ramirez.

VLADIMIR RAMIREZ, Executive Director, Latin American Study Center: [through interpreter] At that time the University of Havana was being exploited by the main political parties. These national parties corrupted the politics of the students. Inside the university there were political gangs that were manipulated by these national parties and Fidel was in the most radical, the most revolutionary of these gangs.

NARRATOR: In these turbulent times, a newsreel camera captured a fleeting image of Castro. By now he packed a pistol, took part in gunfights and had even shot a political rival.

Ms. GORDON: Despite telling his future father-in-law that he would give up the politicking and the guns, he arrived for his wedding and he had a gun stuck in his pocket because he didn't know if some of these other gang leaders would go after him in any way. He did have enemies and they used guns.

NARRATOR: Castro's baptism of fire came in Colombia. He'd gone to Bogota as part of a student delegation and was caught up in an urban revolt. Here he experienced spontaneous mass violence first-hand. It was a defining moment in his revolutionary education.

Mr. BALOYRA: And in him, violence had an instrumental purpose, which was for political advancement, for political strategy, to accomplish things political, in a large sense.

NARRATOR: Back in Cuba, in his home province, Castro led a suicidal attack on the Moncada police barracks. Though most of his comrades were captured and tortured to death, this military failure was a political success. Caught in a police dragnet, Castro's trial made him a national celebrity. He received a prison sentence of 15 years, but he only served 19 months in the notorious penitentiary on the Isle of Pines before being released in a general amnesty. He emerged from prison a national figure in a country now ripe for revolution.

Castro took to the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. Here he waged guerrilla warfare on Batista's army and police. Almost immediately a government ambush killed all but 16 of his comrades. But Fidel was a leader with a genius for propaganda. The humble mimeograph machine and the makeshift radio were all weapons in his armory. Rebel Radio made Fidel's voice familiar to Cubans everywhere.

WAYNE SMITH, Head, U.S. Interests Section, Havana, 1979-82: Of course, it was very exciting and it was a very romantic period in the history of Cuba.

NARRATOR: Wayne Smith was in Cuba during the revolution and he came to know Castro personally when he was posted to Cuba as the State Department's man in Havana.

Mr. SMITH: Everyone was opposed to Batista. He was a dictator. He was corrupt. Then you had this group of young revolutionaries out in the hills who said they were going to change everything, bring back the constitution of 1940, free press, elections, all that. It was a matter of Robin Hood against the Sheriff of Nottingham.

NARRATOR: One of Fidel's followers was a young Argentinian doctor called Che Guevara. The guerrilla Maid Marion was Celia Sanchez, Castro's lover and closest confidante. In a letter to Celia, Castro wrote, "I vowed the Americans will pay dearly for their actions. When this war is over, a much wider war will begin for me, the war that I am going to wage against them. This will be my true destiny."

By the end of 1958 fighting had reached the cities. As Batista fled, Castro prepared to occupy the nation's capital. There had been nothing in Cuba's history to equal Castro's triumphant entry into Havana.

Mr. SMITH: Fidel Castro himself was such a charismatic figure that when he marched into Havana, the Cuban people would have followed him in anything. It was difficult not to be carried away by the emotion of the moment and by the magnetism of this man.

NARRATOR: A spell-binding orator, Castro had a special rapport with the Cuban masses. He called it "direct democracy." In marathon nine-hour speeches, he told the people what they were longing to hear. He promised immediate free elections. He swore that he was no communist.

Tad Szulc, the author and journalist, was there in 1959 and has written perhaps the most authoritative biography of Fidel.

TAD SZULC, Author, "Fidel": I liked him personally. I found him thoughtful, educated, cultured, extremely attractive intellectually and politically, the new man of the--of Latin America, the new man of generations.

NARRATOR: In 1959 Castro went to Washington where, to politicians and public alike, he presented himself as a dedicated democrat. He laid a wreath at the statue of Abe Lincoln. He stood in silent homage at the feet of Thomas Jefferson and assured the Washington press corps that freedom of speech was safe in his hands.

Mr. CASTRO: The first thing that dictators do is finish free press, to establish censorship. There is no doubt about it, free press is the first enemy of dictatorship.

Mr. SMITH: I'm not certain that Castro ever really intended to carry out those promises--that is, promises to hold free elections, to have free press and so forth.

NARRATOR: But back in Havana Castro began to show a ruthless and authoritarian side to his character. Castro did what he could to curb mob violence and lynch law, but his idea of revolutionary justice shocked American public opinion. Batista's torturers and henchmen may have deserved their fate, but Americans thought they also deserved a fair trial.

Mr. BALOYRA: There was a circus atmosphere. There's no question that there was a kangaroo court-quality to the proceedings, a festive atmosphere. This was no longer business as usual. This was a revolution that was going to put the law, such as he construed it at the time, ahead of anything. It's also an indication of his determination to mete out very severe punishment.

NARRATOR: Castro probably did not care what effect his firing squads had on American opinion. He was already preparing for the wider war he had vowed to fight against the United States.

JORGE DOMINGUEZ, Professor, Harvard University: He deliberately lied about where he was leading the country, what were his expectations about the nature of rule, the fact that he was in fact not interested in allowing the opposition to contest his capacity to govern, the fact that he was anticipating establishing an alliance with the Soviet Union and was preparing the stage to break with the United States.

NARRATOR: Within months Castro began to nationalize American businesses--the oil refineries, the banks and the United Fruit Company.

REPORTER: September, 1960. Fidel Castro flies into New York at the suggestion of Nikita Khrushchev.

NARRATOR: The meeting with Khrushchev was a watershed. The two leaders had secret military talks and left no doubt that the Soviet Union would now defend Cuba.

REPORTER: Nikita again threatens to rain rockets on any country interfering with Castro's revolution. No doubt now that Fidel has put Cuba behind the Iron Curtain.

Prof. DOMINGUEZ: So he spent a great deal of time in 1959 and in 1960 maneuvering the United States government into stupidity and maneuvering the Cuban public to believe that in fact approaching the Soviet Union was the sensible, the good, the patriotic thing to do.

NARRATOR: [Soviet documentary] These shots were filmed by enemies of Cuba. A handful of bandits has landed on Cuban soil.

NARRATOR: As this Soviet-made documentary shows, the U.S. was now training Cuban exiles and supporting saboteurs on missions back to Cuba.

NARRATOR: [Soviet documentary] This is only a reconnaissance unit, but on its heels the whole machine of aggression may fall on Cuba. These are anxious days for Cuba. The threat of armed aggression hangs over the little island.

NARRATOR: But covert action by the CIA proved to be a double-edged sword.

Mr. RAMIREZ: [through interpreter] If the Americans hadn't existed, Castro would have had to invent them. No one has supported Fidel or his dictatorial style, as they call it in the United States, more than U.S. policy.

NARRATOR: The CIA played right into Castro's hands when it backed anti-Castro exiles and the Bay of Pigs invasion. His victory made Castro a hero to his own people and to much of the Third World. As fighting waged around him he was writing a momentous speech. He now proclaimed Cuba to be socialist.

Castro himself has claimed that it was U.S. aggression that made Cuba more radical and forced him into the arms of the Soviets.

Mr. SZULC: I don't believe that the United States pushed him into anything. Contrary to belief, I think that he went exactly where he planned to go all along, not so much ideologically, but as playing superpower against superpower.

Mr. SMITH: One might say Castro turned to Marxism-Leninism for two reasons, because he needed Soviet assistance and so it was a pragmatic decision on his part, and another because it provided the kind of ideology which would serve as a good receptacle for his own authoritarianism. Castro himself would argue strongly that he is a true Marxist-Leninist. I don't think that he is. I would agree with those who say that Castro is first of all a Fidelista. Secondly, he is a Cuban, a Latin American nationalist. And only as a poor third is he a Marxist-Leninist.

Mr. SZULC: He needed Moscow to stand up to America. He needed Moscow to survive, therefore. And this was a counterfoil in the super--in the Cold War, bipolar world, he chose that. It was absolutely pragmatic. He made a bet that the other side would win. He hitched his destiny to that.

NARRATOR: It was a gamble that would bring the world to the brink of nuclear war.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military build up on the island of Cuba. Within the past week unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island.

NARRATOR: President Kennedy's tough stand eventually forced the Soviets to ship their missiles back to Russia. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a stunning defeat for Nikita Khrushchev and for Cuba. But Fidel Castro turned even this to his political advantage.

Mr. SMITH: Without question, Castro has used the United States as the external threat which made it easier for him to galvanize support, to rally the Cuban people, and to win sympathy on the world stage.

NARRATOR: And the world was sympathetic because the threat was real. American-backed assassination attempts and CIA-supported sabotage continued unabated. In Cuba, Castro used the threat of a foreign enemy to create a sense of nationhood.

Prof. DOMINGUEZ: The building of the nation is by far the most important and enduring achievement. Fidel Castro was able to take a country that was known for its good dancing, for its good music and its love of fun and turn them into actors on the world stage.

NARRATOR: For a while it seemed that Castro's communism was going to be different. This would not be the grim monolithic Marxism of Eastern Europe, but Leninism to a Latin beat.

Mr. SMITH: They thought that Castro was going to bring socialism and uplifting of the people, a more equitable distribution of the wealth, with a more human face, that he would avoid the sort of excesses, the sort of repression that they had seen in the Soviet Union and to some extent, he did.

NARRATOR: The Cuban revolution, like others before it, saw a sudden flowering of artistic creativity. Foreign intellectuals like the former Chilean diplomat Jorge Edwards hoped for the best.

JORGE EDWARDS,Chilean Envoy to Cuba, 1971: We wanted to be optimistic. We wanted to believe that there was one revolution that was possible that wouldn't repress thought, creative writing, et cetera, et cetera, and that wouldn't fail. And so we were--it was--we were slow to understand what happened.

NARRATOR: Castro wanted Cuba to become a showcase for his brand of communism and the new socialist man. Workers and peasants did voluntary work for the common good. Radical land reforms won their loyalty and enthusiasm. Fired by Fidel's rhetoric, idealistic young Cubans climbed the steepest slopes of the Sierra Maestra to bring literacy to the remotest villagers.

NARRATOR: [Cuban documentary] A new battle, for literacy, is beginning in the Sierra Maestras.

NARRATOR: Castro promised a better life, decent homes, the end of hunger and the fear of disease.

Mr. SMITH: Up until quite recently Castro could say quite honestly that he had provided the basic material needs to all. Everyone in Cuba had access to education, access to medical care, housing. Everyone had enough to eat. The diet might have been monotonous, no frills, but no one went hungry until quite recently and that's more than any other government in Latin America can claim.

NARRATOR: Castro was determined to export his revolutionary ideals throughout Latin America. He set up special camps to train some 1,500 guerrillas a year.

Mr. EDWARDS: He said that Los Andes, which is a great mountain range in South America, would be the Sierra Maestra of America. So after that revolution in Cuba, there will be a whole continental revolution and he would be the leader of that revolution.

Mr. SMITH: Castro has always seen himself as a leader with a destiny going far beyond Cuba.

Prof. DOMINGUEZ: Fidel Castro was not Moscow's mercenary at any point. He was prepared to take the lead. He was prepared to act on his own. He was prepared boldly to take high risks, knowing that when he prevailed the Soviets would like it, that the Soviets would feel that their influence was enhanced. The Soviets would then reward Cuba and would reward Cuba economically.

NARRATOR: Because of Moscow's support, the U.S. imposed a total trade embargo on Cuba that has lasted for 30 years. But once again Castro turned this to his political advantage, according to a former Cuban director of economic planning.

MANUEL SANCHEZ PEREZ, Director of Economic Planning, (Defected December, 1984): One of the best things that could happen to Castro was the U.S. embargo. That gave him an internal excuse for all the bad things that happened in Cuba that has nothing to do with the embargo and gave him the possibility to really press the Soviets that they were obliged to supply him all the things in the world because the Americans were so bad.

NARRATOR: Castro took personal control of the Cuban economy and expected dramatic results. He ordered farm production to grow by 15 percent a year for 12 years, a rate no other country had ever achieved. He mobilized the nation as if for war and put himself in command. He marshaled whole brigades of tractors and bulldozers and ordered them to plow their way across the island. But Castro's grand scheme turned into an ecological disaster.

Former government economist Jose Luis Llovio-Menendez.

JOSE LUIS LLOVIO-MENENDEZ: He said, "Here in Cuba we have a lot of land that is very good land to plant, so we're going to plant the whole country." And they began to plow the whole country and they began to demolish all the fruit trees, everything that came with--in front of the brigade was demolished. All the birds and all the habitat of the country, everything was changed. The Cubans said at that moment that the papaya was the thing that we--they have to look at in the museum of natural history because papaya disappeared. The mango disappeared. Everything disappeared.

NARRATOR: Castro went on television to announce that he wanted to double the production of sugar, which is Cuba's biggest cash crop. Every spare acre would be planted with sugar cane. The full resources of the nation would be devoted to the harvest. Castro's policy meant that the entire Cuban economy now depended on sugar for its success or failure.

Mr. RAMIREZ: [through interpreter] Castro says Cuba can become the sole exporter of sugar and ruin all other sugar producers. His experts tell him it's impossible, but he fills all of Cuba with sugar cane, ceasing to plant other necessary crops, takes the best lands and grows a crop that doesn't pay for itself on the market and Cuba loses two to three cents on every pound of sugar that it exports.

NARRATOR: Sugar was just one in a series of failures, which included schemes for tobacco, coffee, whiskey, alligator farms and camembert cheese.

Mr. MENENDEZ: Another, he said, "We are going to have the best production of wine. Perhaps we can compete with French wines." And he began to plant grapes in the Sierra Maestra in a place called Mafo. The grapes, they grew, and they were sour--sour. They were not eatable.

Mr. RAMIREZ: [through interpreter] Castro's greatest problem is that he likes to rule, but not to govern. He begins things, then drops them after investing millions of dollars. He isn't capable of following through with anything. His only continuity is to maintain political power. Castro is an excellent head of state, but a poor administrator.

NARRATOR: Another one of Castro's pet projects, a scheme to grow giant strawberries, fared no better.

Mr. MENENDEZ: They began to grow and grow and grow and soon they were--the strawberries were this big. But what happened, they were watery. You ate the strawberry and there was no taste. There was no taste and the plants, they died.

Mr. RAMIREZ: [through interpreter] Wanting to have the biggest strawberries or the biggest melons is the wish that Cuba ceases to be the Cinderella that it was in the past. Maybe a psychoanalyst would say that Castro has some inferiority complex that he's trying to overcome with these things. Could be. Now, from a political standpoint, the reasons or motivations of a leader are of little importance. The economic consequences for Cuba of the giganticism of Castro have been disastrous.

NARRATOR: More than anything else, Castro invested his time and enthusiasm in a program to improve Cuban livestock. Castro promised to quadruple milk production in two years by cross-breeding the native Zebu with imported Holsteins.

Mr. CASTRO: [subtitles] These are the F-1's, sons of the Holstein bulls mated with Zebu cows. The Zebu cows give very little milk, but are rich in fat. The daughters inherit the high milk tendency of the Holstein and the fat of the Zebu.

NARRATOR: Castro was very proud of his prize bulls and his favorite cow, White Udder, became a national heroine.

Mr. EDWARDS: He wanted to impress us with his agricultural development--you know, the cows he had there that produced more milk than any cow in the history of humanity and things of this kind. He pretended, for instance, that he could distinguish the taste--the taste--of the different milks of the different cows and he knew the name of the cow that produced that milk. And so we had a sort of a very strange orgy of drinking milk in that house.

Mr. RAMIREZ: [through interpreter] Castro convenes a congress of cattle geneticists in 1969. The Nobel Prize winner for genetics, an Englishman, attends and introduces his ideas. Castro presents his idea of mixing Cuban cattle with Swiss cows in order to produce both meat and milk. The geneticist from England says this is impossible, so Castro boots him out of Cuba saying he's a counterrevolutionary. Then he goes ahead with the new cattle breeds, creating the F-1, F-2 and F-3 that really do have a strong resistance to the climate, but don't produce either milk or meat.

NARRATOR: Castro's genetic experiments have been very costly for Cuba. Before the revolution there were seven million head of cattle. Today there are only four million.

Mr. MENENDEZ: Fidel is always right. Fidel has the brightest ideas. Fidel has the best conception of everything because that is a part of his character. If he is mistaken, he's never guilty. Somebody else is guilty. Somebody else will be blamed for his ideas. But that is a part of Fidel's character and everybody knows that. So if you are ordered to plant, I don't know, like strawberries in the sea, you will plant it. You know it is going to be a failure, but nobody will say, "Fidel, you cannot plant strawberries in the sea" because then you are fired for disobedience to the commander in chief. Nobody will dare to do something like that.

NARRATOR: Castro was not only growing impatient with experts, but intolerant of any opinion that differed from his own.

Mr. SZULC: To allow intellectual freedom or artistic freedom, literary freedom, which meant newspapers, magazines, books, poetry, which in any way challenged the absolute rule could not be tolerated. He put an absolute end to any vestige of intellectual freedom, which remains--artistic freedom, which remains absent to this day. That's 30 years of silence. That's a hell of a long time.

NARRATOR: A grim prison system helped enforce the silence. Castro told writers and artists, "Inside the revolution, everything. Outside the revolution, nothing." But Castro decided who was inside and who was out. Those on the outside were labeled "counterrevolutionary intellectuals" and imprisoned. Castro disliked homosexuals, so they became "antisocial elements" to be jailed and brutally punished.

Even old-line communists who revered Marx and Lenin too much and Fidel Castro too little found themselves behind bars in Cuba's gulag.

Mr. SZULC: Castro, just as he could not tolerate independent liberal intellectuals, he could not tolerate communists beholden to Moscow whom he could not control. So what you are really talking about here is one single word, which is control, control, control of everything, everywhere.

NARRATOR: Here the only court of appeal was Castro's long-time confidante, Celia Sanchez.

Ms. GEYER: She was the only one who could tell him when he was wrong and say, "Stop this." And over and over I heard from political prisoners and their families that Celia would get them out, that Celia would get Fidel to let their families go.

Mr. MENENDEZ: And all the people from the Sierra Maestra or the campesinos that were with Fidel, when they have a problem they go to Celia, talk to her and if she can help, she will. If she cannot help, you are done.

NARRATOR: Little of this was being recorded outside Cuba and Castro maintained his image as revolutionary hero.

NARRATOR: [BBC-TV documentary] If you know Fidel well enough to call on him privately, you go to his apartment in Havana's 11th Street, number 1007. Castro lives very simply. His one and only marriage was dissolved in 1955. This is the first time he's allowed a film camera into his bachelor apartment. Furnishings and fittings include a rifle and a library of books, mostly on agriculture and zoology.

NARRATOR. It was an image of austere dedication. But Castro soon acquired a taste for the trappings of power. As he himself once said, "For those inside the revolution, everything."

Mr. PEREZ: He lives much better probably than, I don't know, the biggest millionaire that you can tell me now lives because he has no limit. When he say, "I want to go fishing," everybody does everything so that he can go fishing in the best way anyone can go fishing.

NARRATOR: Castro loved to go duck hunting on trips to East Europe. When shooting back home, he commandeered air force planes, which their pilots nicknamed "scarecrows."

General RAFAEL del PINO, Cuban Air Force, (Defected May 28, 1987): I remember in the air force, we have to use an airplane or a helicopter to scare the ducks, or they fly over him so he can shoot them. And two members of the ministry of the interior, they used to fly inside the airplane just to conduct the airplane, to the pilot say, "Fly more to the left, more to the right. The commander in chief, he's over there. You must scare those birds so that they fly in that direction."

NARRATOR: One scarecrow crashed after hitting a flock of ducks and all five aboard the plane were killed.

Ms. GEYER: Fidel has as many duck blinds and hunting lodges and houses on the sea and swimming pools and Japanese bowling alleys as the Eastern Europe communist dictators did.

NARRATOR: In communist Cuba, some are more equal than others. Nor is Fidel Castro the only high official to have benefited from this double standard. The evidence came to light at the embassy in Panama. Jose Luis Llovio-Menendez was a civil servant in Cuba's ministry of finance In December, 1979, he was sent to Panama to audit the books of the Cuban embassy. It was while going through the financial records there that he discovered dozens of secret bank accounts.

Mr. MENENDEZ: Then I saw Fidel's account and Raul Castro's account. In Fidel's account there was everything. He had a man that went to Panama almost--about two times a month and he bought a lot of consumer products--air conditioner, Rolex, digital watches, perfume for women, perfume and things like that--all consumer--all luxury consumer goods.

NARRATOR: One of those sent shopping was Manuel de Beunza, a former Cuban intelligence agent who posed as a businessman in Panama and Canada.

MANUEL de BEUNZA: [through interpreter] They wanted all sorts of things, from the most ridiculous to the most sublime. If they were going fishing and the batteries had run out, they would call me and wake me up to go and buy them some batteries.

NARRATOR: Castro's secret account was spending at least $25,000 a month, mostly on items for women. Other purchases went as presents to members of the ruling elite. The more favored the official the more prestigious the gift.

Mr. de BEUNZA: [through interpreter] The members of the political group headed by Fidel and Raoul Castro, the high officials of the army and the security forces, don't live like the people. They live in real capitalism. They don't lack anything that you can have in a democratic society. And they want to live that way and they want the people of Cuba to live under socialism--I mean, in a very poor way.

NARRATOR: The people living here are the mayimbes. It's an Afro-Caribbean word meaning "big shots." Mayimbes have cars, TV's and air conditioners.

Mr. MENENDEZ: One of the things that the people in Cuba resent the most is the difference of life between the mayimbe and the common worker. When you go to a very good neighborhood in Havana, you see a house that is very well painted, everybody know that a mayimbe lives there. The common people, they don't have the paint to paint the house.

NARRATOR: Off the main streets and away from the eyes of the common people, mayimbes have special subsidized restaurants where they pay 1959 prices. Mayimbes have their own shops where ordinary Cubans and TV cameras are not welcome. Mayimbes need no rationing cards.

Mr. MENENDEZ: I did not have a rationing card. I could get, you know, from the fishing ministry fish, lobster, shrimp. I could get from the state farm all the agricultural products that I wanted.

Mr. SZULC: Corruption is a--is a manipulative form of government. He has corrupted the "pure socialist man" of the Caribbean. He has tolerated corruption on lower levels, on provincial party levels. Why? Because it works for him or he thinks it works for him or he rationalizes or he does not know every detail.

Mr. SMITH: Corruption in the Cuban government is much less than corruption in most--most other governments, but it is there. It's especially galling to people because of the moral claims of the revolution. If you claim to be honest and above all this and people see that you're not, it has a more telling impact.

NARRATOR: As Cuba's revolutionary ideals faded and the economy faltered, Castro used his armed forces to win a larger role on the international stage.

Prof. DOMINGUEZ: Cuban armed forces have had a spectacular record on the world stage. Since the end of World War II, the only communist armies able to prevail militarily far, far away from home have been the armed forces of Cuba. It was not Bulgarians who fought in Angola. It was not Poles who fought in the Horn of Africa. It was Cubans. In fact, the Soviet army lost in Afghanistan, where Cubans won in three African wars. They are the only communist army loyal enough, good enough, professional enough to win.

NARRATOR: Cuba's military successes helped Castro fulfill his ambition to lead the Third World.

Mr. SZULC: It was the only Third World mini-country which was a major player in world politics. He was a big deal. He was a big-time player on the world scene.

Mr. SMITH: Nineteen seventy-nine was indeed Castro's high water mark. The Sandinistas had won in Nicaragua. Castro became the chair of the non-aligned movement. There was a hurricane that was going to strike Havana and it held off until the non-aligned summit had adjourned and people said at the time, this shows that the forces of nature are on his side.

Prof. DOMINGUEZ: Beginning in 1979 there was an element of arrogance and miscalculation that began to develop. He began to think there was a role for Cuba in the world to which there would be no limits and he was wrong. He began to forget that Cubans wanted not just glory in wars abroad, but a real improvement in their standard of living. And when the Cuba economy went into a recession in 1979 he was not prepared for it in any sense.

NARRATOR: And then in January, 1980, Castro suffered a devastating personal loss. Celia Sanchez was dead.

Prof. DOMINGUEZ: One of Fidel Castro's most important friends, in the profoundest sense of the word "friend," was Celia Sanchez. She had been by his side at the time of the guerrilla war against Batista in the 1950's. She had become his confidante, the woman who kept the top of the government together, because she kept him together.

Mr. MENENDEZ: Celia was the only person that freely Fidel could talk to about everything and she was 100 percent devoted to him without any kind of condition.

Ms. GEYER: She was the one person that I think he was really capable of caring for and her death in 1980 marked the real turn-down for Fidel. He was never the same again. That date to me marks the beginning of his decline. He began to look old. He began to make mistakes. His tactics weren't sharp. His beard grayed. He just really became a different man.

Prof. DOMINGUEZ: He was clearly depressed for a number of weeks. It--this depression made him unprepared when thousands of Cubans broke into the Peruvian embassy in Havana in early 1980, unprepared for the events that eventually led to the Mariel exile-exodus, when over 100,000 Cubans came to the United States in a period of a few weeks.

NARRATOR: Castro tried to embarrass President Carter by mixing criminals and the mentally ill with genuine refugees, but their message to the world was that Cuba was no longer worth living in. Then the American invasion of Grenada showed that Cubans no longer felt their country was worth dying for.

Ms. GEYER: When the U.S. invaded, here he had finally come to the moment of his life when Cuban troops were going to fight not Cuban exiles in Miami, but American troops invading Grenada. He announced to the Cuban people that they had died heroically, that they had died with the Cuban flag around them. And as a matter of fact, they ran. If you look at his face on the television when he was in the Havana airport receiving these troops back from Grenada, it is a gnarled, tormented face like you don't usually see on Fidel Castro. That was the most humiliating moment of his life.

NARRATOR: Even greater humiliations were in store. Rumors, allegations and finally hard evidence linked Castro's Cuba to the Colombian drug cartels and the traffic in cocaine. By 1989 the affair could no longer be swept under the carpet and Havana staged a huge drug trial. Among those tried was Cuba's most successful general, Arnoldo Ochoa. Though evidence that would have implicated Castro was kept out of court, the trial did reveal that many government officials were involved in the drug trade. They included some of Cuba's most important officials. Some even came from Castro's inner circle. Several of the accused claimed they had been following Castro's own orders.

Prof. DOMINGUEZ: But even if Castro was in no way implicated in the corrupt acts, it showed that he was no longer governing Cuba as a responsible ruler who supervised properly the behavior of his chief military officer. It showed a ruler who had lost the right to rule because he was not doing his job.

NARRATOR: Castro's greatest mistake may have been his failure to understand the historical significance of Mikhail Gorbachev. Castro's answer to perestroika and glasnost was rigidity and repression.

Ms. GEYER: Castro hates Gorbachev. I mean, he really hates Gorbachev. Gorbachev's a reformer. Fidel doesn't want to reform. It's the last thing in the world he--he's going to be the last communist, even though he never was a communist.

Prof. DOMINGUEZ: He acted on the premise that he could adopt policies that were very different from those being adopted in the Soviet Union and that somehow it wouldn't matter, and he was wrong.

NARRATOR: Thirty years ago Castro bet that the Soviet Union would win the Cold War, but when communism collapsed it left him without trading partners, without military allies and without political friends.

Mr. SZULC: Castro was perhaps the greatest victim of the end of the Cold War because he was no longer relevant. He ceased to be relevant as an international player. Today he is zero as an international player. He's zero in Nicaragua. He's basically zero in El Salvador. He's gone from Africa. So today he's back to the shrunken, pre-imperial Cuban imperial proportions of the early 60's.

NARRATOR: The world has changed, but Fidel remains the same, defiant as always, unwilling to change or surrender.

Mr. RAMIREZ: [through interpreter] Right now the biggest enemy of Fidel is the dictator Castro. He's doing more damage to himself than all his enemies. Castro today has fulfilled the fate of all leaders. One day they are the substance of what they rule. Later they become the stamping block for those they lead. It's the tragic fate of those that lead.

NARRATOR: In the countryside around San Cristobal, 30 years of revolution have hardly touched the daily lives of the campesinos, macheteros and vacceros. Now Castro is counting on their traditional skills to save his revolution when the oil and power supplies run out. So oxcarts are replacing trucks and tractors, and old-timers grind corn by hand. This is Castro's plan for Cuba's survival. It is the Cuba Fidel knew as a child. His revolution has come full circle.

Mr. CASTRO: [subtitles] And we will have for all time a fatherland with dignity, a fatherland with independence, and not a yankee colony. The fatherland must be saved. The revolution must be saved. Socialism must be saved. This is the task that today we are calling on 7.5 million Cederistas to perform. Socialism or death.

ANNOUNCER: Next time on FRONTLINE, the story of how Konosuke Matsushita, head of the largest consumer electronics firm in the world, conquered the American television industry.

EXPERT: They had a fix on the market.

ANNOUNCER: "Coming from Japan" on FRONTLINE.

Copyright (c) 1992 WGBH Educational Foundation



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