Lucy Mangan reviews the two-hour BBC Two film Cuba: Castro vs the World. [Also see related post, a response to the review, Exploring Cuba beyond stereotypes.] Read the original review at The Guardian.
It’s been so long since I experienced it – either personally or simply as a possibility in the wider world – that for a minute or two I couldn’t identify the feeling that arrived as Cuba: Castro vs the World (BBC Two) concluded. It was, I realised after rummaging through distant memory, the sense of having become better informed about some aspect of the world rather than even more flailingly confused about it.
The two-hour film, produced by Norma Percy (The Death of Yugoslavia, Inside Europe: Ten Years of Turmoil) traced the history of Cuba from 1959, when “the bearded men from the mountains” – led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara – vanquished US-backed military dictator Fulgencio Batista and began a revolution that would prove it is not the size of your country that matters, it’s what you do with it.
Castro took the island, 100 miles off the coast of Florida, added a commitment to armed communist revolution and generous Soviet subsidies, and turned it into a force to be reckoned with. The first hour of the film, shown last week, took us through the Bay of Pigs invasion, the imposition of the US economic embargo and the Cuban missile crisis, tracking the rise of the cold war and Castro’s growing facility for exporting the tools of revolutionary trade all over the world, sending weapons and soldiers to leftwing guerrilla groups in Algeria, Congo and anywhere else they could reach where the winds of change seemed to be blowing in Marx’s favour. It ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unravelling of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of its funding of Castro’s regime.
A calm, measured and well-scripted narration (voiced by Caroline Catz) took us through the facts and the interlinked whys and wherefores of Castro’s various undertakings, and the responses from allies and enemies. All was illuminated – flooded, really, with light and colour – by a plethora of people who were there, in the very thick of things, at the time: US politicians, Cuban spies and Castro confidants, Soviet officials, rebel leaders, American journalists. You would need a much more detailed knowledge of Castro’s regime and the geopolitics than the average viewer probably possesses to weigh the accuracy and assess the biases of every contribution, but the vividness with which their stories recreated key moment after key moment of history was the film’s greatest triumph.
The second hour continued in the same vein. It began with the catastrophic effects on the Cuban economy of Russia’s absence, and the exodus, in a growing flotilla of rickety boats (if you were lucky – inner tubes if you were not), of Cubans to Florida. “They swamped the system,” says Walter Mondale, “and it looked like hell.” When we reach the height of the refugee influx into the US, the man in charge of responding to the crisis pitches in: then-president Bill Clinton. Still – on camera, now – visibly furious about an earlier wave of Cuban exiles that effectively cost him his Arkansas governorship in 1981, Clinton denied history the chance to repeat itself by sending them to Guantánamo. The rest of the hour took in the tightening of the embargo after an Americanised Cuban immigrant was shot down by Castro’s forces and the Cuban Five spies were captured, and Castro’s eventual change of tactics, growing frailty and the anointing of his uncharismatic brother Raúl as successor. The weakening of the dictator’s hold over his country and the arrival of Barack Obama resulted in sanctions being lifted – and Donald Trump’s arrival resulted in that process being rapidly reversed.
The only thing missing – and I had very much expected it to be here in the second hour after marking its absence in the first – was any significant acknowledgement that Castro, in the manner of ideologues and dictators of every political stripe, was not a shining beacon of goodness. Not being the worst leader of a police state the world has ever seen shouldn’t mean that your record of suppression, illegal arrests, executions of dissidents and various other human rights abuses gets expunged. (Especially at a time when the sight of a leader with ANY kind of integrity, intelligence, vision for his people or belief system unswayed by external influences induces a warped yearning in a desperate viewer’s breast.)
That aside, it was a cogent, accessible and – thanks to the superb and superbly-deployed cast of characters – fascinating primer on the subject. Being left informed and unhysterical is a balm I can feel working still.
- This article was amended on 12 August 2020. An earlier version incorrectly stated that Raúl Castro was Fidel’s son.