Filming Fidel

(Editors’ Note: In May 1968, SAUL LANDAU received a call in San Francisco where he worked for the local public television station. From Havana, Dr. Rene Vallejo, Fidel Castro’s doctor and confidante, said: “Come down with your crew as soon as you can.” In other words, Castro was ready to cooperate on a film portrait for public television. Landau and crew arrived shortly thereafter and waited for seven weeks. This first of a series is a Landau’s diary and commentary about the jeep trip with Fidel through Oriente Province in July 1968.)

On July 5, 1968, at 3 a.m., the phone rang. “Be in the lobby at 6 a.m. Bring the whole crew and all your film equipment.”

Three hours after receiving the curt message from Dr. Rene Vallejo, Fidel Castro’s physician and friend, two uniformed men walked briskly into the Hotel Habana Libre (formerly Hilton) and helped me and the crew load cameras, lights, tripods and a hundred rolls of film and audio tape stock into two 1958 Mercedes Benz.

None of us (myself, Cameraman Irving Saraf, Soundman Stanley Kronquest and Assistant and wife Nina Serrano) had any idea where we were going as the cars drove west through morning dew and pulled into a military airport in San Antonio de los Baños, about 30 miles west of Habana. From there we flew for twenty minutes on the Soviet jet to Varadero.

Fidel strode toward the jet. We shook hands and he apologized for keeping us waiting – only seven weeks – explaining it had taken him longer than he calculated to finish writing the introduction to Che’s Diary (the Bolivian notes Dr. Ernest Guevara had kept while he commanded the 1966-7 guerrilla expedition. Bolivian Rangers trained by U.S. Special Forces, with CIA officials nearby, captured and then murdered Che in October 1967).

His face showed lines of stress as he talked, without turning on the camera. “He was betrayed,” he explained, a bitter tone in his voice. “The strategy was not to blame. The Bolivian Party (Communist) promised they would provide the expedition with supplies, information, food and weapons and also open an urban front, so that the foco guerrillero could function properly. Monge (head of the Bolivian CP0) agreed on this and then reneged without telling us.

As the plane flew over Matanzas, heading east, Fidel began to describe how the people in Moscow had undermined the revolutionary agenda in Latin America, a theme he had stressed in his January 13, 1968, speech commemorating the closing pf the Cultural Congress held in Havana. He had more than implied his disdain for the Soviet leaders when he referred to official Marxism as suffering from “pathological stiffening.” He went further. “When we see sectors of the clergy becoming revolutionary forces, [Liberation Theology movement] how shall we resign ourselves to seeing sectors of Marxism [Soviet Politburo] becoming ecclesiastic forces?”

He followed that startling criticism with a pointed joke. “We hope, naturally, that our saying these things will not bring about our excommunication, [laughter] nor, of course, bring the holy inquisition down upon us.”

After his speech, the Soviets had not withheld oil, but relations clearly remained cool. Fidel’s facial expressions as he spoke of Che’s courage showed pain. Then, he changed the subject.

“So, what are the rules for filming?”

I said we would film unless specifically told not to. He agreed. I gave him a Country Joe and the Fish album, explaining that this combined rock and social consciousness. He thanked me, albeit I thought I caught an expression of skepticism. He asked for his thoughts about the anti-war and civil rights movements and black power. We gave him a brief explanation of how Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s civil rights movement and SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] had split and how black power had arisen as a result of the experience of black organizers in the South.

He compared racial discrimination in pre revolutionary Cuba to that of the United States. “There existed a clear level of discrimination in Cuba, but not with the degrees of hatred in your country.” Castro related how the revolution had issued laws to end discrimination. He concluded that “in the United States imperialism and racial discrimination are tied together. You will have to liberate not only the black people but the white people as well.”

The plane landed some 40 minutes after we took off in Holguin, in northern Oriente Province. We unloaded, the crew into one jeep, I with a small 16 mm Ariflex camera in the jeep with Fidel. We sped off to the El Mate Dam, which Fidel would inaugurate. We saw signs of towns that became famous thirty five years later — Alto Cedro, Mayari, Marcane — thanks to the Buena Vista Social Club album.

We drove through countryside of newly cut cane fields, with large sugar mills nearby. Rural Cuba moved slowly, but Fidel’s jeep caravan sped past small farms with tall corn and a few pigs and state farms with malanga and yucca growing. We passed campesinos on horseback and sitting on rickety wagons.

The July heat baked the jeeps, but Fidel did not perspire. He talked about the importance of development above all things. He knew how many dams Cuba had, the output of its various energy systems and also the figures he thought necessary to transform the island into a modern country.

The jeeps pulled up alongside the Contramaestre River, where a newly built dam stood. Fidel jumped out and greeted a waiting committee. We set up the tripod and gazed at thousands of people waiting to hear their “maximo lider” speak.

After a few arm up speakers finished explaining that the new dam would serve the entire region, Fidel, after much applause and a brief greeting to the crowd, continued with the thoughts he had begun expressing in the jeep.

“A country that had lived with technical backwardness under economic exploitation did not even have the chance to try to train a minimum number of trained technicians to perform these tasks, without which there would be no way to emerge from poverty, misery, and absolute dependence on uncontrollable forces of nature.”

In the crowd, peasants and young workers listened avidly. In the absence of newspapers, Fidel had become in Lee Lockwood’s words, “Cuba’s living newspaper.” He gave information and explained.

“We are not inaugurating this dam with the idea that we have done a great thing. This is an important dam because it is one of the first, because it became a school, because it gave us experience, because it was built with the enthusiasm, goodwill, courage, and the tenacity of our workers. We are inaugurating a dam that is simply the beginning of the enormous water resources undertaking that must be carried out throughout the country.”

Dr. Vallejo, who I had met in 1960 on my first visit to Cuba, whispered in my ear. “I hope this trip will be a continuation of your education.” He referred to a conversation six years earlier when he directed INRA (the Agrarian Reform Institute and most powerful force for change at the time) and he picked me up hitchhiking on a road near Santiago de Cuba. I told him I had left graduate school to see the revolution. He asked what I thought revolution was and I gave him an academic answer about changing economic and social systems. He laughed and patted me on the back. “It’s also a very profound change in how people view the world,” he said. “You will see.”

Castro continued. “No manual and no words describe what a revolutionary installation is. Perhaps many thought that on the day after winning the fight with weapons, we would become heirs of abundance, take full possession of the wealth, when the only certainty was that one day after the victory with firearms, we would begin the time of constructing the country, the time for building the wealth of the future.”

Vallejo acted as a kind of guide and interpreter of Fidel’s speech. “He is a teacher, you understand, for people who never went to school but must learn based on instinct and experience.”

Fidel’s tone rose in pitch as he enunciated his vision for the future. “Many good things may have been done by the revolution to liberate the people from the exploitation of their work as in the past, to liberate the peasants from exploitation by landowners, to liberate the workers from exploitation by the rich. Perhaps nothing can compare with what a revolution signifies when it liberates man from dehumanized, unproductive work, when it liberates man from working conditions that are barely different from those performed by animals and allows him to work under conditions incomparably more human. When there is no man in this country who has to cut cane, when there is no man who has to plow behind a yoke of oxen, when there is no man who has to use a hoe to cut weeds [several words indistinct] does not have to perform that work, then the revolution will have performed one of its most human accomplishments and will have moved from working conditions fit for beasts to working conditions that are truly human.”

After the speech, we toured the dam. I checked the tape Stanley had recorded.

“We have had to win a battle against time. We have had to overcome the backwardness of centuries in just a few years..How many stories have we heard about families who died in the past because they had no way to move in time, that is, members of the family died because they had no means to get to a hospital in time! Today, hospitals are scattered throughout the mountains. Nevertheless, roads are needed, and not a single place in the country will remain isolated. No one will be isolated, particularly when there are so many people who are happy because this dam has been finished.”

Fidel asked the engineers questions about the height of the installations. Then we sped off to make camp for the night.

* * *

In the late afternoon of July 5, 1968, Fidel’s jeep headed a caravan of five Soviet-made vehicles. We drove south along back roads toward the Sierra Maestra. The paved roads gave way to dirt trails and I began to get some exercise while sitting: my kidneys not only experienced unusual up, down and sideways patterns, but as the jeep bounced I got jabbed by the holstered pistol of Comandante Faustino Perez, who sat next to me or by the cartridge of Comandante Leyte, my other neighbor in the back seat. Perez, a doctor and Minister of Health, had joined Castro’s rebels in 1955, in Mexico.

Faustino became a leader of the 26^th of July Movement, named after the day in 1953 when Castro and 158 comrades attacked Fort Moncada to start the insurrection. He met with Fidel in Mexico, helping to prepare the guerrillas for their December 1956 invasion of Cuba on the yacht Granma. After Batista’s forces ambushed the arriving expedition, Faustino stayed with Fidel for two weeks before they met up with Raul and other warriors at Cinco Palmas. Faustino became a captain and a member of Fidel’s high command. Fidel then sent him to Habana to lead the urban underground in carrying out acts of sabotage against the Batista dictatorship and to support the guerrillas in the Sierra.

After organizing the failed general strike of April 1958, Faustino rejoined the guerrillas. After the victory he headed the Ministry of Recovery of Ill Gotten Gains. In 1961, he fought at the Bay of Pigs and subsequently in the fight to combat the “Counterrevolutionary Bandits” in the Escambray Moutains of central Cuba. He also was Cuba’s first Minister of Hydraulic resources and a Member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. He served in a variety of leadership positions before he died in 1992 at age 72.

Comandante Guillermo Garcia drove. The 28-year-old was the first campesino [rural worker/farm worker] to join Fidel’s guerrillas in the Sierra. He became their guide and quickly rose to become second in command to Juan Almeida in the Third Front (Guantanamo) in Oriente. He became a Party Central Committee Member and Vice President of the State Council. He also served as Minister of Transportation.

Fidel rode shotgun. He smoked cohibas, one after another, and resumed his commentary on the Soviet perfidy in Bolivia. I tried to allow the lush scenery and the bucolic atmosphere to etch itself into my mind along with the harsh words Fidel spoke about the “cowards in the Kremlin.”

Flourishing mango trees and spindly papayas, broad yucca leaves and deep green corn stalks amid acres of recently cut sugar cane land – the setting of Central Oriente Province. I asked Fidel to elaborate on his remark made on January 13 in his speech closing the cultural Congress, where he alluded to ecclesiastical thinking in Marxist circles.

“What kind of revolutionaries refuse to support revolution?” he asked rhetorically. Irving and Stanley rode behind us in another jeep, damn it! We were missing Fidel on revolution and the USSR. So, I tried to tape record in my mind. “We do not think for a minute that the Bolivian Party betrayed Che and the other compañeros [comrades] on their own volition. We know who dictates to Monje (Party chief). They will say that “now is not the moment for revolution.” Or they will justify their treachery on the grounds of not wanting to “upset the delicate strategic balance with the imperialists.” So, why call themselves Marxists? Some of the religious people who have associated themselves with Liberation Theology have taken courageous positions. I don’t mean only Camilo Torres (the Colombian priest who joined the guerrillas and died in action.).”

The cigar smoke filled the jeep as we pulled into a rustic area where tents had been erected – presumably the place we would spend the night. The neighbors, an elderly couple, their children and grandchildren leaned against the fence, staring at the entourage of Cuban leaders. An ancient woman said: “Now, I can say I have seen him in the flesh.” She let out a long sigh.

“Papito,” getting out of his jeep laughed sympathetically. Jorge “Papito” Serguera, who ran Cuban radio and TV, and in 1963 was Cuba’s Ambassador to revolutionary Algeria and major contact for Che Guevara’s Congo mission in 1964. He was a lawyer and had just received his doctorate in Philosophy when he joined the guerrillas. As director of TV and Radio, Papito established a “hardline” reputation, in contrast with his gregarious personality and lifestyle. In 1965-66, debates emerged among Cuban leaders about proper behavior and what music to broadcast. In these years, a campaign put idlers and homosexuals in work camps (UMAP). Silvio Rodriguez (Cuba’s Bob Dylan) could not appear on radio. Papito was said to have even favored banning the Beatles. I had a few elliptical conversations with him before meeting with Fidel and he gave me a friendly smile as we approached the waiting neighbors.

“They’re islanders,” Vallejo explained to Fidel.

“Naturally, they’re islanders,” he replied. They live in Cuba, an island.”

“No,” Vallejo laughed. “They’re from the Canary Islands.”

“So that makes them double islanders,” quipped Fidel as he extended his hand to an ancient woman leaning across the fence. He joked with the “islanders” for a few minutes, congratulating the older woman on being a great grandmother. “My mother didn’t even want to become a grandmother,” he laughed. We filmed in the low light, but had to quit when Fidel accepted the family’s invitation to have coffee.

About thirty people piled into a dark bohio (the straw roofed, dirt floor hut that Cuban peasants have lived in for centuries) only by a kerosene lantern. Remarkably, the peasant women remained composed, at least outwardly, as they served the unexpected guests. The women must have run to their neighbors to borrow demi tasse size cups, from which we drank the strong, sweet and aromatic brew.

Bodyguards showed us to our tent, with primitive cots with a sheet to cover us. For dinner, Fidel had promised mule meat. But, luckily, Pedro, the cook, had prepared a more traditional roast, tough but tasty. In the center of each of the three tables under the mess tent, sat large bowls of beans and rice. The table setters had placed bottles of water beside each place.

Fidel spoke about the importance of hydraulic resources and the genetics of cattle breeding, a theme he would elaborate over the next days. His knowledge of both subjects impressed me. He said he had begun immersing himself in books about animal husbandry and genetics so that Cuban cattle could produce efficiently, both for meat and milk.

He talked about the need for proper nourishment as part of a development strategy. “Milk,” he explained, “is an excellent source of protein and contains other important nutriments. We must not only expand dairy production, but think about exporting dairy products. We also must produce huge quantities of meat, which will require an accelerated growth of good cattle breeding.”

He talked about how the Cuban Brahmans and Zebu cows (from Africa) produced little quantity and poor quality of milk and meat and compared them the Hosteins, whose milk production ran up to nine times more than the local cattle.

By 1970, he said, “we’ll need to produce some 4 million liters a day.” And by 1972, 12 million. We can do this by not eating the females.”

We finished our meat, drank another little cup of Cuban coffee and retired to our tents. Irving filmed Fidel’s tent, where the lantern burned when all the others had gone out. He had taken a text to bed on the genetics of cattle breeding and Waldo Frank’s biography of Simon Bolivar. The books would become conversational food for tomorrow’s breakfast.

SAUL LANDAU is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. His FIDEL film is available on DVD. His new book, A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD, will be published by Copunterpunch Press.





SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.