Portrayals of Cuba as a revolutionary theme park have become such a cliché over the years that even writing critiques of these mechanical depictions of the island has come to feel rather tiresome and passé — all bearded guerrilleros, cadillacs and mafioso.
And yet the BBC appears to think we need more of this stuff. The first instalment of its new two-part Cuba: Castro vs the World aired last week and the second instalment is on BBC Two tomorrow. It is a piece of hagiography that is resplendent with all the familiar and cartoonish clichés about Cuba and its deceased dictator Fidel Castro.
To be sure, the late Cuban revolutionary leader was a complex figure who ought to be placed in a proper historical and geographical context. This is especially true with regard to the military and economic aggression towards the island by the United States. “History will absolve me,” Castro famously said at his trial for insurrection against the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1953. “Yes”, runs a popular Cuban joke, “but geography condemns you”.
However, as Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara once put it, Cuba’s trajectory since the Revolution was “half the fruit of constraint and half the result of choice”. Sixty years after Castro came down triumphantly from the mountains, Cuba remains an oppressive one-party state where the Communist Party’s hold on power has more to do with its Stasi-trained secret police than Castro’s famous ‘charisma’.
And yet, you wouldn’t glean any of this from watching Cuba: Castro vs the World, because the BBC has decided to serve up a piece of fawning hagiography in which the strongest critique of Castro mustered over the course of two hours is that the late dictator “has only one defect, that he doesn’t know how to do anything by half measures”?
One would hate to see what a country run by mere mortals would look like considering the impoverished state of contemporary Cuba. That comment, though, like so many others in the film, is made by a Cuban communist apparatchik who — what did the BBC expect? — has only obsequious praise for the deceased dictator.
Interestingly, these portrayals of Cuba as a plucky underdog are not typically made by believing communists (who are nowadays mostly teenage keyboard warriors). Instead, one assumes it is good liberals who put together this programme — precisely the people who would find it impossible to live on an island where permission from the government is required for just about anything.
Many of us in the liberal democracies want a romantic story to believe in; Cuba continues to fit this idealistic bill. The island is far enough away that one is never likely to encounter any inconvenient facts, like the grinding poverty that is largely a product of a moribund command economy, or the political dissidents tortured in Castro’s grim prison system (Cuba won’t even let Amnesty into its prisons).
Decades after there was anything much to celebrate about Fidel Castro’s decrepit revolution, Cuba apparently still remains the acceptable face of dictatorship. Tune in to the BBC this week — you’ll see what I mean.