In 2012, Time Magazine named Fidel Castro as one of the 100 most influential personalities of all time.
The ruler of a Caribbean Island with 10 million inhabitants would not normally rise to such notoriety. What’s different with Castro is his use of the media to advance his own personal image and message.
Castro as Orator
Castro holds the record for the longest speech ever delivered to the United Nations: 4 hours and 29 minutes, Sept. 26, 1960, according to the U.N. website. One of his longest speeches on record lasted 7 hours and 30 minutes, Feb. 24, 1998, after Cuba’s national assembly re-elected him to a five-year term as president.
Castro’s Early Years
In March of 1949, a small group of drunken and rowdy U.S. Marines climbed atop the statue of Jose Marti in the Central Park of downtown Havana. One marine defaced the statue with his urine, an act that was not unnoticed by the Cuban police and others offended that such an act could have occurred to a national symbol.
The next day, U.S. ambassador, Robert Butler, met with the Cuban foreign minister to deliver a formal apology. However, when Butler filmed the apology for the Cuban people, the U.S. ambassador’s sincerity was undermined when it became apparent he could not recall Marti’s first name.
A young Fidel Castro, then a law student and violent activist at the University of Havana, formed an honor guard to ceremoniously surround the statue overnight. The next day, Castro called for a protest demonstration at the U.S. embassy.
Fidel’s student protesters walked from the university to the U.S. embassy with rocks in hand. The crowd erupted into a throng of chanting amid the sound of breaking glass. As the students retreated to a nearby restaurant, police cars arrived to quell the ruckus.
Ambassador Butler further extended his apology by placing a wreath at the statue and by agreeing to meet the students in an event that was covered by the media.
According to Georgie Anne Geyer, in her book, Guerrilla Prince, this event marked the first time Castro’s name appeared in the Cuban press in an important way – and it was also the first time Castro used anti-American sentiment in Cuba to evoke a response from the americanos.
In April 1959, the left-leaning American Society of Newspaper Editors extended an invitation to Castro to visit the U.S. It was a huge media event that no doubt influenced his decision to topple Cuba’s then dictator Fulgencio Batista, six months after these images were taken.
Havana Hilton Tourism Celebration – 1959
One year after he spearheaded the Cuban revolution, on December 31, 1959, Castro presided over a dinner celebration as president of Cuba’s National Tourism Industry Institute. He was also Cuba’s self-appointed Prime Minister at the time.
The purpose was to lift the cloud that had descended over Cuba’s tourism industry following the revolution.
According to Cuba’s state media source, Granma, “Innumerable world figures and travel agents attended the event in the [Hilton] hotel’s Pavilion, reflecting one of the statements Fidel made in his, ‘History will absolve me’ defense – that tourism could be a significant source of income for the country. He invited the guests to visit the country’s attractions, medicinal springs and beaches, where, in his words, a climate of liberty and equality reigned.”
Also in attendance were Eugene W. Rhody, editor of the Philadelphia Tribune, and Los Angeles publicist William B. Graham, who wrote, “… I am convinced that the propaganda about Cuba published in the American press is mistaken, and gives no idea of the reality of what is happening here. Cuba is today the most outstanding example of democracy…As a journalist, I recorded more than a dozen opinions along these lines, expressed by visitors from the United States, and the following afternoon Fidel, with Castellanos and Jesús Montané, returned to the hotel to meet with travel industry representatives in Suite 420, where he took the opportunity to outline the country’s plans to develop tourism.”
In October 1960, Castro nationalized all U.S.-owned hotels in Cuba.
Shortly after the 1959 Cuban revolution, the socialist Castro government, isolated by the U.S. after the dissolution of diplomatic and trade relations in 1961, turned to the USSR for film partnerships. The Soviet government, interested in promoting international socialism, agreed to finance a film about the Cuban revolution.
According to Chale Nafus, one of the most kinetically exhilarating films in the history of cinema was almost lost forever. Premiering in 1964 in Cuba and the Soviet Union, SOY CUBA was removed from distribution after only one week in both countries, both with state-run film industries. I AM CUBA was not shown in the US until a festival screening at Telluride in 1992, only made possible by the knowledge and perseverance of Pacific Film Archive’s Edith Kramer, who tracked down a print of the virtually unknown film. Even without English subtitles, the Russian-Spanish language film and its jaw-dropping cinematography became the talk of the festival. Newly formed Milestone Films, created by the husband and wife team of Amy Heller and Dennis Doros, secured an original camera negative of SOY CUBA from Russia’s Mosfilm and struck 35mm prints with English subtitles.
Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola offered to “present” the film, a credit which would heighten awareness of the unknown treasure. Sold-out screenings at New York City’s Film Forum in 1995 led to distribution of SOY CUBA across the US, generally accompanied by rave reviews and incredulity that this film was made in 1964 and only seen 30 years later. Aspiring and even veteran cinematographers were especially amazed by the acrobatics of the camera in a pre-Steadicam era.
Comandante is a political documentary film by American director Oliver Stone. In the film, Stone interviews Castro on a diverse range of topics. Stone and his film crew visited Castro in Cuba for three days in 2002, and the film was released in 2003, having its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival early that year.
The film was partly produced by HBO and was planned for broadcast. Shortly before airtime, after Cuba executed three hijackers of a ferry to the U.S. and imprisoned more than 70 political dissidents, HBO pulled the program.
Fidel Castro was a controversial and divisive world figure. He was decorated with various international awards, and his supporters laud him as a champion of socialism, anti-imperialism, and humanitarianism, whose revolutionary regime secured Cuba’s independence from American imperialism.
Conversely, critics view him as a totalitarian dictator whose administration oversaw multiple human-rights abuses, an exodus of more than one million Cubans, and the impoverishment of the country’s economy.
Regardless of your views about Fidel Castro, there is no denying his impact as the world’s first media revolutionary.