How Hollywood rehabilitated Castro

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Sean Penn, Danny Glover, Robert Redford, Oliver Stone and Harry Belafonte.

These are just a few of the stars we have to thank for the way Fidel Castro is remembered today not as the long-time dictator of a police state that attempted to import nuclear weapons to the island nation to achieve military parity with the U.S., just 90 miles away. Instead, the obituaries all-too-often make him sound like a saint.

Even the pope sounded confused about who and what Castro truly was.

But it was the Hollywood establishment that long ago fell hook, line and sinker for Fidel’s propaganda machine, helping to rehabilitate the image of the late ruthless tyrant.

The Hollywood pilgrimages to Cuba have been going on for a long time. Let me give you a little background and tell you what no one else is willing to say about them.

About two decades ago, a good friend of mine, and one of the best investigative reporters I’ve ever worked with, Merle Linda Wolin, got a feature assignment from the entertainment magazine Premiere to visit Cuba and report on the “renowned” cinema school headed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Wolin, by way of background, was one of the founders of Mother Jones magazine, and her “progressive” credentials were impeccable. I had the pleasure of working as her editor; she served as Latin American bureau chief in Mexico City for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Though, indeed, Wolin was personally sympathetic to the causes of the left, as a reporter she always sought the truth – no matter what the assignment.

Shortly after the Sandinistas assumed power in Nicaragua in the 1980s, Wolin spent weeks on the scene, interviewing all the top officials of the new Marxist government and digging in all the right places. Her six-part “Portrait of the Enemy” series for our paper was, perhaps, the most devastating profile of the Sandinistas ever written.

So, from my point of view, she was just the right person to explore Cuba’s cinema school and its links with Oliver Stone, Sidney Pollack, Spike Lee, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and many other Hollywood icons.

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What Wolin found did not surprise me, but it did shock her editors at Premiere:

Student work at the cinema school was subject to censorship like everything else in Cuba.

Cuban intelligence agents permeated every facet of the school and watched over all activities like hawks.

Fidel and Garcia Marquez played Hollywood like a flute – entertaining stars, persuading them that the cinema school was a bastion of freedom and creativity and that real art, not propaganda, was the result.

Wolin interviewed Antonio Valle Vallejo, Garcia Marquez’s former personal assistant at the school who defected to the United States. Vallejo explained the school was little more than a Cuban propaganda operation whose principal objective was to use the film project to expand the Cuban political model throughout Latin America while improving the police state’s image around the world.

“The school is the hook for Hollywood,” said Vallejo. And, back in the early 1990s, Redford was the fish. He fell for the bait – hook, line and sinker.

Meanwhile, the story inside the story was even more interesting. When Wolin finished her major investigative piece for Premiere, her editors were aghast. They spiked the story.

“Our liberal readers will never believe this,” Wolin was told.

Despite having invested tens of thousands of dollars in the research and travel, Premiere decided not to share the information with Hollywood. Wolin switched gears and wrote the story for the New Republic.

But it’s no wonder Hollywood has never learned the painful lessons Redford learned from his exploitation by Fidel and Garcia Marquez. The entertainment industry magazine that uncovered the details never published a story for Hollywood.

So, the pilgrimages to the island police state and its famous film school continued. The names and the faces changed, but the money and influence they brought with them continued to bolster the lie that Cuba was interested in art and that its film school is somehow independent of Castro’s totalitarian political policies.

Castro killed people who disagree with him. He lined them up against the wall and shot them. He locked others up in dungeons where they never again saw the light of day, as Armando Valladares, a survivor, documented in his seminal book on the Cuban gulag.

He also used Hollywood stooges to make him look like a hero to the rest of the world.

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