No-one ever frightened the powers-that-be in Washington more than Fidel Castro. No-one ever challenged their hegemony more effectively, not just with his powerful rhetoric but above all in action, driving out a dictator and installing socialism ninety miles south of Florida. And no-one has ever been more vilified for doing so.
A revolution, he said, is not a bed of roses, and yes he made mistakes. Yes, the revolution he led dealt harshly with its enemies, but it was never Stalinist. It brought social justice, the best education and health systems in Latin America, the best example of international solidarity – above all for a country so small – and many other achievements, even though, yes, he sometimes misjudged economic reality.
His charisma was extraordinary and so was his intellect, and no-one was a more enthralling orator. I heard him speak twice. Once was a four-hour speech at a rally in the Plaza de la Revolución (I was grateful that as foreign guests we were given seats). The first half was about domestic affairs, and a lot of it passed me by, but I was riveted by the second half, the most penetrating analysis of international relations I had ever heard (or read). The second time was when he spoke – for only 45 minutes – one year at the closing ceremony of the Havana Film Festival, when Holly Aylett and myself were making a film about the festival, ‘Havana Report’, for Channel Four.
At the end of the festival, when we were getting clips from a number of films to include in ours, we had to grab what we wanted from the prize winners double quick, because he had asked to see them. He was also accused by his enemies of being a cultural tyrant, but when I was researching at the ICAIC for my book on Cuban cinema, I found no evidence of it. Has history absolved him? It already has, of course. But it isn’t over.