Despite decades of criticism by exiled Cubans and human rights activists, Cuba's dictator, Fidel Castro, has been labeled a "genius" and a "source of inspiration to the world" by Hollywood celebrities.
Media critic Michael Medved labels the movie-star attention to Castro, "sickening." Dennis Hayes, head of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation, says Castro maintains a "cult"-like following, similar to the devotion for past figures like "Jim Jones or David Koresh."
But Saul Landau, an Emmy award-winning filmmaker who produced documentaries on Castro's Cuba, says Hollywood celebrities are realizing that a lot of the negative portrayals of Castro are inaccurate. Landau praised many of the dictator's policies, noting that Castro "has brought a greater equality in terms of wealth distribution than I guess any country in the world today."
Filmmaker Steven Spielberg visited Cuba and met with Castro in November and dined with the dictator until the early morning hours. Spielberg announced that his dinner with Castro "was the eight most important hours of my life."
Actor Jack Nicholson told Daily Variety, following his three-hour 1998 meeting in Cuba that, "He [Castro] is a genius. We spoke about everything."
Model Naomi Campbell declared that Castro was "a source of inspiration to the world."
"I'm so nervous and flustered because I can't believe I have met him. He said that seeing us in person was very spiritual," Campbell recounted of her 1999 visit to Cuba with fellow model Kate Moss, according to the Toronto Star.
The stars have also praised Castro's economic system. Comedian Chevy Chase, at Earth Day 2000 in Washington D.C., said he believes "socialism works" and explained that "Cuba might prove that." Chase added, "I think it's conclusive that there have been areas where socialism has helped to keep people at least stabilized at a certain level."
American media moguls, including the president of CBS TV, the head of MTV and the editor of Vanity Fair, visited Cuba in 2001 and had nothing but praise for the Caribbean Island. One member of the entourage described Cuba as "the most romantic, soulful and sexy country I've ever been to in my life," according to the New York Post.
'Experience of a Lifetime'
Other Hollywood celebrities who have visited Cuba and Castro include Robert Redford, Spike Lee, Sidney Pollack, Oliver Stone, Woody Harrelson, Danny Glover, Ed Asner, Shirley MacLaine, Alanis Morissette, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kevin Costner.
Costner visited Cuba in 2001 for the premiere of his film on the Cuban Missile Crisis, Thirteen Days, and attended a private screening with Castro. The film depicts the Kennedy administration behind the scenes during the October 1962 crisis.
Costner was clearly impressed with Castro, stating at a Havana press conference, "It was an experience of a lifetime to sit only a few feet away from him and watch him relive an experience he lived as a very young man."
Movie portrayals have also reflected Hollywood's enthusiasm for Castro's Cuba, even while infuriating cultural critics like David Horowitz, who called the 1990 film Havana, starring Robert Redford and directed by Sydney Pollack, "grotesque," for its pro-Castro sentiment.
Another film currently showing in the U.S. is called Fidel. The 2002 movie is being billed as a biographical documentary of Castro, featuring the Cuban dictator as well as Harry Belafonte and Ted Turner.
The movie presents such a favorable view of Castro that New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott said of the film: "This is an exercise not in biography but in hero worship."
Last week, one of the stars of Fidel, Belafonte, was back in Cuba for a film festival and told reporters that "every day, more and more Americans are opposed to the war machine being driven by George W. Bush," according to a report from Cuba's state-run Radio Havana.
Belafonte accused Bush of using the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to further his desire "to control the world militarily, politically, economically and culturally."
Among their key political causes, Hollywood activists are calling for the U.S. government to end the trade embargo imposed on Cuba in 1961. However, Bush has said he will not lift the embargo until Castro's government honors human rights, releases political prisoners and holds free and fair elections.
'Lovesick Rock Groupies'
Hayes, executive vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation, an organization dedicated to fighting for democracy and human rights in Cuba, believes Castro's personal mystique may be blinding the celebrities to the harsh realities of life in Cuba.
"You have to remember that Fidel Castro is a cult leader, much along the same lines as Jim Jones or David Koresh. He's a megalomaniac with a messiah complex and people go and fall into his orbit," Hayes told CNSNews.com.
He believes otherwise rational individuals can "lose all context of reality" in Castro's presence.
"People turn into lovesick rock groupies when they get into his presence. This is the impact that cult leaders have on people," Hayes added.
Furthermore, he insisted, celebrities should not be praising Castro when they don't understand the situation in Cuba.
"It's very sad, and I wish Steven Spielberg and Danny Glover or any of these other guys would spend a little time with some of the political prisoners in jail before they make broad stroke comments about Cuba and Cuban society," Hayes said.
He said he hopes celebrities will "open their eyes" before they promote Castro's Cuba.
"Remember, this is a man who has killed tens of thousands of his own citizens. He's killed over 30 Americans, he harbors fugitives from U.S. justice, he has supported terrorism and narco-terrorism throughout the hemisphere, causing untold thousands of other citizens' deaths," Hayes said.
He described Castro's rule as a "ruthless dictatorship that denies people the freedom of speech, the freedom of press, the freedom of association," and said he cannot understand how celebrities miss these points.
"What is the problem here? Short of Saddam Hussein, it's hard to find a figure in the world that has caused more human misery than Fidel Castro," Hayes added.
He said he finds it ironic that Spielberg produced the film Schindler's List, about the German slaughter of Jews during World War II, yet cannot comprehend the reality of Cuba.
"[Spielberg is] totally blind to gulags in Cuba. [During his recent visit to Cuba] he made no mention of the thousands of people who are harassed and imprisoned on a daily basis," Hayes added.
Michael Medved, entertainment critic and author of the book Hollywood vs.America, describes the celebrities' support of Castro as "sickening." He believes they are naturally drawn to Castro because "part of the Hollywood mindset is an almost childlike fantasy to escape to fantasy worlds."
"The one characteristic we connect most to really successful people in Hollywood is immaturity and that fits very well into utopian paradises of various kinds, like Cuba," Medved explained in an interview with CNSNews.com.
He maintains that most celebrities can't handle their wealth and become "animated by guilt," causing their political views to become skewed.
"One of the ways people deal with that guilt is they become revolutionaries, and Castro is perfect for them because he is an intellectual," Medved said.
"[Castro] is a rich guy, he's always been a rich guy, he's from the elite like most of Hollywood," he added.
Medved expressed surprise over Spielberg's comments, that his visit to Cuba had been the "eight most important hours" of his life.
"Not the hours when he met his wife, not the birth of his children, it was the eight hours he spent with Fidel," Medved said.
David Horowitz, co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Center for the Study of the Popular Culture and a former 1960s radical, said Spielberg's comments about Castro were revealing.
"It just shows that Spielberg may be a talented filmmaker, but he hasn't got any moral brains," Horowitz said.
Medved believes the left-leaning Hollywood celebrities are drawn to the meager existence of the Cuban people.
"They say, 'isn't it wonderful, [Cubans] are all driving these vintage cars and they keep them running. Well, it is not so wonderful because they are too poor to get anything else," he said.
Another key factor in Castro's appeal to Hollywood is his "machismo" or sex appeal, according to Medved.
"[Castro] has acknowledged that he personally slept with over 1,000 women...it would be fairly common for Castro to go through four or five women a day," he said.
"For people who have invested a great deal of life proudly trying to see how many beautiful women you can conquer, there is a natural tendency to identify with Bill Clinton or Fidel Castro," Medved added.
Horowitz called Hollywood's close relationship with Castro a "national disgrace," which he alleged has "been going on for years and years."
Castro is a "sadistic monster," Horowitz said and "the longest surviving dictator in the world." Celebrities gloss over these realities, he contended.
"[Hollywood] can't tell a dictator from a Democrat or a country deliberately and systemically impoverished by its leader. These people don't know anything," Horowitz said.
"It's just depressing to even talk about it. They are useless idiots, if I may turn [Vladimir] Lenin's comment around," he said, referring to the Russian leader's description of naive Western journalists as "useful idiots."
Robin Bronk, executive director of the Creative Coalition, a liberal celebrity-based activist group whose founders include Ron Silver, Christopher Reeve, and Susan Sarandon, believes many Hollywood celebrities are getting a bum rap when it comes to political activism.
"Celebrity activism is as old as [silent film actress] Gloria Swanson," she said.
"We live in a society here in the U.S. where celebrities are put out there as opinion leaders," Bronk explained. "Just as they have their agent and their manager and their publicists, they are expected to have their issue," she added.
Noting that the activism can be effective "if utilized the right way," Bronk conceded that "there are a lot of spokespeople who are speaking on behalf of issues that are not necessarily the best spokespeople."
She also said Hollywood is dominated by liberals because, "typically people in the arts tend to be more liberal and less conservative. I think it's the nature of that constituency."
'Cuba is King'
Filmmaker Saul Landau, an Emmy award-winning filmmaker who produced four separate documentaries on Castro's Cuba for PBS and CBS, including a 1974 CBS documentary with Dan Rather, thinks Hollywood's assessment of Cuba reflects reality.
Landau rejects the idea that Castro is duping celebrities. "How the hell is he duping them? They've got two eyes, they've got two ears," he told CNSNews.com. "Cuba is the king of all of Latin American countries," Landau said.
He believes Hollywood stars have seen the truth in Cuba. "You don't have millions of homeless people in Cuba, you don't have 42 million people who don't have access to medical care," Landau said, comparing Cuba to the United States. Cuba outperforms the United States "when you talk about the right to food, the right to shelter, the right to a job, the right to a retirement," according to Landau. These issues are "less than rigorously enforced in the U.S." he added.
Landau also believes Castro's detractors have exaggerated his human rights abuses. "I have not seen any evidence that he is a sadistic monster or a brutal dictator," he explained, adding that he has little regard for Cuban American refugees. "People in Miami who are running their anti-Castro lobby, are, in my opinion, not representative of the Cubans in the country," Landau said. "Cuban human rights violations take the form of procedural violations. They involve legal and political rights rather than economic and social rights," he added. Landau did not deny that Castro's rule has included suppression of a free press and multi-party electoral process, but said like in any revolution, "they broke a lot of eggs" to achieve their goals. He also made it clear that he is no fan of President George W. Bush.
"It's very difficult coming from the U.S., to imagine a political leader with whom you could have an intelligent conversation. Well, I guess you could with Bill Clinton, but you certainly can't with the moron that is in there today," Landau said. Castro has a "religious aura" about him, according to Landau. "When he comes into room, a wind follows him. He intimidates people by his very presence, he emanates, he vibrates power," he explained.
'Truth Needs to Come Out'
There are a few celebrities who make no attempt to hide their disdain for Castro. Actor Andy Garcia, a Cuban refugee, recently expressed his frustration over what he sees as the ignorance on the part of many in Hollywood and in America to Castro's Cuba. "Sometimes, you feel like what's really going down in Cuba is protected in a way by the American media, and it's a shame, because the truth needs to come out. People need to be aware of what's really going on down there," he told Fort Lauderdale's City Link newspaper in October.
Garcia said he was proud of his 2000 HBO movie, "For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story." The film profiles a jazz musician who fled Cuba for America. Garcia was blunt in his assessment of his native country. "For me, there's no substitute for liberty and freedom. People die for that," he said.
Singer Gloria Estefan is another Cuban refugee who feels frustrated that people don't understand the Castro government. Estefan fled the communist nation when she was two years old. "People don't have a lot of information, and when they ask me about it, I tell them about the drama of exiles, the repression, the firing squads, the horror of communism," she told Exito Online in 1997. "My whole family paid a heavy price for freedom. My father not only fought in the Bay of Pigs, he volunteered to fight in Vietnam. He fought for these same freedoms," Estefan said.
"How could I forget that Fidel Castro was the person who did me so much harm?" she asked.