Lloyd Billingsley: Books and Movies by Cubans Themselves

Reprinted from The Sacramento Bee.

Former California legislator Tom Hayden contends that key episodes in Cuban history are “best recalled” through “The Godfather: Part II” (“50 years later it’s time for closure and moving on”; Forum, Dec. 21). Those who seek actual knowledge of Cuba will find it in two films by actual Cubans.

When Cuban Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa returned from his military campaign in Africa, “8A,” a play on his name, began to appear on walls all over the island. Cubans believed the popular general was the only one with a chance to topple Fidel Castro’s communist dictatorship. Castro knew it, too.

He held a show trial for Ochoa and put it on satellite television. Cuban filmmaker Orlando Jimenez Leal taped it and made the documentary “8A.” Viewers can see the regime’s lawyers demanding that their clients get the death penalty.

Castro agreed and on July 13, 1989, duly carried out the sentence by firing squad, just like back in the day. No appeal process, and no more threat from Arnaldo Ochoa and others.

In “Improper Conduct,” Jimenez Leal and cinematographer Nestor Almendros portrayed the Castro regime’s repressions against political dissidents, journalists, poets and homosexuals. The New York Times called the film “convincing,” and former Castro supporter Susan Sontag said, “The discovery that homosexuals were being persecuted in Cuba shows how much the left needs to evolve.”

Hayden has written a new book, “Listen Yankee! Why Cuba Matters.” Sounds fascinating, but readers might want to compare it to books by actual Cubans.

In “Against All Hope,” which has been compared to Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon,” Cuban dissident Armando Valladares charts 20 years in Castro’s prisons, and the violence he and other political prisoners suffered. Arrested in 1960, Valladares was not freed until 1982, through the efforts of French President Francois Mitterand and human rights organizations.

In “Family Portrait With Fidel,” Carlos Franqui charts the Cuban Revolution from 1959 to 1964. Franqui broke ranks over Castro’s shift to Soviet communism, after which “nothing worked.” The privations of the regime get extensive treatment in Heberto Padilla’s novel, “Heroes are Grazing in My Garden.”

In “The Longest Romance,” Humberto Fontova calculates that between 65,000 and 85,000 people have died trying to escape Cuba, 30 times the number of casualties at the Berlin Wall. Cuba’s prison population includes Eusebio Penalver, “the world’s longest suffering black political prisoner.”

Hayden has written a great deal about himself but recently showed up in “Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.” Author Lee Ellis was shot down over North Vietnam, imprisoned and tortured. Americans were kept in cages with their legs tied together and arms laced behind the back until the elbows touched and shoulders pulled out of joint.

Some were kept awake for two weeks and beaten, but the treatment wasn’t just physical. As Ellis explains, the guards piped in propaganda broadcasts by Hayden, a “regular speaker” who supported the regime and said the reports of torture were nothing but lies.

Hayden issued an apology of sorts, but his worshipful public relations for the Cuban regime questions his sincerity. That regime remains a one-party military dictatorship and massive violator of human rights. So Amnesty International reports will also serve as helpful companions to Hayden’s new book.