Vapid Cuban Documentarian Unwittingly Stumbles into Country's Despairs

Jon Alpert spent decades asking incredibly dumb questions of Fidel Castro.


Cuba and the Cameraman. Available now on Netflix.

'Cuba and the Cameraman'
'Cuba and the Cameraman.' Netflix

Perhaps the pedants are right and Lenin never actually used the phrase "useful idiots" to describe communist camp followers in the West. If so, it's only because he never met the filmmaker Jon Alpert. Alpert has been regularly visiting Cuba for 45 years to interview Fidel Castro and in all that time, he's never asked a meaningful question.

You think I'm exaggerating? I sooooooo wish. Consider Alpert's round-trip from Havana to New York with Castro in 1979, when the dictator was planning to address the United Nations. Cuba's army was intervening in Ethiopia, its economy had face-planted, and its domestic misery index was so high that the island would soon erupt into the Mariel boatlift, with 120,000 Cubans fleeing to Miami within a couple of months.

Alpert was the only reporter traveling aboard Castro's plane and spent much of the trip, both coming and going, interviewing him. Here are some of the questions Alpert might reasonably have been expected to ask:

Two decades after you threw off what you called the yoke of American corporate imperialism, why do Cubans still need ration cards? Why is a tenth of the population living outside Cuba? Why are 15,000 Cuban combat troops mucking around in Ethiopia when you can't keep food on the table at home? Are you ever going to hold elections?

Alpert, unfortunately, didn't have time to get to any of those. As you can see in appalling detail in his 2015 documentary A Trip with Fidel, he was too busy on Castro's pajamas and diet:

"What do you wear around the house?"

"Did you pack anything special?"

"Do you take all your food with you?"

I'm not sure how useful that was—even Castro seems barely able to keep a straight face when Alpert clamors to see the presidential bed in his hotel suite–but it's surely Idiocy, the capital "I" not a typo.

Alpert's newest fan letter to Castro, Cuba and the Cameraman, contains much of this same idolatry. Here's Alpert, interrupting a delegate to Cuba's Communist Party congress who's in the middle of a standing ovation for a Castro speech, to ask if she likes Fidel. (I don't want to break the exquisite dramatic tension of the narrative by giving away her answer.) Or cornering Fidel himself in another one of those exclusive interviews.

Q. Do you have a message for the people of the United States?

A. Always a message of friendship for the people of the United States for their hardworking spirit.

Even when Alpert inadvertently asks a question that might lead Castro into swampy territory, there's never any follow up. When Alpert queries the Maximum Leader, during a visit to the United Nations, how he feels about a group of anti-Castro demonstrators across the street from his hotel, Castro blandly salutes the nobility of dissent. "I admire those who are against, because they are active," he says. "They move around. They work." That virtually begs for a question about Cuban dissidents like Armando Valladares or Ana Rodriguez, then both nearing the end of their second decades in hellhole prisons for defying the regime. None is forthcoming.

Watching even a few minutes of Cuba and the Cameraman comes at the cost of a fearful number of brain cells. (And if you sit through the scene in which Alpert's young daughter asks Castro to sign a note to get her out of school, make sure there's an ICU located nearby.) Yet, however unintentionally, Alpert has introduced some revealing moments into his film.

Cuba and the Cameraman is partly constructed from new material Alpert shot late last year around the time of the death of Castro. (He even got a final interview with Castro, though none of it appears in the documentary—suggesting that the rumors that the Maximum Leader's final days were none too lucid were true.) It is characteristically stupid, with Alpert polling Cubans at a memorial rally for Castro as to what they thought about him.

But much of Cuba and the Camerman is more like a memoir of Alpert's many visits to the island over the past 45 years. They include repeat visits with three sets of friends: A little schoolgirl he met on the street; a young hustler; and three elderly farmers who are also siblings. Together, their tales knit into a bleak tapestry of despair.

The three farmers' good cheer about the revolution takes on an air of resignation over the years as the scarcity of food in the countryside leads the neighbors to steal and eat all their livestock, reducing them to hoeing tiny patches of ground for subsistence-level crops. "They've eaten all our animals and left us with nothing," reflects one sadly.

The street hustler disappears, jailed for black-market activities. His family members struggle to keep feeding him inside the prison, while wondering if the government will ever keep its promise to supply running water to their apartment. "No wonder everybody wants to leave," one relative says, shaking his head. "Thirty-five years of bad thinking!"

And the little girl's hopes of a nursing career dissolve into teenage pregnancy and a hand-to-mouth existence as a single mom. Eventually she heads for the United States, leaving behind two young-adult children with a destitute refrigerator: "When mom sends money, we buy food. Otherwise it's empty." When Alpert breaks out a bottle of wine, the brother and sister offer a toast: "To lots of money!!" The New Man that Castro promised to build in Cuba seems a lot like the old one, except older and poorer.