Gandhi’s Burden–and Ours: Thoughts after Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera

Gandhi’s Burden–and Ours: Thoughts after Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera

Preliminary Theme: You could feel the frost as soon as I posed the question. The week before I went to see Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha, which is subtitled M.K. Gandhi in South Africa, I attended a screening of a documentary entitled Fidel, subtitled The Untold Story. It was sponsored by the Havana Film Festival, something of a New York cultural transgression of the U.S. embargo of Cuba. The embargo is foolish, but while Americans really do need to think afresh about how we relate to those south of us, indeed to all poor countries, it is hard to imagine that this film by Estela Bravo, which won awards when it came out in 2001, could foster anything of the sort.

It was about, well, you know who. In it, a cigar is never anything but a cigar. The filmmaker was there to answer questions after we watched the Bearded Dynamo bound across decades—a contrast, we were told, to nine hostile American presidents who went by his historical wayside. That something is not quite right about one man’s being in power for a half century didn’t seem to occur to the largely doting audience. True, we saw some unusual personal and political footage, or so it seemed to me, a nonexpert in Fidography. He loves baseball and—did you know?—The Leader swims! (But does he do it as well as Mao? Nobody asked.) Che Guevera, we were told, took an excursion to the Congo before moving on to Bolivia, where he fell victim to the CIA. True enough, but there might have been some query—just a little—about his utter failure in both places to rally peasants to the revolution.

If Americans need to reconsider what used to be called the “third world,” its artistic and intellectual proponents must ask some questions too. Instead, Fidel allows no caveats. It affords us Ramsey Clark and Angela Davis gushing praise of Castro. Gabriel García Márquez shows up by the side of his old friend, blurring the line between magical realism and political hocus-pocus. There was, however, one expression of grievance. Alice Walker complains that Fidel, well, he just can’t dance or sing.

Unaware of these deficiencies, I wondered if they made up the “untold” story of the subtitle. Of course, I knew Cuba’s oft-told history. It’s true enough that Fulgencio Batista was a rat and that Cuba was America’s whorehouse before Castro overthrew him. Since then, Washington’s policies toward Havana have tended too often to the hysterical, egged on by Florida-based exiles. Some of them are rightly furious at a bombastic dictator, but justice and smart policies don’t simply (or always) coincide. A few too many of the exiles sound as if they hanker to be post-communist brothel-keepers, if not executioners.

At question time, I asked the director, “Could you tell me about two or three of the more interesting political prisoners in Cuba today and what makes them interesting?” I didn’t know names, although I was aw...