Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

Still 'Waiting for Fidel,' 40 years on

Joe Smallwood and Geoff Stirling, two Newfoundland eccentrics of opposing political stripes talk revolution, politics, economics and the culture of island nations as they wait for an audience with the dictator.

The first interview Fidel Castro ever gave outside Cuba took place in Newfoundland

Joey Smallwood and Geoff Stirling in a scene from the NFB documentary Waiting for Fidel. (National Film Board of Canada)

Newfoundland has a strange connection to Cuba.

Gander was once upon a time the crossroads of the world. Its mid-century modern airport was a critical link in the chain between the communist world's lonely western outpost and the Soviet bloc to the east.

No surprise, then, that the first interview Fidel Castro ever gave outside Cuba took place in Newfoundland — brokered by our own self-styled revolutionary, Joseph R. Smallwood.

Smallwood, a socialist in his youth and the focal point of his own island's dramatic transformation, was fascinated by the Cuban revolution. It was a fascination that took him on an ersatz diplomatic mission to the Caribbean workers' state in 1974. He wanted to see the revolution's accomplishments for himself.

Joey Smallwood and Fidel Castro sat down to chat in 1973 on a refuelling visit for Castro at the Gander International Training. (CBC Archives)

Joey didn't go alone, though. He was accompanied by arch-capitalist Geoff Stirling, local media mogul and inarguably the most eccentric Newfoundlander in history.

Stirling, too, was fascinated by the Cuban experiment. Unlike Smallwood, however, he was far more skeptical about the prospect of human liberation under socialism.

But here they were: two of Newfoundland's greatest visionaries – one political, one mystical – en route to meet Fidel Castro at the bleeding edge of history. The result was Waiting for Fidel, a marvellous documentary about two incredible men in an incredible place at an incredible moment in time. It cannot be recommended enough.

Castro was a busy man in those days, so the boys are forced to wait him out in a palatial estate. It's surreal to watch them argue over the merits of socialism as they're served dinner on fine china by a troupe of waiters. In the meantime, they take their own tour of the island, and discover just how difficult it is to ever truly learn what's really going on.

The film reveals as much about Newfoundland as it does about Cuba as it follows Joey, Geoff, and director Michael Rubbo around.

When they visit an elite boarding school in Havana, they discover that several hours of industrial production is part of the daily curriculum. Stirling is aghast at the idea that education would involve child labour, while Smallwood muses that he'd like to see all Newfoundland children learn how to build things as part of their studies.

'A home as nice as these concrete cages'

These arguments continue as they tour around the island. Stirling is horrified when he meets university students enthusiastic about Castro's "dictatorship of the workers." Smallwood is delighted to discover a construction site full of sailors, and "wish[es] to God that every Newfoundlander had a home as nice as these concrete cages."

But far and away the most memorable scene in the film follows Joey and Geoff to the beach. Stirling, clad in a flesh-coloured speedo and standing on his head, explains that this helps reverse the body's energy flows and refresh the internal organs.

He sits in the sand with Smallwood and the two argue about the price of gold and whether or not Stirling should try to set up a television station in Cuba.

You'd be hard pressed to find better tour guides through this strange land than these two very strange Newfoundlanders.

Geoff Stirling was a Newfoundland and Labrador broadcasting and publishing pioneer. (Courtesy Roger Maunder YouTube video)

Fidel keeps them waiting, though.  And when Erich Honecker, General Secretary of East Germany, arrives in Cuba, he gets the full attention of the revolutionary government. Rubbo and Stirling almost come to frustrated blows as Fidel continually fails to appear. Smallwood bitterly watches Castro parade Honecker through the streets of Havana on television — the reception, one imagines, that Joey expected for himself.

But as relations between Stirling and Rubbo deteriorate, Joey keeps his faith in Fidel.

When he gets an invite to the state reception for Honecker at the end of the film, Smallwood puts on a borrowed suit and comes alive.

Watching him tell Stirling and Rubbo about all the schmoozing he did at the party is like seeing somebody come down from drugs. The man is clearly in his element when he can flit about as a social butterfly.

The boys never get their interview with Fidel. But Smallwood is happy that he got to hug Castro at the party, and Stirling is satisfied that they still managed to get a good movie out of it.

Waiting for Fidel is a real gem among Canadian films. It's a glimpse into an ideologically alien world, and a brief portrait of three 20th-century giants. And after Castro's funeral on Sunday, all three will have finally receded from living history and into the realm of legend.

Check out more videos on CBC NL's YouTube channel.


Drew Brown


Drew Brown writes frequently on politics. He lives in St. John's.