From The Archives

Our Man in Havana: Face-to-Face with Fidel Castro

Reflections on film, culture, sport, and freedom — from the United States


“Everyone who comes to Cuba has been brainwashed. Skillful prop­aganda has told them Havana is a haven of heaven.” That’s Steve Ryan talking; see his indispensable “Havana: Sucker Trap of the Caribbean,” published for your edification in the February 1957 issue of Exposed magazine (the one with Diana Dors on the cover). “Forget the Maine” is Ryan’s message. Remember the dirt, the beggars, the shoeshine urchins, the porno postcard vendors, “the thin, rag­ged women carrying babies too hungry to cry,” the guy who makes his living exhibiting a be­draggled, cawing perico trained to fire a cap gun, the hordes of hookers who can barely wait for nightfall so they can “flow over the city like a tidal wave in search of americanos.”

What’s the story? “When Ba­tista took over in 1952,” Ryan explains, “he sat on an empty wallet.” The ousted Carlos Prio “had scattered eight million in bribes during his term and Batista was stuck with the tab. The only hope for solvency was to find an angel. Ninety miles away sat the United States . . . fat, pompous, sex happy — ­and loaded.” Hey meester, you want muchachas, gambling, 24-hour crap games, a daiquiri at Señor Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bar, a night at Tropicana el cabaret más fabuloso del mundo, plus live sex show in a three-peso hotel room? You name it, you got it. “This is Cuba,” warns the implacable Steve Ryan. “Geared to Ameri­can tastes . . . with moral stan­dards so low you’d need a sub­marine to reach them.”

Well, a lot of things have changed since 1957, but Havana remains a cornucopia of ’50s imagery. It’s actually in fashion! Even modest bungalows out in the suburbs sport curlicue grill­work and harlequin mosaics, jazzily tapered columns brandishing kidney-shaped sun roofs. Half the cars on the road are Eisenhower-era De Sotos and Buicks, patched and repatched and painted tropical colors: mint green, dusty pink, hot canary, blaz­ing turquoise. Driving west along the sea­wall on the Malecón freeway you see the terraced towers of palatial hotels, blind­ingly white against the diaphanous De­cember sky. Vegas strip garish, Miami Beach deluxe, they rose even as Fidel and his bearded ones, los barbudos, were making revolution in the Sierra. There’s the Capri with its rooftop swimming pool and Salón Rojo nightclub, the Riviera (built, they say, by Meyer Lansky) with its free-form fountain sculpture and an­cillary, blue-domed something or other, once a mambotorium inaugurated by Miss Ginger Rogers. Amazingly, the Hil­ton logo is still decipherable on the glass doors of the renamed Habana Libre. Of course, the former casino is now the Salón de Solidaridad, and there’s the inevi­table Vietnamita exposition downstairs by the dollar shop, where you can buy a handstitched leather platter bearing the likeness of Che Guevara for only $140.

The French have moved over to the Libre, but all the rest of us foreigners, here for 10 days for the fifth Havana Film Festival, are holed up at the Hotel Nacional, around the corner from Casa Czechoslovakia, a block and a half from the spot where Sergio Corrieri picked up Daisy Granados in Memories of Under­development, not far from the concrete umbrella of the people’s Coppelia Ice ­Cream Center (more flavors than Baskin-­Robbins). Built in 1927, the Nacional is a stately dowager with a flaming past. It was here that the officers of the old re­gime resisted the first coup staged by then-sergeant Fulgencio Batista. In 1957, Steve Ryan called the hotel “a pile of money sitting on a rock overlooking the Malecón” with a “controlled gaming room” as “hallowed as a church.” When the Nicaraguan revolutionary priest Er­nesto Cardenal stayed here 13 years later, he noted with pleasure that “young pro­letarians” — white and black — were chat­ting in the lobby “with the confidence once possessed by millionaires.” Now the place is full of Aeroflot personnel — beefy pilots and no-nonsense stewies taking their r&r . . . only 90 miles away! The flotskis even have their own lounge up on the fifth floor, complete with fridge, TV, blackboard, and bound copies of Pravda.

Outside the Nacional, brazen young swindlers in Bruce Lee T-shirts offer to sell you pesos at twice, three times, four times — the record is seven times — the of­ficial rate of exchange. But if you’ve read your Steve Ryan, you know that “gam­bling in Cuba is about as safe as stepping in front of the Super Chief.” Every day there’s a new story making the rounds about some gringo shmegegge exchanging his dollars for a worthless mess of Batista money, Mexican pesos, or just a fat wad of paper sandwiched between two legiti­mate bills. Although trafficking in pesos begins at the Miami Airport — one couple on the tour swears that some Hare Krish­nas tried to make a deal — you can’t walk out of the hotel without being ap­proached. These kids are persistent, too. The most entertaining way to handle it is to adopt the self-righteous persona of an American Communist. Some guy offers you five to one and, in your sternest pidgin Spanish, you say Pero compañero, esto es contra la ley — But comrade, that is against the law. When he doubles over with laughter, you make your escape.

The truth is, there’s not so much to do here with pesos anyway. (“This is a city that is bound to please a monk, a medita­tor, anyone who in the capitalist world has decided to withdraw from the world,” Ernesto Cardenal noted. “Here there is no bourgeois joy, but here there is true joy.”) Havana’s hot, dusty neighborhoods are dotted with curiosidad shops that wouldn’t seem out of place on Canal Street, selling miscellaneous pieces of hardware, old radio tubes, and second-­hand camera parts (as the ancient autos attest, the Cubans are masters of recy­cling). But most stores open late, close early, and don’t stock much besides cot­ton shirts, cheap toys, translations of The Godfather frugally designed to save pa­per, and jars of preserved Bulgarian figs.

One day there’s a book fair, and some­one unearths a 1936 American tourist-guide called Cuban Tapestry. We consult it like the I Ching and learn that “Cuba, is foreign. Havana is foreign. No amount of contact with big Tío Sam, across the Florida Strait, will ever make the island capital an American city. The Cuban likes his huge good-natured ‘uncle,’ for alone among Latin Americans he senses no covetousness in our attitude towards him. He believes the United States his awkward, bungling, but sincere cham­pion. . . . ”


Freedom in Cuba can be defined as freedom from the United States. Cuba is not simply the first Latin American nation to successfully defy big Tío Sam, it has openly opposed U.S. policies for the last 25 years. And, although the forced reorientation of the Cuban economy is a shock from which the island has yet to recover fully, it is certainly arguable that the U.S. trade embargo has helped Fidel Castro more than it has hurt him. The lack of consumer goods is a sign of revo­lutionary virtue. The American threat encourages national unity, permits total mobilization, and fosters a heady sense of geopolitical adventure.

Before the revolution, Cuba enjoyed one of the highest per capita incomes in the tropical world. But this apparent prosperity was founded upon 25 per cent unemployment, landless peasantry, insti­tutionalized political corruption, a con­tinual oscillation between dictatorship and democracy, utter dependence on for­eign capital, and the vagaries of the American market. Only two years before Cuban Tapestry was published, the American greenback was the lone paper currency used in Cuba. Until the Tri­umph of the Revolution, the U.S. ambas­sador was the island’s second most pow­erful man (at least), and the U.S. safely regarded Cuba as its most reliable ally. The Cuban economy was actually a sub­set of the American one. Cuba sold the U.S. sugar and bought virtually every­thing else — from nuts and bolts to TV sets and automobiles — at the company store. Americans owned Cuba’s major banks and biggest factories as well as 90 per cent of the island’s utilities. The U.S. exerted greater influence here than in any Latin American country, with the possible exception of Panama.

Now handmade signs on every block routinely excoriate yanqui asesinos, and — our naval base at Guantánamo aside­ — the official U.S. presence is reduced to the so-called “Interest Section,” located on the ground floor of the former Ameri­can embassy, an incongruously large glass building on the Malecón. Opposite the entrance is a lurid neon sign with a rifle­-toting Cubano giving the raspberry to a frothing Tío Sam. Every time the Inter­est Section gringos walk out their front door they get zapped in the face with the same pink, yellow, and orange blinking message: Señores Imperialistas, No Les Tenemos Absolutamente Ningun Miedo! We’re not scared of you! (Not exactly so: many Cubans are convinced that if Rea­gan is reelected, he will certainly invade them. “We expect another Vietnam,” one official told me. “We have the whole is­land prepared.”)

To get inside the Interest Section­ — which I did, accompanying a friend who had her passport stolen in an after-hours dive called El Gato Tuerto, the One-­Eyed Cat — you have to first convey your business to the bored Cuban soldiers posted around the building, then con­vince the teenage American marine man­ning the reception area that you’re ko­sher (impossible, actually; the fact that you’re in Cuba automatically means you’re not). While he deliberates, you practice your upside-down reading by noting the handy Spanish phrases taped to his desk: What is your name? What do you want? Please go away! Once inside, you find an ostentatiously over-air-conditioned waiting room decorated with framed travel posters of San Francisco and Aspen, and furnished with a plastic Christmas tree and an expensive load of useless, pseudo-oak cabinets. Not since the Miami airport have you seen such waste. The inner courtyard can barely contain the satellite dish (major league, albeit not as huge as the one the Cubans use to monitor American TV). Some nest of spies: the single secretary turns out to be an employee of the Cuban govern­ment. Next to her desk she keeps an in­stitutional-size can of Tang. A week in Havana and this seems exotic.

After 24 years of embargo, modern Americana is so rare in Cuba that you’re jolted when you see a Viceroy baseball cap, a bootleg Michael Jackson tape, or a cup fashioned out of a Coca-Cola can. Only the most obscure Disney char­acters — individual dwarfs out of Snow White, the rabbit from Alice in Wonder­land — are to be found on walls and store­fronts. The almost complete eradication of Mickey Mouse is no less striking than the absence of Jesus Christ. As you walk around Havana, gawking at the home­made signs of a fanged Tío Sam devour­ing Grenada — Abajo el lmperialismo Yanqui! — that embellish each block’s Committee for the Defense of the Revo­lution bulletin board, people will inquire whether you’re Argentine or German or, most often, Russian. When you tell them that you’re a norteamericano, they’re taken aback or amused, occasionally nos­talgic, but never, in my experience, hostile.

It’s astounding how many Cubans seem to have lived on East 103rd Street between 1947 and 1949. There’s still an emotional bond; we do, after all, share the same national sport. Once upon a time, Cuba had the Havana Sugar Kings — baseball club of Sandy Amoros, Vic Davalillo, Tony Taylor, Leo Cardenas, Bert Campaneris, Tony Perez, Camilio Pascual, Elio Chacon — International League farm team for the Cincinnati Reds. In 1958, the Sugar Kings were mired in last place and all but bankrupt. After the Triumph of the Revolution, Fi­del offered to bail the team out. “The Sugar Kings are part of the Cuban peo­ple,” he is reported to have said. “It is important for us to have a connection with Triple-A baseball.” The 1959 season was a tumultuous one and, as fate would have it, July 25 turned to July 26 with the Sugar Kings and the Rochester Red Wings tied 4-4 in the bottom of the 11th. The patriotic Cubans began celebrating their revolution’s name day. A party erupted, out came the congas, but when Red Wing third-base coach Frank Verdi was grazed by a spent bullet, the game was called on account of gunfire in the stands.

There was a lot of angry talk then of yanking professional baseball out of Cuba — the details can be found in How­ard Senzel’s Baseball and the Cold War — but the red-hot Sugar Kings went on to win the International League champion­ship and then the Junior World Series. This was the time of miracles — when the last could be first, and the revolution opened Cuba’s beaches, nightclubs, and parks to all. By the 1960 season, however, relations between revolutionary Cuba and the Republican mainland had grown perilously frayed. On July 6 — shortly af­ter the American-owned oil refineries re­fused to process the Russian crude that Fidel bartered for the sugar the U.S. wouldn’t buy — Secretary of State Chris­tian Herter summoned baseball commis­sioner Ford Frick to Washington. Three days later, some evil alchemy transformed the Havana Sugar Kings into the Jersey City Jerseys. Severed from Triple­-A, Fidel howled with rage. It was one more act of treachery and aggression against the Cuban people: “Violating all codes of sportsmanship, they now take away our franchise!”

So much for socialist baseball in the capitalist world. Nine years ago there was talk of a U.S.-Cuban series, but that got scotched by Henry Kissinger on account of the situation in Angola. Meanwhile, Cuban amateur teams have continued to dominate international play. Thus it’s with keen anticipation that we socialist baseball fans take a powder from the fes­tival for a Sunday doubleheader at Latinoamerica Stadium. Free admission and open seating notwithstanding, the ballpark is emptier than Shea on a week-day in August. You just march down to the first-base line and help yourself to a box. Does this indifferent turnout indi­cate a lack of interest in two mediocre clubs — the Havana Metropolitanos and the Guantánamo Guantánamos, respec­tively 14th and 12th in the 18-team league? Yet, it is only December; the sea­son is young. The first game is a classic, with los Metropolitanos beating los Guantanamos 3-2, when R. Lopez lofts a J. Matos fast ball over the left-field wall for a jonrón in the bottom of the 10th. (Guantánamo retaliates in the nightcap by peppering hapless R. Arocha for jit after jit to build a 7-0 lead by the middle of the third.)

Contrary to Senzel’s memories of the Sugar Kings (“a slick and speedy ball club and so colorful,” “they used to bunt a lot, hit and run a lot, try to steal home, and execute other daring feats”), the games are low-keyed to the point of som­nolence. The fans are almost all men, many seem to be pensioners basking in the sun. Our entrance causes a mild stir, and – qué coincidencia! — here’s one of the festival guides remarkably unsur­prised to see us. “Sit anywhere,” he in­vites us. “How about here?” It is interest­ing to note that while the Cubans employ cheap and durable aluminum bats (illegal in the major leagues), they have — despite the embargo — adopted the designated hitter, el bateador designado.

There’s no cerveza to be had; instead, vendors sell hits of sweet black coffee in the sort of tiny paper cups mental hospi­tals use to dispense Thorazine. Could that be why, despite some atrocious calls – including a foul ball down the third-base line that goes for a two-run Guantánamo double — there are neither rhubarbs on the field nor razzing from the stands? Or does the crystal light of the four o’clock sky have everyone daz­zled? Far from shooting off machine­-guns, the fans are so well socialized they scoop up the foul balls that are hit their way and toss them back onto the field.

In Revolutionary Cuba, not just sporting events but health care, public tele­phones, and burials are free. Day care, too, for the children of working mothers. Education is universal and compulsory. Cuba-watchers say the rural areas have been developed at the expense of the cit­ies, and Havana is still doing penance for its sinful past. The capital is shabby but clean, delapidated yet orderly. You can drive your rented Russian compact total­ly off the map, out to where the pave­ment ends by the cement factory in the deepest estuary of Havana Bay, and the hovels you find are only hovels — small, run-down stucco houses that appear to be electrified. They’re not tin shacks stacked up on cardboard boxes fronting on a raw sewage canal. Even in this alley of poverty, the kids look healthy and well-fed, playing baseball in the street and wondering what in the world you’re doing there. If this were Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro, you might fear for your life. But Havana isn’t Port-au-Prince, let alone New York. You can strolt for miles at midnight through the central city, the dark streets illuminated only by the blue glow of TV sets, and never experience the slightest anxiety. Mugging Russians, we joke, must be a capital offense.

Just as Soviet communism will always suffer from the reality of the Russian winter, so Cuban communism will always benefit from the island’s eternal summer. Often, as you walk, you get a whiff of salsa and catch a glimpse of some steamy living room, crowded with dancers. Every open window yields some fantastic ar­rangements of plastic flowers, porcelain animals, crumbling plaster, and icons of Che. Revolutionary martyr, advocate of the New Socialist Man, Che is a far more popular household deity than Fidel; his resemblance to JC can’t be denied. Bus drivers keep his image on their decal­ decorated dashboards, next to pictures of their novias, commemorative pennants, and plastic kittens with bobbing heads.

There’s an orange neon portrait of Fidel on the Malecón advising that La Revolu­ción can never be crushed, but his most widely distributed image is that of public servant supreme — a silk-screened poster of the leader dressed in fatigues, a rifle slung over his shoulder and the ambigu­ous command Ordene! Order Me!

The Catholic Church seems to have been driven totally underground — or else to Miami — but there are vest-pocket shrines to José Martí in every neighbor­hood, and many Cuban documentaries attest to a burning religious fervor. Such films are no more objective than a Pepsi­Cola spot and no less revealing for their blatant artifice. Che hoy y siempre (Che Today and Always) is the latest in a se­ries of graphically innovative shorts by the Chilean exile Pedro Chaskel. They’re formal variations on a sacred theme, not unlike medieval altarpieces. Miguel Tor­res’s Condenadme, no importa (Con­demn Me, It Does Not Matter), taking its title from Fidel’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech, is another kind of holy relic. Its incredibly well-faked “documentary” footage purports to record the failed Moncada raid of July 26, 1953, Fidel’s trial and subsequent imprisonment. The filmmaker has already made one previous pseudo-documentary, Crónica de una in­famia, concerning a 1949 incident in which a drunken U.S. marine desecrated a statue of José Martí with his yanqui urine. He plans another such “recon­struction of a history that has no docu­ments” to celebrate the January 1959 Triumph of the Revolution.

Luis Felipe Bernaza’s Aquí y en cual­quier parte (Here and in Whatever Place) is a “love song” to “the new heroes of the Revolution,” the young Cuban sol­diers in Angola. Lyrical shots of combat training are mixed with choreographed guerrilla rituals and the vocal accompani­ment of some dulcet compañera. Along with Israel, Cuba must be one of the most highly mobilized societies on earth. Militia manuals are available in all book­stores. The ministries, politburo, and central committee are dominated by mili­tary men. The army has a film studio as well, and produced Belkis Vega’s España en el corazón (Spain in the Heart), a history of the Cuban international bri­gade during the Spanish Civil War. Not surprisingly, the film eschews nostalgia and stresses historical continuity (although it fails to note that revolutionary Cuba developed close economic ties with Franco’s Spain). Of course, most of Cu­ba’s Spanish Civil War vets were also veterans of the pre-1959 Cuban CP, an outfit which had opposed Fidel Castro until six months before the Triumph of the Revolution. Perhaps that’s why it’s Raúl — always a Communist — Castro and not brother Fidel who hands out the medals at the vets’ reunion. As for those Cubans who fought in the Abraham Lin­coln Brigade, they aren’t mentioned at all.

Che hoy y siempre was greeted with warm applause, Condenadme, no importa got a standing ovation, Aquí y en cualquier parte rocked the house with rhythmic clapping. But the documentary hit of the festival was Estela Bravo’s Los Marielitos — a film shot by a North American crew and edited in Havana — in which 11 Cubans who left the island dur­ing the mass exodus of 1980 compare their old lives with what they found in America (visualized mainly as Florida concentration camps and Lower East Side squalor). The subjects, naturally, are doozies. “In Cuba, I couldn’t drink. In Cuba there is no freedom,” one rumdum hiccups. Another rationalizes his flight as a perverse act-of loyalty to Fidel. Every­one has a lot to complain about, from shitty health care to the American habit of smoking marijuana in the street. For the finale, the filmmakers produce a suc­cessful engineer who stands outside his Miami ranch house and admits that he’s miserable.

Los Marielitos was telecast during the festival and Cubans often asked about it with pity and wonder. “Is it true that there are people sleeping in the streets of New York? And that you can get killed for· money at 10 o’clock in the evening? Are rents really so high and for apart­ments such as those? Why are blacks not permitted in the same hospitals as whites? Are there that many people who have no jobs?”

Twenty-five years ago, less than three months after los barbudos entered Ha­vana, the revolutionary Cuban regime en­acted its first cultural reform, creating the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficas, ICAIC. Headed by Fidel’s old college buddy, Alfredo (no relation to Che) Guevara, ICAIC appro­priated cinemas and studios, taking charge of all Cuban film activity. Official mythology has it that, although Cuba has always been a movie-mad island, there was no Cuban cinema before the revolu­tion — only ersatz Mexican musicals, bad­ly made copies of Hollywood detective films, bogus Argentine melodramas, and sleazy pornography. Within 10 years, ICAIC films were famous all over the world.

First there was Santiago Alvarez — the director of the “Latin American News­reel” series, producing one noticiero per week, a filmmaker who pulled together a Che Guevara obit less than 48 hours after the news of his death, and who once said, “Give me two photographs, a movieola, and some music, and I’ll make you a film” — the greatest revolutionary docu­mentary-maker since Dziga Vertov. Then came Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment, mixing Antonioni alienation with revolutionary pachanga, even as Julio Garcia Espinosa’s The Ad­ventures of Juan Quin Quin and Manuel Octavio Gómez’s The First Charge of the Machete conjoined formal innovation and revolutionary politics with a fervor unseen since the Soviet school of the ’20s. And after the epic Lucía won a gold med­al at the 1969 Moscow Film Festival, 26-year-old Humberto Solás was hailed as the new Eisenstein. (A recent poll of Cu­ban audiences listed Potemklin, Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Gold Rush, and Modern Times as the five most significant films of all time. Lucía, finishing 15th, was the highest ranked Cuban work.)

The late ’60s were the halcyon days of the New Cuban Cinema, but Fidel’s 1968 endorsement of the Warsaw Pact inva­sion of Czechoslovakia, the 1970 failure of the 10 million-ton sugar harvest, and the following year’s First National Con­gress on Education and Culture­ — brought the directors down to earth. Doc­umentaries were privileged over fiction films. There was a campaign against “for­eign tendencies,” “elitism,” and homo­sexuals in cultural affairs. ICAIC contin­ued to be run by the filmmakers them­selves, but formal experimentation de­clined. Since then, although Cuban movie attendance has continued to rise and the Cuban film industry currently spends far more per feature than any other in Latin America, only two movies ( the late Sara Gómez’s One Way or Another and Pastor Vega’s Portrait of Teresa) have made much impact on the international scene. But who knows what goes on in the heart of Havana? This is an anniversary year and all the heavies — Tomás Gutierrez Alea, Humberto Solás, Santiago Alvarez, Pastor Vega, Manuel Octavio Gomez­ — are scheduled to premiere new films.

Immediate disappointment: Vega’s La Habanera — said to concern the love life of a Cuban shrink — is not yet completed, while Alvarez’s Refugees from the Cave of the Dead — his first fiction film, a doc­udrama of the Moncada raid — is so uni­versally regarded as disastrous that, al­though Santiago is a member of the central committee, the film isn’t even available to be screened in the festival market. Attention shifts to the premiere of Humberto Solás’s Amada, and with good reason. Two years ago, Solás’s mega-peso adaptation of the 19th cen­tury Cuban classic Cecilia Valdés con­sumed the lion’s share of ICAIC’s re­sources. Unveiled at Cannes, the film sank like a stone, then bombed with the home audience as well. Perhaps not coin­cidentally, ICAIC chief Alfredo Guevara was relieved of his post, shipped off to Switzerland as the new ambassador to UNESCO, and replaced at ICAIC by Ju­lio Garcia Espinosa, author of the famous manifesto “For an Imperfect Cinema.”

Understandably defensive, Solás seems to have taken the most militant (that is to say, anti-European) aesthetic stance of all the directors who contributed state­ments to the current issue of Cine Cu­bano. His position makes sense once you see that his film totally contradicts it. Solás may be skating on thin ice: Amada turns out to be an elegantly mannered, Viscontian period piece detailing an un­consummated adulterous affair between two members of the fin-de-siecle Havana bourgeoisie. A vehicle really for the su­perb Eslinda Núñez (the domestic in Memories of Underdevelopment and the second “Lucia”), Amada was not gener­ously received by the Cuban audience. In his post-screening remarks, Solás stressed his competence (pointing out that while Cecilia took 15 months to shoot, econom­ical Amada was completed in a mere eight weeks) while gamely insisting on the film’s political content — the frustrat­ed love is “a reflection of the crisis in the fight for independence.”

Nearly half of ICAIC’s new documen­taries are films with musical subjects, a bid, some think, to produce more foreign exchange. “Just as Hollywood directors must make the obligatory western,” Julio García Espinosa has suggested, “Cuban filmmakers should be required to make a musical.” Espinosa himself started a mu­sical around 1978. Titled Son o no son (a pun on the name of a Cuban musical mode and Hamlet’s “to be or not to be”), the film was evidently structured as a series of rehearsals for a musical revue at the Tropicana that never quite jells. Son o no son remains incomplete, however, and so the first director to accept the challenge is Manuel Octavio Gómez. Like Espinosa, Gómez has a long interest in popular culture as a vanguard form, and his Patakín — which takes its title from an African word for fable, its discreet crane shots and Jerome Robbins choreog­raphy from the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s, its strident colors and slangy, innuendo-ridden dialogue from Cuba’s 19th century Teatro Bufo — transposes two figures out of Yoruba mythology to contemporary Cuba. Shangó, the thunder god, is here an irresistible lumpen lay­about — when he shows up in his neigh­borhood, even octogenarians begin to rumba — while his nemesis, Ogun, is a staid model worker who drives the trac­tor on a collective farm.

With musical numbers more bossa nova than salsa, Patakín establishes a certain amiable innocence, abetted by a Tashlinesque sense of humor and some beach scenes that would hardly seem out of place in How To Stuff a Wild Bikini. The film pokes mild fun at the bureau­cracy and frequently waxes reflexive. (“Aren’t you paying attention to the pic­ture?” characters ask each other when the plot grows convoluted.) But in addi­tion to reclaiming a genre for Cuban film­makers, Patakín makes a political point, being the most candid study of machismo of the several the festival offers. Al­though the virtuous Ogun defeats Shangó in a climactic boxing match — the finale has showgirls storming the ring with bal­loons and confetti for a mass cha-cha­-cha — Shangó’s appeal is never denied. “All men want to be Shangó,” Ogun’s lady friend tells him. “Not even you want to be Ogun.”

Although the Cuban audience appears to adore Patakín, it’s predictable that not all Oguns will find it so amusing. Indeed, it is the only Cuban premiere to get an afternoon rather than an evening slot. There is a streak of proletarian puri­tanism in the Cuban Revolution, and sure enough, Patakín is panned in the second-string CP daily, Juventud Re­belde (Rebel Youth). The music and dance are “inorganically inserted into the plot,” the movie is filled with “forced jokes” and “stereotypical behavior.” Ma­king “insufficient use of expressive modes of cinema,” it is an altogether dis­appointing effort from a director of Gó­mez’s stature. That the critic takes Patakín to task on formal grounds — rather than engaging its ideological line — only underscores the movie’s political content. But you can’t truly appreciate Patakín until you’ve seen Tropicana.

Tropicana! El cabaret más fabuloso del mundo, located in an outdoor jungle garden! It’s part of every package tour, and it’s best seen with a group of Ameri­can leftists. Imagine las contradicciones! Sexist? Of course — y un poco racist tam­bién. Tropicana! Formerly run by yanqui gangsters using George Raft as their front; the One and Only Tropicana is not simply el paraíso de las estrellas — the paradise of the stars — it’s the Pasty World of Atlantis, the story of Cuba in song and dance con mucho más razzma­tazz, it’s el teatro del embarrassment revolucionario!

Feathered chandeliers floating over­head, showgirls in top hats and sequined bikinis strut down the aisles dodging the frozen-faced waitresses with nimble pre­cision while flashing practiced smiles at bewildered Vietnamitas. The chanteuse on stage threatens to teach us how to love. The espactáculo begins. Omigod, is that capering bellhop actually wearing black face? Compañera, pass the rum. Is this number really a Yoruba ceremony celebrating the end of slavery — boys in silver lame pants and Day-Glo doo-rags? Did the Taino Indians truly sing like Yma Sumac and cavort about like the June Taylor Dancers? And dig that wild and crazy Czechoslovakian at the next table. Will he make like Desi and call on Babaloo? Oh no! It’s caballero y dama time. Lace mantillas, fluttering fans, lot­sa “mi corazón,” castanets. Más rum par favor.

Tropicana! At once ridiculous and im­pressive, ultimately infectious. During the revolution, the July 26 movement planted bombs here. Now they treat the place like a national museum. (Ask a Cu­ban Communist what he thinks. Watch him laugh and tell you that when he was a juventud rebelde he saw Liberace make his grand entrance here riding on an elefante. Yes, and he was playing the pi­ano.) With a maximum of mucho mass flouncing, the whole chorus appears in pink Flash Gordon jumpsuits singing “Never Again.” The show’s not over yet, folks: it’s time for La Habana Conga! A multicolored waterfall is descending in the background. The palm trees are scin­tillating with red, blue, and silver lights. Dry-ice geysers are shooting up at our feet. Everyone is singing Yo soy Tropi­cana! (“What’s this about orange juice?” a drunken gringo wants to know.)

The performers tell us they are a col­lective. They thank some visiting Ruma­nians, the Central American boxing champs, a Yugoslav trade delegation. They offer a fraternal hand to the Soviet people. You offer a fraternal hand to the nearest living creature and go off to dance La Habana Conga yourself.

Compared to Patakín, the new Gutiérrez Alea, Hasta Cierto Punto (To a Cer­tain Point ), is fairly predictable stuff. Al­though beautifully paced and edited, it’s a small film that, as Alea himself ob­serves, owes quite a bit in its mixture of drama and verité to Sara Gómez’s One Way or Another. A married, middle-aged dramatist, working on a script about the problems of women in the labor force, gets involved with a young compañera who works in the port, raising a number of not too startling questions about the relations between the sexes (as well as the classes ). Still, it was satisfying to see the film win the grand prize. Everyone was relieved that one of the hometown boys had come through.

Few things are duller than film festival award ceremonies. The halls where they’re held are often embarrassingly empty. The Cubans solve this problem by making invitations to a reception hosted by Fidel Castro contingent on attending the ceremonies — which are worse than most, since every ovation is a standing one of militant solidaridad. Afterwards, there’s a long wait over at the Palace of the Revolution, but finally the doors open, you’re on line, and there he is­ — large and graying with an unhealthy­-looking ruddy complexion and deep wrin­kles around his uncannily glowing eyes — ­el último diablo, the Cuban of Cubans in a spiffy olive green dress uniform. A quick hypnotized handshake and on to the best spread we’ve seen: lobster, shrimp, skewered chunks of barbecued chicken and pork, mounds of spicy corn­meal casserole, broiled red snapper, huge breads baked in the shapes of alligators. (“Now I know why they wouldn’t let us bring cameras,” someone cracks.)

Everybody is busy gorging themselves, washing the food down with 30-year-old rum — smooth as satin and straight to the cerebral cortex — when it suddenly be­comes apparent that . . . He’s in the room! It’s Fidelmania! Forget Pete See­ger, the evening’s other celeb and possi­bly the only man in Havana wearing a flannel shirt, Fidel is instantly besieged by a frantic mob of filmmakers desper­ately flacking their films. “Hey, Fidel! Did you see my movie? I’ll get you a special screening, man!” Methodically making his way around the room, Fidel seems to have come alive working the crowd. Only five minutes before, people were criticizing the Cubans for using actresses to hand out the awards — so tacky, so macho. Now, it’s as if Robert Redford had turned up at your neighborhood Pathmark. Reserved Brits clutch souve­nir swizzle sticks and swear to treasure them forever. Seasoned feminists tremble like schoolgirls, stuff napkins in their mouths, and shriek, “He touched me!” Canny pol that he is, Fidel does have an eye for the ladies — patting their heads, kissing their cheeks, whispering in their ears.

Functioning on automatic pilot, I’ve blundered into excellent field position just as Fidel comes around the bend. He spots the attractive compañera next to me, and as he rushes over to shake her hand for the third time, she tells him, “This guy has a question for you.”

“Right,” I say. “It’s about beisbol.

Beisbol. The entourage stops dead. Suddenly it’s me and Fidel and the trans­lator and the bodyguards and the compa­ñera in the bizarrely world-historic eye of the storm. “Yes,” I say. “I want to know why Cuban baseball uses the designated hitter.”

The translator translates. Fidel consid­ers the question and begins framing his reply. It’s like a major policy statement. “The designated hitter,” he says through the translator, “is part of the official in­ternational rules of baseball. As a mem­ber of the international community, Cuba, of course, must adhere to these rules . . . ”

“Wait a minute,” I hear myself say. This must be the 30-year-old rum talk­ing. “The designated hitter isn’t part of the official rules of baseball. Only one of the major leagues even uses it — the American League. Why should Cuba copy the American League?”

All around us Cubans are beginning to laugh. Did the yanqui catch Fidel? Clear­ly, the ball is still in my court, but I don’t know what to say next. Pitcher is Fidel’s position. Should I ask him how he likes giving up his turn at bat? (Ordene!) Or would that seem unduly provocative? Should I inquire how this specialization fits in with his conception of the New Socialist Man? Too theoretical. Cau­tiously, I decide to venture an opinion. “Speaking for myself, I think the desig­nated hitter ruins the strategy of the game.”

But now Fidel has formulated a line. Quickly he begins speaking through the interpreter. “That is regressive,” he maintains, cocking his head earnestly. “We must not be afraid to change the existing rules. The rules of all games must be called into question.” Now Fidel is beginning to cook: “For example,” he says, “I think we should make new rules for basketball. I propose we have three kinds of basketball. One for people who are under five feet tall. Another for peo­ple who are five and a half feet tall. And a third for people who are over six feet tall.” Fidel is watching me intently. “And that way,” he concludes, “the Vietnamese will be able to win a basketball game!”

The Vietnamese! What is this, 1968? The Vietnamese won their basketball game 10 years ago! I jumped all over Fi­del’s first pitch, but this curve ball has me baffled. The Cubans laugh. I laugh. Fidel grins: He pumps my hand vigorous­ly and the cult of personality moves on. I’m immediately surrounded by a mini­cult of Brits and Americans. What did he say? What did you say? What is a desig­nated hitter, anyway? Some guy actually wants to set up an interview. Mañana for that, compañero.

Mañana, I’m on the plane wishing I’d spent more time at the beach and still wondering what that riff meant. In bring­ing up baseball was I reminding Fidel of Cuba’s cultural links to the United States? And in invoking Vietnam was he alluding to the limitations of U.S. power? The Cuban identification with Vietnam is total. Was Fidel suggesting we judge Cuba on its own terms? And is that a novelty Americans can’t bear? ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 9, 2019