Escaping Havana

Una NocheUna Noche captures a defining moment in the lives of three adolescents in today’s Cuba. It narrates the existential predicament of Raul and his best friend, Elio, seen from the point of view of the third adolescent, Lila, who is Elio‘s twin sister.

But as the director has pointed out in an interview, there is another main character in the movie: the city of Havana. Una Noche is filmed entirely in Cuba’s capital, and the city functions not only as a space for the story, but as part of it, contributing to the film’s powerful impact on an audience.

Raul lives in what seems like a one-room apartment with his mother, who moonlights as a prostitute. He appears asphyxiated by the social conditions on the island. He is planning to escape to the United States with the help of his friend Elio. We see them gathering the necessary supplies to make the trip across the Florida Strait, and negotiating with several people in the black market, from seedy men to nurses in hospitals. Practically anything, we learn, can be obtained in the midst of the abysmal scarcity reigning in Cuba—if one can pay the price.

Thus we see the two young men hustling throughout Havana to get inflatable tire tubes, a compass, and medical supplies. Raul even allows himself to be sexually used by an older blond woman, possibly an American tourist, who gives him as a present a piece of electronics that he will use to barter for some medicine for his mother, who has HIV.

The escape from Cuba suddenly becomes urgent when Raul becomes the main suspect in the killing of a tourist whom he caught in the act of being serviced by his mother. As the plot unfolds towards a dramatic ending, we witness the dismal conditions of life in the island: the dilapidated houses, buildings and cars; the badly dressed people; the young and older women and men selling their bodies to foreigners; the desperate trading in the black market; the people’s fear of the uniformed government forces patrolling the city with assault rifles; the people’s fear of the secret police and the snitches; and the stale lives of everyone.

This is an independent film, made with a limited budget and with Cubans without professional experience recruited as actors. In an interview, the director observed that frequent power outages made work difficult, and that the lack of technical facilities in Cuba delayed the regular checking of the quality of the filmed material. Nonetheless, the cinematography, the acting, and the directing make this movie redolent of such great coming-of-age films as Truffaut’s The 400 blows.

Life ends up imitating art in this movie. After winning prizes for best new director, best actor, and best cinematography in the renowned German festival at Tribeca, the director and the three main actors traveled from Cuba to Germany to receive the prizes. Their plane made a stop in Miami. By the time the plane got to Germany, it was discovered that two of the main actors had defected to the United States.

Nevertheless, the Cuba in which this movie is filmed should be a social equalizer’s paradise.

Wealth is distributed throughout the land following the criterion of social justice and according to the plans of the best minds in government. This “social” wealth is spent where the best minds in government decide it is most needed. In Cuba, wealth has been put at the service of human needs, not the other way around. There is not much disparity of wealth. A physician does not make much more money than a regular factory worker. There are no Wall Street financiers making millions. There are no overpaid CEO’s. In fact, there are no CEO’s: there are only government-appointed managers of public (government) enterprises, who do not make more than their workers. Prices are government-controlled, so that no good or service is priced beyond what the authorities consider just for the people. Salaries are government-controlled and indeed government-paid, so that no one makes too much. Housing is government-built and distributed. Going to the government-paid physicians and the government-owned hospitals is free. There are no private schools or universities: all education is public (in other words, government-owned) and therefore free. In fact, practically all “social” needs, from medical care to education to retirement are free. And no one is ever allowed to become wealthier than somebody else: thus, for example, one of the very few private enterprises permitted, the little restaurants called paladares, can have only a few tables, so that the owners do not even begin to get richer than someone else.

The catch in this blissfully egalitarian society is that it produces little wealth. Although Cuba has complete commercial relations with all countries except the United States, and although since 2001 it has been able to import from the United States agricultural and other products (today Cuba imports from the United States more than from any other country), scarcity prevails. In a country with a land so fertile, and a climate so favorable, that even a seed accidentally dropped will produce a plant, food is rationed for the general population (not for the tourists and the American students of Cuban “culture,” who eat in hotels unavailable to the natives). Even sugar, once the national product (today tourism accounts for a majority of the country’s “exports”), is rationed in an island that used to be one of the largest producers of sugar cane in the world. Housing is as scarce as food. Power and water outages are a feature of daily life.

In this society with free medical care, physicians do not have the necessary instruments and supplies to treat patients properly (see Katherine Hirschfield’s Health, Politics and Revolution in Cuba since 1898, which explodes the myth of the wonderful Cuban medical care system). Many medicines are unavailable. Aspirins cannot be found at times. Patients must bring their own bed-sheets to the free hospitals. Roaches crawl on the walls of said free hospitals. Cuba sends physicians to help Venezuela and Brazil, but the physicians are paid only a fraction of what Venezuela or Brazil pay, most of it being pocketed by the Cuban government. This seems only fair: since the Cuban state has paid for the physicians’ education, surely it has the right to deploy them anywhere it chooses and under whatever conditions it sees fit. Not surprisingly, Cuban physicians sometimes defect—an opportunity which, along with the possibility of buying things unobtainable in Cuba, explains why being sent abroad to treat patients for a paltry salary is a most desired assignment. Income is so low that some physicians drive taxis to make ends meet. In order to survive, college girls prostitute themselves to European, Latin American and American tourists traveling via Canada and other places (Fidel Castro recognized this fact when he boasted that Cuba has the best educated prostitutes in the world). Since salaries are basically equal, money has limited power in the open market. What counts is political clout, or connections, or being able to pay what the black market demands—with money, or, as Una Noche makes clear, with whatever else the seller may want.

Nevertheless, American egalitarians are unable to see a connection between on the one hand the “social benefits” and egalitarian ethics that they admire in Cuban society, and on the other hand the obviously dismal economic conditions of the majority of Cubans. Nor can the egalitarians connect egalitarianism with the government regulation, supervision, espionage, lack of privacy, control and punishments to which the Cuban population must be subject in order to implement the egalitarian goal. I once heard a fellow professor comment that he wanted to visit Cuba now, before it, unfortunately, “changes.”

With this mentality, it is not surprising that American academics have had a particularly soft spot for Cuba since the start of the Marxist-Leninist regime in 1959 (Castro proclaimed in a speech in 1961 that he had always been a “Marxist-Leninist,” but had to pretend he was not because otherwise the “bourgeoisie” would not have allowed him to gain power). These days, American professors diligently organize educational trips, and implement in their universities “language” and “culture” programs, so that American students can take courses in Cuba and learn about this charming “alternative” society.

Europeans have long enjoyed the pleasures of Cuba thanks to tourist companies, some of which specialize in sex tours to the lovely island. Barcelona Viajes’ advertising emphasizes the sensuality that the joyful life of the Cubans can offer the adventurous tourist. One of its brochures discretely announces a “Fiesta de solteros” (Single Men’s Party) at the Varadero Beach, “Juegos locos en la piscina” (Crazy games in the swimming pool), “Juegos de pijamas en la discoteca” (Pijama games at the discotheque) and a “Concurso del mejor bikini y bronceado” (Competition for the best bikini and suntan).

More intellectual and serious, American companies like Insight Cuba offer “people to people” tourist experiences, full of educational activities, music, and the joi de vivre that characterizes the happy Cuban population. It would only be common sense that, once you are inside Cuba, you don’t start asking about the persecution against the Damas de Blanco, or about blogger Yoani Sanchez.

Thus, as long as you behave, you may have the same wonderful experience as “Patricia S.,” an American tourist whose comments are part of Insight Cuba’s publicity: “The music was fabulous. Loved the paladar we went to one night. Also had rides in vintage 50’s cars. People were extremely warm and welcoming.”

Una Noche is so good that it captures this real and seemingly not uncommon experience in a priceless scene where a “nice” American family, made up of Dad, Mom, and their teenage son and daughter, drives an American car from the 50’s, blissfully unaware of the misery that makes possible their joy ride.

Of course, the natural question that comes to mind after seeing Una Noche is how on earth could the Cuban government allow it to be filmed in Cuba? This movie is simply devastating. It shows how Cubans actually live, not how the tourists see them, or how the American professors present Cuban “culture,” even when they do so with half-hearted caveats, to their naive students.

The great epic film The Lost City (which ought to be bought and watched together with Una Noche), with a script by one of the great writers of Latin America—the exiled Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante—and with Andy García as director and main actor, had to be filmed in the Dominican Republic. The Lost City could not even get financial backing in Hollywood because of its unsympathetic treatment of Castro and Che Guevara.

So what was different about Una Noche?

In the first place, the credentials of its director, Lucy Mulloy, were impeccable. Her father, Phil Mulloy, is a British director of animated films which run counter to the “bourgeois” and “capitalist” culture of the West. Thus in an animated film titled Intolerance, “our own notions of what is moral, of what is sexually decent, of what and who we are, are brought into question.” One of the devices used in this animated film for such de rigueur “questioning” of bourgeois morality is a race of aliens with “their heads and sex organs…anatomically reversed.” Her mother, the Czech-born Vera Neubauer, is also a creator of animated films dear to the European “intelligentsia.” In addition, Lucy Mulloy graduated from Oxford University and, later, from the film department at NYU–none of which are places full of right-wing intellectuals.

But the clincher must have been that Lucy Mulloy is the protégé of American black director and producer Spike Lee, whose name is the first one to appear on the screen as the film starts. Lee has made numerous movies critical of American society and its terribly unfair treatment of blacks, and is a multimillionaire with enormous national and international influence. Probably his support for the movie, and his personal lobbying of the Cuban government, made the filming in Cuba possible.