James Stranko of Avenida America on sweating, betting and letting
The language is coarse, but then again so is the reality. Charles Lane, quoting a character in the runaway Cuban film festival hit “Una Noche”, writes in the Washington Post: “There only two things to do in Cuba: sweat and f—“.
The character continues by painting the grim reality that Cubans are living under Raul Castro’s piecemeal capitalism, and the lengths that ordinary Cubans have to go in order to eke out a living.
At the same time, the film recounts the recent cholera epidemics that have been sweeping the country, an affront to a revered public health system that hosted Hugo Chavez when he was ill and that has been exporting doctors to Brazil.
This being New York and not Washington, I chose to see the films grittier cousin “La Partida” at Lincoln Center last weekend. This film, about callboys, love and Spanish tourists in modern Havana, paints a similarly grim picture through the eyes of two young men who intermittently love (and f—) their girlfriends, foreign male visitors they meet on the Malecón, and each other. There’s all the good drama you want out of a Latin movie, including death, deception, pawn shops, steamy love scenes and betrayal.
But the only thing fictional in these two movies are their characters.
The storylines, the human decadence, the exploitation, the materialism, and the overwhelming sense of a society on the brink of collapse are all too present in our neighbor to the south.
Cuba’s Communist system achieved a number of important development goals, including excellent universal education, good public healthcare on a shoestring budget, the eradication of tropical diseases (up until recently), and a level of public safety unseen in the majority of Latin America (authoritarian governments help).
But it always hid uncomfortable truths, namely that Cuba’s fabled revolution always needed a sponsor or someone to fund the country’s spending in the absence of trade with the United States and much of the world.
First it was the USSR, then it was European and Canadian developers building tourist resorts and shipping in sun-starved foreigners. Venezuela was a key benefactor under Hugo Chávez. But lately it has been nobody, and now (nominally) it’s Cuban remittances from abroad and the limited forms of entrepreneurship the regime is letting happen.
And these periods of sponsorship (or lack thereof) directly correlate with periods of economic prosperity (or hardship) for the island. But what is different about the years since the fall of the USSR is that individuals, and not the state, prosper from tourism in much more uneven ways than possible in a centrally-planned economy.
An economic bifurcation of sorts has resulted in Cuban haves and have nots, something many Cubans didn’t come to expect in their poor but egalitarian system. In turn, the have nots have to resort to increasingly dehumanizing measures to keep fed and keep up with the Martinezes.
This makes certain scenes from these two movies particularly compelling. For example, where young boys prostitute themselves in order to buy designer t-shirts and shoes and where other young boys then assault them as soon as they have said objects.
It also makes for a huge discrepancy between those who have access to foreigners through tourism, by guesthouse or whorehouse, and those who work for the old system.
Why break your back to make a state salary of US$15 a month when you can make that in an hour lying down?
Tragic scenes in La Partida, where one young gigolo’s mother-in-law welcomes a Spanish visiting John with open arms into her house, brings this to life. Knowing that her son-in-law has been sleeping with the Spaniard for money, she then proceeds to tell him to marry the guy, move to Spain, and then get them all over (including her newborn grandson) as quickly as possible.
In the process, it becomes clear that, in its bizarrely exploitative brand of capitalism, the only thing that most Cubans have to sell is themselves.
James Stranko advises the Clinton Global Initiative on Latin America and is the Editor-in-Chief of Avenida America. Follow him on twitter @extranjero
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