Yesterday we brought up The Lost City, a 2005 Andy Garcia film about Havana before and after Castro. Mainstream critics in the U.S., traumatized by the movie’s nostalgic depiction of pre-revolutionary Cuba and its categorical disapproval of the revolution’s consequences, couldn’t forgive it for what they called its historical inaccuracy – a charge that exiled Cuban writer Humberto Fontova powerfully and definitively refuted.
Among other things, the reviewers chided Garcia for failing to depict pre-revolutionary Cuba (in accordance with the Castro regime’s propaganda) as a cesspit of poverty. Citing UNESCO statistics from the late 1950s, Fontova set the record straight on this score: in fact, Batista’s Cuba had a “large middle class”; union-membership rates were higher than in the U.S.; the average Cuban wage in 1957 was higher than in Belgium, Denmark, France, or Germany; Cuban laborers earned 66.6% of gross national income, compared to 70% in the U.S. and 64% in Switzerland; 44% of Cubans were “covered by social legislation,” a higher share than in the U.S.; Cuba had a higher per-capita income in 1958 than Spain, Austria, and Japan, and “Cuban industrial workers had the eighth-highest wages in the world”; stevedores made higher hourly wages in Cuba than in New Orleans or San Francisco; Cuban workers enjoyed an eight-hour day and (30 years before it came to Europe) a month-long vacation. “Cuba took in more immigrants (primarily from Europe) as a percentage of population than the U.S.,” wrote Fontova. “And more Americans lived in Cuba than Cubans in the U.S.”
Noting that critics had compared the supposed historical accuracy of The Lost City unfavorably to such films as Havana (1990) and Godfather II (1974), Fontova pointed out that Havana director Sydney Pollack had cast a blue-eyed blond to play Batista (who was black) and that Godfather II director Francis Ford Coppola had shown the streets of Havana on New Year’s Eve 1958, the night of the revolution, as being packed with people (in reality, Fontova recalls, “Havana streets were deathly quiet that night”). All in all, charged Fontova, the negative reviews of The Lost City reflected “the Mainstream Media’s thundering and apparently incurable ignorance on all matters Cuban.”
Unlike the mainstream-media reviewers, Cuban exiles who saw the film gave it rapturous notices:
“This film will offend a lot of people that have bought into the idea of Fidel Castro as a benevolent dictator and Che Guevara as a righteous revolutionary….Some have criticized this film for not showing ‘the grinding poverty’ of the masses in pre-Castro Cuba. There’s a reason for that. There wasn’t that much of it back then. The Cuban revolution was one led and funded by the middle and upper classes and supported by intellectuals throughout the island. They wanted democracy not a totalitarian dictatorship.”
“I’m a 65 year-old Cuban woman who lived through that historic time….I’m very grateful to Andy Garcia for the gift of this movie.”
“For many of us who have lived through our own ‘Lost City,’ watching this film was a bittersweet experience….Amazing that this film made it to the screen given its honest portrayal of the brutal architects of the Cuban revolution, particularly Hollywood’s darlings, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.”
Splendid tributes. But let’s give Fontova the last word: “Andy Garcia shows it precisely right. In 1958…Cubans expected political change not a socio-economic cataclysm and catastrophe. But I fully realize such distinctions are too ‘complex’ for a film critic to grasp. They prefer clichés and fantasies of revolution.” Alas, they’ve all heard too much Castro disinformation – and seen too many movies about Cuba that reflect that disinformation instead of telling the truth.