In recent months we’ve cast a jaundiced eye at the avalanche of stoogery that has surrounded the so-called “opening” of Cuba – what’s been called the “thawing” of U.S.-Cuba relations.
Part of that “thawing,” as we’ve seen this week, has been a mass pilgrimage of TV and movie producers to the prison island. On Monday we noted that some sequences of the newest installment of the Fast and Furious franchise are being filmed in Cuba; yesterday we reported on the release of Papa Hemingway in Cuba, a feature that was shot there in 2014. While receiving lukewarm to poor reviews, the picture has nonetheless occasioned some pretty idiotic (if unsurprising) commentary about Cuba.
Take Eliza Berman, who, in a puff piece for Time, fatuously echoed the Castros’ own B.S., blaming the island’s disastrous economy not on Communism but on the U.S.: “Because the embargo restricted the import of American goods to the island, much of the country has maintained the appearance of being somewhat stuck in time—not least of all thanks to its 1950s-model cars. This allowed for the majority of the film to be shot on location rather than on artificial sets.” (It’s not surprising to discover that Berman is a very young lass and that her 2007 Yale B.A. is in that ridiculous non-field, American Studies.)
Helen T. Verongos, writing in the New York Times, may have been entirely correct to say that the film “bristles with authentic detail, down to the very typewriter Hemingway used,” and that the producers’ ability to arrange for shooting in Cuba “was a feat of diplomacy, financial and otherwise.” But it would’ve been appropriate, we think, to include some acknowledgment of the nature of the political system with which the producers worked their supposed diplomatic magic.
Verongas’s “feat of diplomacy” remark wasn’t a one-off. Even as they panned the movie, many reviewers praised its producer-director, Bob Yari, for pulling off a supposed coup – namely, getting Cuba’s government to let him film there. It took Cuban-American writer Humberto Fontova to point out the sheer absurdity of this take on the situation. Hemingway, after all, whether you love his fiction or not, was a fervent supporter of Castro’s revolution, which he called “very pure and beautiful.” In fact, recently uncovered documents show that, for a while there, he was actually a KGB spy (albeit a lousy one). From the very beginning, the Castros recognized Hemingway as one of their own; they turned his house into a museum, have maintained it assiduously ever since, encourage tourists to visit it, and are eager to publicly underscore, at every opportunity, their cozy connection to the Nobel Prize-winning author.
Letting Yari make his film in Cuba, then, was a no-brainer. It’s perfect pro-Cuba propaganda. And, as Fontova stresses, nothing matters more to the Cuban regime than propaganda. Fidel himself bragged early on that “propaganda is the vital heart of our struggle”; the CIA has credited Cuba’s government with “creating the most effective propaganda empire in the Western Hemisphere.”
To be sure, Yari’s picture leaves out Hemingway’s service to the KGB. To quote Fontova, “it also omits what could have provided the movie with some of its most dramatic scenes. I refer to Papa Hemingway as honored guest and charmed spectator during many of Che Guevara’s firing squad murder marathons, while gulping his especially-made-for-the-celebratory-occasion Daiquiris.” But of course such scenes – the absence of which from the movie was noted by absolutely none of the critics linked to at the review-aggregating sites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic – would’ve damaged the images of both Hemingway and Cuba. And we couldn’t have that, could we?