AFP whitewashes the Castros

Exotic Havana

From time to time on this site, we’ve examined various public figures who had a soft spot for the Castro regime in Cuba and media organizations whose reports from Cuba routinely focused on its purported charms rather than its totalitarian government. We’ve written about director Bob Yari, who filmed a movie in Cuba; designer Karl Lagerfeld, who used Havana’s crumbling buildings as a backdrop for a glamorous fashion show; and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who, notwithstanding his own wealth, made a point of castigation capitalism while celebrating the Castros. We’ve told the tale of Fidel’s affair with compliant ABC reporter Lisa Howard, noted the chummy relationship between Jesse Jackson and the Castros, and, not least, the shamelessness and fatuity with which Time Magazine, again and again, has glorified the island prison.

Jair Bolsonaro

On January 2, Agence France Press demonstrated that the perverse impulse to whitewash the Cuban regime is not dead in 2019. Under the headline “Cuba celebrates 60 years of revolution amid challenges and change,” AFP described Cuba as a longtime “source of inspiration for leftist Latin American governments,” but added that the nation faces “increasing isolation in a region dominated by a resurgent right,” notably the new Brazilian government led by “far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.”

AFP reported that Bolsonaro had “made a point of not inviting” the new Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro to his inauguration, a decision that some of us might consider principled but that AFP seemed to want readers to regard as churlish.

Nicolas Maduro

Typically, AFP labeled Bolsonaro – a pro-American, pro-Israeli conservative who has been dubbed the Latin American Trump – as “far-right,” and characterized Argentina, Chile and Peru as having “all swung to the right in recent years, unseating leftist governments.” A more objective media outlet might have put it a bit differently – might have said, that is, that the voters of those countries have rejected socialism in favor of democratic capitalism.

Evo Morales

Meanwhile, in its references to Cuba’s leaders, AFP was careful to avoid the word “dictator,” obediently referring to Raul Castro as “[e]x-president” and as “first secretary of the Communist Party,” identifying the late Fidel Castro as “Cuba’s revolutionary leader,” and giving the current thug-in-chief, Miguel Diaz-Canel, his official title of “President.” AFP also reported that Maduro had “paid tribute to the ‘heroic Cuban people,’” whom he praised for their “’resistance and dignity’ in the face of ’60 years of sacrifices, struggles and blockade.’” In addition, according to AFP, “[a]nother surviving leftist leader, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, said Cuba’s revolution gave birth to ‘the light of hope and invincible will for the liberation of the people.’” This effusive rhetoric by Maduro and Morales was presented by AFP without context, so that an ill-informed reader would never know that the Cuban people have spent the last six decades not as stalwart patriots who have bravely resisted a U.S. blockade but as downtrodden subjects of a totalitarian tyranny.

Fidel Castro

To be sure, the word “dictator” did eventually appear in the AFP article – but only as a means of describing Castro’s predessor, Fulgencio Batista. To its credit, moreover, AFP also mentioned, toward the end of its article, that Cuba is a communist state. It also quoted a dissident, but that dissident, as it happened, was not an anti-Communist who opposed the Cuban Revolution from the start but a diehard Communist named Vladimiro Roca, whose father was a sidekick of Fidel Castro, who himself had run afoul of authorities and spent several years in prison, and whose complaint was therefore that the Cuban Revolution “died a long time ago.”

Donald Trump

Moreover, while AFP acknowledged that Cuba “has faced heavy criticism” abroad, it presented the Cuban people not as decades-long victims of a brutal autocracy but as having “had to contend with an increasingly hostile administration under Trump these last two years.” There’s no hint that the Trump administration is hostile not to the Cuban people but to their unelected masters. In 2019, alas, such full-scale misrepresentation continues to be par for the course for all too many Western media.

Bob Yari: lousy filmmaker, excellent Cuba propagandist

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.

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Giovanni Ribisi and Adrian Sparks in Papa Hemingway in Cuba

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. 

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Eliza Berman

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.)   

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Ribisi in Havana

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.

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Humberto Fontova

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.

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Fidel Castro

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.” 

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Che Guevara

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?

Hollywood follows Hemingway to Havana

Yesterday we talked about the newest Fast and Furious movie, which according to a January article in the Hollywood Reporter is “the first Hollywood studio film to shoot on the island since the embargo was set in the 1960s.”

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Adrian Sparks and Joely Richardson as the Hemingways

But hey, then there’s the just-released Papa Hemingway in Cuba, which the same publication described in 2014 (when it was being filmed) as “the first full-length feature with a Hollywood director and actors to be shot in the country since the 1959 revolution.” Apparently the key word is “studio”; while the car-chase franchise is owned by Universal Studios, the Hemingway picture was an independent Canadian-American production.

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Bob Yari

The film is directed by Bob Yari, a real-estate mogul turned big-time Hollywood money guy, who has bought himself producer credits on a number of major Hollywood releases (such as Prime, starring Meryl Streep, and The Painted Veil, starring Edward Norton). During his fifteen or so years in the business, he’s landed in more than his share of legal messes; according to the Boston Globe, he’s “perhaps best known for unsuccessfully suing the Academy over not getting producer credit on the 2005 best picture Oscar-winning Crash.” Papa, his only directorial credit other than 1989’s Mind Games, is based on an autobiographical script by Denne Bart Petitclerc, who died ten years ago and who, when he was a young newspaperman, was taken up by Hemingway, then living in Cuba, as a sort of sidekick and protégé. Adrian Sparks is Hemingway, Joely Richardson is his fourth wife, Mary, Giovanni Ribisi is the admiring cub reporter, and Minka Kelly is Ribisi’s love interest; Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel, who, a half a lifetime ago, played Woody Allen’s love interest in Manhattan, has a cameo. 

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Giovanni Ribisi and Minka Kelly

The reviews, to put it mildly, haven’t been stellar. Variety called the movie “formulaic” and “plodding”; the writer for RogerEbert.com complained that “the storytelling continuously keeps us at arm’s length, never allowing us to fully understand the bond that developed between these men….Here’s a film about one of the greatest writers in history that reduces the iconic man’s mind to the canned insights of a fortune cookie.” Calling the picture “a missed opportunity,” Stephanie Merry lamented in the Washington Post that it “doesn’t leave much of an impression.” Several critics have complained that Sparks utterly lacks Papa’s charisma, and that Ribisi, whose character is supposed to be a starry-eyed twenty-something, is, in real life, 41 years old, with thinning hair.

But almost all of the reviewers have exulted in Yari’s supposed coup – getting the Castro regime to let him film at Hemingway’s Cuban home, La Finca Vigía. Indeed, there’s been plenty of predictably stoogerific commentary about this supposed “milestone.” We’ll look at some of it tomorrow.