Castro, ; Garcia, no

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Inés Sastre and Andy Garcia in The Lost City

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.

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Havana then

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.”

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Havana now

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.”

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Batista’s resignation, as portrayed in Godfather II

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. 

Castro’s Cuba and the film critics

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Andy Garcia in The Lost City

If you’ve never heard of Andy Garcia’s 2005 film The Lost City, there’s a good reason. The movie – which Garcia produced, directed, and starred in, and which he spent 16 years trying to get off the ground – was rejected by the Hollywood studios, snubbed by the film festivals, savaged by the mainstream media, and banned in several Latin American countries.

Why? Because it actually presented a historically accurate picture of pre- and post-revolutionary Cuba – a picture utterly at odds with the images proffered for the last half century by Castro’s propaganda and embraced by useful stooges in the American news media, academy, and entertainment industry.

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Humberto Fontova

In a 2006 article and his 2013 book The Longest Romance: The Mainstream Media and Fidel Castro, exiled Cuban writer Humberto Fontova took on the movie’s cockeyed critics. Among them was Stephen Holden of the New York Times, who called Garcia’s picture an “ode to the Havana of pre-Communist Cuba” and mockingly claimed that, in the film’s view, “life sure was peachy before Fidel Castro came to town and ruined everything.”

Nonsense: as one Cuban exile commented at the Amazon page for The Lost City, “The film makes no bones about the need to remove the (then) dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista but also unequivocally shows that what happened next was far worse for all involved.”

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Stephen Holden

Ridiculing Garcia’s focus on Havana’s “posh pre-revolution nightlife” and the relative invisibility of the “impoverished masses of Cubans who embraced Castro as a liberator,” Holden sneered that the film’s political dialogue was “of the junior high-school variety.” Fontova’s reply: “It’s Holden’s education on the Cuban revolution that’s of the junior high-school variety.” In fact The Lost City was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929-2005), a former Castro supporter who went into exile in the U.K. in 1965 – in other words, a man who knew a good deal more about Cuba than Stephen Holden does. Garcia, also born in Cuba, emigrated with his parents to Miami when he was a boy; he, too, knows more about Cuba than Holden does.

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Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Holden also sneered at what he called the film’s “buffoonish parodies of sour Communist apparatchiks barking orders” – his implication apparently being that the henchmen of Castro’s revolution couldn’t possibly have been so…well, so unpleasant. Fontova’s reply put Holden in his place: “It’s no ‘parody,’ Mr Holden, that the ‘apparatchiks’ Garcia depicts in his movie incarcerated and executed a higher percentage of their countrymen in their first three months in power than Hitler and his apparatchiks jailed and executed in their first three years.”

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Michael Atkinson

But Holden wasn’t alone. Among the many other critics who ignorantly disputed the film’s historical accuracy (don’t worry: we won’t catalog all of them) was the Village Voice‘s Michael Atkinson. For him, The Lost City was “a pro-old-guard, anti-revolutionary elegy – —like a rumba-inflected Gone With the Wind.” (Note the twisted comparison of Castro’s revolution, which enslaved millions, to the Union victory in the U.S. Civil War, which freed millions of slaves.) The film, complained Atkinson, “bemoans the loss of easy wealth for a precious few. Poor people are absolutely absent; Garcia and Infante seem to have thought that peasant revolutions happen for no particular reason – or at least no reason the moneyed 1 percent should have to worry about.”

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Castro, Guevara, and their revolutionary comrades

Fontova’s reply: “What’s absolutely absent is Mr. Atkinson’s knowledge about the Cuba Garcia depicts in his movie. His crack about that ‘moneyed one per cent’ and especially his ‘peasant revolution’ epitomize the clichéd idiocies still parroted by the media about Cuba.” In fact, half a century of Castro propaganda to the contrary, the Cuban Revolution was no peasant uprising; it was engineered by students, engineers, and the like who belonged to the middle and upper classes. Aside from Castro’s own PR, as Fontova points out, most Americans’ major source of information about pre-revolutionary Cuba is the movie Godfather II, which erroneously depicts Batista as a U.S. puppet and his country a combination workhouse for the poor and playground for local billionaires and American mobsters.

More tomorrow.