Kulchur

Stop in the name of love

The immortality predictions of Elian-crazed santeros aside, eventually Fidel Castro will pass on, and with him (notwithstanding the ascendancy of a Putin-style strongman) Cuban society as we presently know it. The precise form of this postrevolutionary landscape certainly is open for debate, but as a host of powerful South Floridian figures is making clear, the handwriting is already on the wall.

Sergio Pino, the notorious local real estate developer (whose name appears like a rash throughout the Herald's recent exposé of civic corruption at Miami International Airport), is clearly unsatisfied with turning Miami-Dade's public coffers into his own personal trough. Talking to Miami Business last month, he crowed, "I'm going to Cuba with $100 million.... I want to be the largest builder in Cuba."

Speaking on behalf of a less-cloaked criminal milieu, similar visions seem to have gripped convicted Miami mobster Ludwig "Tarzan" Fainberg, whose previous claim to international fame was the attempted brokering of a Russian naval submarine to a Colombian cocaine cartel. En route from a just-finished prison term to his new home in Israel, Fainberg echoed Pino in also seeing himself as Havana bound. "I'm going to Cuba," he enthusiastically informed author Robert Friedman in a New Yorker article recently, invoking the glory days of Meyer Lansky, as well as his own prior experience running Porky's strip club in Hialeah. "A few of my Russian friends already own resorts there."

Stop in the name of love: Havana's drag queens tell Fidel to get over himself
Stop in the name of love: Havana's drag queens tell Fidel to get over himself
Javier Echeverria (standing) at work in Cuba
Ovidio Gonzalez
Javier Echeverria (standing) at work in Cuba

For a less-moneyed segment of the Cuban exile community, however, these notions of sparkling new condos on the Malecón coupled with an efficient sex-tourism trade evince little excitement. Indeed, for exiled gays and lesbians, life after Fidel looks set to resemble nothing so much as a restoration of the ancien regime. It's a despairing note sounded most vocally in Sexual Exiles, a new documentary from director Irene Sosa screening this Saturday, April 15, as part of the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. In Sosa's film one Latina lesbian downcastedly explains: "Somebody that is an exile because of the political or economic situation -- there is always the dream of coming back. If the political system changes, you'll be received as a hero. But [gays and lesbians] became exiles just because we like who we are. To go back we'd have to learn to hate who we are."

For anyone who has logged time amid el exilio's bullhorn-toting protesters, that's a hard belief to refute. To cite just one display, as the foot soldiers of Vigilia Mambisa and Ramon Saul Sanchez's Movimiento Democracia ringed Los Van Van's performance behind police barricades at the Miami Arena last October, the constant catcall fervently screamed at concertgoers was maricón, faggot. Presumably these are the same bold defenders of freedom who will flock to the "new" Cuba to remake the island in their own image. Chronicle of an Ordinance, Sergio Giral's new documentary of the local controversy surrounding Miami-Dade's 1998 anti-gay discrimination law (also screening as part of the Gay and Lesbian Festival on April 15; see review page 72), is another telling harbinger, what with its reminder that a majority of Cuban-American county commissioners virulently opposed the very concept of gay rights.

Of course no ethnicity has a monopoly on homophobia. As Sosa makes clear in Sexual Exiles, reform-minded changes of state in nations such as Chile and Venezuela have done little to ease hostility toward gays and lesbians there. Yet Cubans remain on the receiving end of a double whammy: Not only are they subject to the traditional currents of suffocating machismo that have historically run throughout Latin America, but they also have to contend with the Fidelista cult of the heroic guerrilla, an ideology that often has found homosexuality not merely offensive, but downright "counterrevolutionary." The end result has seen gays in Cuba shipped off to forced-labor camps, purged repeatedly from arts organizations, and -- with the specter of AIDS emerging in the late '80s -- quarantined.

In recent years the island has adopted its own grudging version of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, particularly in the softening aftermath of Tomas Gutierrez Alea's 1994 watershed gay-theme film, Strawberry and Chocolate. Still, growing numbers of gays and lesbians refuse to be cowed, a point dramatized in To Be or Not to Be Eduardo, director Javier Echeverria's documentary on the Havana drag-queen scene.

"Eduardo has two strikes against him in Cuba," Echeverria explained to Kulchur during an interview here in Miami, referring to the film's main subject and his onstage transformations into Samantha. "He has AIDS and he is a transvestite." For Cuba's drag queens, "every day they live their lives openly as gay people is a social transgression. Every time they dress up, they take a risk: letters of warning from the government, harassment, jail."

And yet they continue to perform publicly, appearing in Spanish-government-sponsored cabarets, gathering as well through informal word-of-mouth networks at particular parks, beaches, outdoor cafés, and private parties.

Echeverria first met Eduardo while filming an earlier documentary on AIDS "sanitariums" where the HIV-positive were imprisoned, Fight for Life. From that point he says he felt morally committed, not just to telling Eduardo's story, but also that of the gay community at large. It wasn't an attitude that particularly endeared Echeverria to authorities at the university where he taught, who denied his projects funding. Unable to pursue the American indie filmmakers' modus operandi of maxing out one's credit cards, Echeverria says he sold off much of his furniture to finance the completion of Fight for Life. His gold wedding ring went toward shooting To Be or Not to Be Eduardo.

"There's no way the [Communist] Party is going to accept an independent point of view," he says with weary resignation in his voice. Shaking his head, he adds, "They wanted me to make documentaries with safe subjects, like 'One Hundred Years of Cuban Cars.'"

Just as frustrating to Echeverria was the lack of support he received from his professional peers. "There's a solidarity between transvestites in Cuba you won't find among Cuban intellectuals," he explains. "There's plenty of intellectuals that are gay, but they're mostly in the closet. They're either scared or too concerned with competing for foreign sponsors." In contrast he relates how the circle of drag queens he filmed all pooled their resources to purchase materials for costumes and makeup -- even collectively hiring a lawyer for an arrested friend. Meanwhile colleagues of Echeverria, who previously had offered the use of editing facilities after hours, or provided cut-rate film stock, now refused to get involved with such a controversial subject. Relying almost solely on the black market, Echeverria was shocked recently to discover the price for renting a camera and lighting equipment in Cuba was exactly the same as in South Florida. Only half-joking, he quips, "I think government spies in Miami must be telling people back in Havana what the going rates are."

Miami-Dade Community College's Alejandro Rios, who presented To Be or Not to Be Eduardo to a packed house under the auspices of the FIU Miami Film Festival, elaborates on this lack of cooperation within Cuba's arts world: "Cuban intellectuals aren't willing to collaborate with each other, because everybody's too busy trying to get their invitation to go abroad. They're trying to get contracts with a foreign company: a publishing house to issue their book, a producer to fund their movie." Rios adds wryly: "It's called minding your own business."

To Be or Not to Be Eduardo originally was slated for three showings during this past December's Havana Film Festival. While presenting another of his works at a California conference, however, Echeverria received troubling news. After its first screening, To Be was ominously removed from the Havana fest's schedule and withdrawn from competition for any awards. Concerned, Echeverria's father went to the festival offices in Havana, where he was duly informed the master tape for To Be had somehow been "misplaced." Officials then began inquiring daily about Echeverria's return date to the island.

Heeding the warnings from several co-workers, Echeverria has since opted to apply for political asylum here in Miami. Should he be granted residency, he may be in for a cultural surprise: In Cuba a drag queen's very existence stands as an act of political resistance. But here in Miami, drag hasn't only lost its chic allure, it's become downright passé. Regardless of its particular mook quotient, rare is the South Beach straight nightclub that doesn't offer a Saturday night without a retinue of Adam's apple-sporting faux Diana Rosses working the room. Similarly even as public-sensibility conscious an organization as the Miami Art Museum now proudly trumpets "gender illusionists" as an attraction at its opening parties.

So, more than two decades after the heyday of Anita Bryant, has the so-called lavender menace become (gasp) respectable? At this thought Echeverria pauses, smiles knowingly, and replies slowly: "Oh, I think there are still plenty of stories to tell in Miami."

Send your music news, local releases, and general gunk to Brett Sokol at 2800 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33137. Fax to 305-571-7678 or e-mail brett.sokol@miaminewtimes.com

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