Carlos Cruz's Second Act
At a crucial moment in the Cuban movie Alicia in the Land of Wonders, a communist government bureaucrat looks into the camera and shouts at the top of his lungs: "¡Yo soy un hijo de puta!" ("I'm a son of a bitch!")
The 1991 film, a surreal, nightmarish satire of Cuban revolutionary society, shocked the crowd at a Berlin film festival, where it premiered. Neither the audience nor the rest of the world was accustomed to such self-criticism from the cultural apparatus of Fidel Castro's Cuba. In some corners of the island's artistic community, the movie raised hopes for a more critical Cuban cinema, one that might respond to the tough times after the end of Soviet economic support.
The actor who uttered the hijo de puta line was Carlos Cruz, then 40 years old and a veteran of scores of plays and more than a dozen movies made in Cuba. Trained in classical drama at the nation's most prestigious art schools, Cruz had worked steadily since his early twenties and evolved into a leading actor in Cuban cinema, at times living a much more comfortable life than most people on the island owing to the dollars he earned from coproductions with foreign film companies.
But for years, he says, he harbored grievances for the Castro government, especially the repression of actors and other artists because they were either homosexual or religious. Some of his friends were intimidated, blacklisted, and at times forced by party apparatchiks to change the form and content of their art. Yet during those years Cruz didn't defect, despite opportunities to do so. He says he hoped he and his friends eventually would be free to represent the reality of Cuba.
Four years after starring in Alicia, Cruz took top billing in another Cuban film that satirized the revolution. In the critically acclaimed Guantanamera, he played a pompous, sometimes brutal bureaucrat. "Guantanamera was important to my career in Cuba, because it was the film that ended my career in Cuba," says the actor during a recent interview in Miami.
Now 51 years old, Cruz finally defected in Miami in September 1999, after the Cuban government granted him permission to collaborate with a New York City theater group. He left behind his mother, whom he says he is trying to bring here. These days he shares a house in Hialeah with an aunt and uncle, and sells cars at Maroone Ford on the Palmetto Expressway, where Cuban customers often recognize him. He also teaches drama at La Academia, a private school in Coral Gables, while trying to resurrect his acting career. Univision gave him one small role in a telenovela last year. He has auditioned, unsuccessfully, for a few commercials. Spanish-language theater opportunities are few in Miami, and it has been slow going.
"When you had the fame I had in Cuba, you can't just take anything," he explains. "You have to choose the right project or projects to begin again." Cruz occasionally gets together with other noted Cuban actors now living in exile, among them Reynaldo Miravalles, Ramoncito Veloz, Orlando Casin, and Gilberto Reyes.
"It isn't easy, because we were all making our livings at different things, not acting, but we try to stay in touch," he says.
Many actors have fled the island in recent years, moving to the United States, for example, or Mexico or Spain. Some have left for political reasons, others because of the dearth of work in an economically ravaged society that cannot sustain a film industry without outside financing. But few were as successful as Cruz. For years the chameleon nature of the acting profession served him well. He played roles not only onstage but off, by keeping quiet about his disillusionment with the government. All the while his career advanced.
But during his final, difficult years on the island, Cruz became increasingly outspoken in his opposition to the regime. The Communist Party eventually accused him of biting the hand that had fed him, and he no longer was allowed to work. Did Carlos Cruz the actor tolerate the Cuban revolution as long as it was going well for him and then abandon the cause? Or was he deceived and persecuted by a revolution in which he says he still believes but which has lost its bearings? Like many Cubans who have lived the revolution on the island, his motivations and attitudes toward the system and its ideals are mixed.
In the Fifties the Salon Rey movie theater in the Havana suburb of Marianao filled its single screen mostly with dubbed and subtitled American films. Every Saturday afternoon at about one o'clock, Evaristo Cruz dropped off his only child, Carlos, who sat through six hours of cartoons and serials, and at least two full-length features, including Disney flicks, science-fiction movies, and Westerns.
"My favorites at first were Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry," says Cruz. "Later I liked Humphrey Bogart and Henry Fonda very much. Bogart made 77 films, I think, and I've seen most of them. By the time I walked out of that theater every Saturday evening, I was those heroes I'd seen on the screen. I walked like them, felt like them. I knew very, very young that I wanted to be an actor."
Fidel Castro took power January 1, 1959, when Cruz was just a boy, and during the first two years of the revolution, U.S. heroes continued to dominate Cuban movie houses. But then came the break in relations in January 1961 and the trade embargo, and no new American films were shown in Cuba until 1970, when the island began pirating them.
The Cruz family suffered shortages like everyone else, and Cruz's father found it harder than ever to conduct his businesses transporting vegetables to market and selling used cars. Still the family chose to remain in Cuba. "My parents were never bitter opponents of the revolution, like some people," Cruz offers.
And for a young man with aspirations of acting, the revolution was a godsend. The Castro government established state drama schools of much better quality than previously had existed. In high school young Carlos developed an ability to impersonate his teachers and a talent for dramatic readings, from Shakespeare's plays to the writings of Jose Martí. In 1968, at age eighteen, he passed a competitive exam to enter the Escuela de Artes in Havana, at what previously had been the Old Havana Country Club, a bastion of the prerevolutionary privileged class. Cruz notes only nine students were accepted out of more than fifty who applied. That year he began a rigorous four-year theater program.
"My first year our final project was Androcles and the Lion by George Bernard Shaw," he remembers. "The next year we did Andorra by [Swiss writer] Max Frisch. The following year I played Oedipus in Oedipus Rex, and the last year we did Molire. It was a very good education in world theater." Among his teachers were visiting professionals from the Moscow Art Theater, one of the greatest drama companies in the world.
But it was during this time that Cruz began constructing the great drama of his own life, or, at least, his central question of conscience: his differences with the revolution, which gave him great training but which was tainted by intolerance. He was still a student in 1971, when the first Party Congress on Education and Culture officially marginalized certain performers because of their faith and sexual orientation. The official line on homosexuals was that they shouldn't be allowed to influence the nation's children in any way, and the Catholic Church was seen as an enemy of the revolution.
"A good friend of mine in the theater program, Jorge Aguabella, was Catholic," says Cruz, "and the state security began to harass him about it. He was a person who was surely against all the reactionary forces in the church and the society, but that didn't matter to them. Because he was Catholic, they hounded him. When it came time later for him to go to Instituto Superior de Artes to get his degree, they wouldn't let him, and he eventually left the profession. He lives in Costa Rica now."
Cruz's own studies went well, however, and he kept his feelings to himself. After graduating from the Escuela de Artes, he was accepted into the prestigious repertory company at Havana's Teatro Rita Montaner, named after the legendary Cuban singer. The company performed in a basement theater in an office building in the Vedado neighborhood and included some 35 actors, plus directors, playwrights, and technicians. Cruz earned a yearly salary, not large, but typical of a Cuban government worker. It was a dream come true.
As the young actor gained more experience, he won bigger roles, and the good reviews rolled in. He eventually played the title role in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya; the narrator, Tom Wingfield, in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie; and the protagonist in Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.
Trim and swarthy, with deep-set brown eyes and black hair, Cruz easily could have played romantic leads. "But I've never done that," he says. "I've always been a character actor, which is what I always wanted to be. Sometimes those roles have been lead roles but they have still been character parts in my mind."
The repertory group took its productions all over the island, and by 1984, a decade or so after he'd joined, Cruz won an award as the best young theater actor in Cuba. In twenty years he appeared in some 60 plays at the Rita Montaner.
Cuban theater, like other artistic disciplines, was steadily improving in the Seventies, when Cruz began his career. Pablo Milanes, Silvio Rodriguez, and Los Van Van were making their musical reputations. Cuban pop-art king Raul Martinez -- who did for Che Guevara and Jose Martí what Andy Warhol did for Marilyn Monroe -- also was coming into prominence.
"Let's face it, my life was wonderful," recalls Cruz, who was part of that scene. "I was one of the few people in the world doing exactly what he wanted to do. I was appearing in one play six nights per week, and I was usually in rehearsals for two or maybe even three more. I was in my twenties, and I had girlfriends and friends and parties."
Cruz would eventually marry twice, though he has no children. His first wife was a theater makeup artist, who has remained in Cuba; the second worked as an assistant to film directors and now lives in France. Both marriages ended in divorce, and he says he doesn't keep in touch with the women.
The professional stability he knew in his early career made his life radically different from that of most Cubans, who were suffering under a period of economic crisis. "It was the era when the government called for a sugar harvest of 70 million tons to improve the economy, and there were great shortages of food," Cruz recalls. Even he felt the effects on occasion: One year he spent six months away from the stage, harvesting citrus.
"At the same time the Communist Party consolidated its power," Cruz says. "It was building the cult of personality around Che and doing more to define society in its own way." One such method was the strengthening of neighborhood committees that were used to spy on ordinary citizens.
Meanwhile repression of homosexuals continued. Two acting acquaintances, Maria Aguilar and Sara Planellas, were accused of being lesbians and driven out of the profession, according to Cruz. Another friend, the painter Servando Cabrera, also was harassed. "Servando had been painting homoerotic themes, and they let him know he couldn't do that," Cruz says. "So he went back to painting guajiras [peasant women]. It was a terrible thing to do to an artist."
It was indeed a "witch-hunt," agrees Alejandro Rios, a former film critic in Cuba who defected to the United States in 1992 and is now director of the Cuban Film Series at Miami-Dade Community College. "The government brought in an officer from the military, Luis Pavon, to run a body called the National Council of Culture," says Rios. "It was he who enforced a lot of these measures against gays." (Today Pavon hosts a radio show in Cuba on which he reads poetry.)
Government censors controlled not just who was allowed to perform but how texts were interpreted, even altering passages in classic works. "They would change passages if they thought certain lines might be interpreted as critical of the Cuban government," notes Cruz. Soliloquies about tyranny or repression were especially vulnerable. Cruz recalls the time he appeared in a production based on the works of Cuban writer Nicolas Guillen. A reference to the anti-fascist Spanish playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca was removed by censors. "They didn't say why, but you knew it was because Garcia Lorca was homosexual," he says.
Censorship, however, was haphazard. Sometimes productions reached the public without interference. In one notable staging of Shakespeare's The Tempest by another Havana troupe, Caliban, the wild, menacing spirit who inhabits the island where the play is set, bore a striking resemblance to Castro. The amount of control exerted by censors depended on the political situation and the mood of the country at the moment, Cruz says.
"I'm sure Carlos was censored many times," reveals Jesus Vega, a former official of the Cuban government film archive, the Cinemateca, who now lives in Miami. "It happened all the time."
But apart from some complaints to trusted colleagues, Cruz still said little. He continued to work, and his reputation grew. "When you're an actor, you can escape from the reality that is in front of your eyes and into the roles you play," he explains. "I played a role. I most often didn't say what I thought. I lived with a double morality."
Like the theater, Cuban cinema also had come a long way under the revolutionary government. The first new institution created by the Castro government, in March 1959, was the Cuban Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry (ICAIC).
Alfredo Guevara, an old classmate of Castro at the Jesuit-run Belen secondary school and the University of Havana, was named ICAIC's director. Despite their long-time acquaintance, Guevara reflected a radically different image from that of Fidel and the uniformed comandantes who surrounded him. Delicate, pallid, clearly gay -- despite the official position -- Guevara affected a European look, draping a jacket over his shoulders and often traveling with his pet Yorkshire terrier. "The policy against homosexuality," says Cruz, "didn't apply to Guevara, because he was an old acquaintance of Fidel's who stayed loyal to him."
Guevara turned his taste for European avant-garde film into a guiding light for the development of new Cuban cinema. Some films were even permitted to make mild criticisms of the system.
"Make no mistake about it: Guevara was a commissar," comments Vega. "But he set a standard. He said certain films could say things because they were true works of art, not just propaganda. The media and literature, they were censored from early on. Writers like Heberto Padilla and Reinaldo Arenas went to jail. But film managed to say things. A lot of that had to do with Alfredo Guevara."
Even during the ideologically strident Seventies, Guevara permitted films to be made that expressed frustration with the regime, acknowledges former film critic Rios. Poverty, scarcity, and corruption in the lives of ordinary citizens occasionally were depicted.
At the same time, however, those in the Cuban arts scene were growing increasingly frustrated. Ramoncito Veloz, a star of many Cuban movies, including 1989's The Beauty of the Alhambra, describes a late-Sixties meeting with cultural bureaucrats over his singing career. "My father was extremely well-known as a singer of guajiras," he says, referring to Cuban country music. "When I tried to start a singing career, I wanted to sing different kinds of music -- boleros, whatever. But I was told by the government officials that I could sing either guajiras or nueva trova [Latin-American revolutionary folk and popular music], but nothing else. They had an official line, even on songs." Veloz eventually defected and now sells real estate in Miami, where he sometimes appears in variety shows.
The sagging economy also contributed to artistic atrophy. Veloz remembers an attempt to film Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra for Cuban television. "We were doing it in three parts, and we taped the first two," he says. "When it came time to tape the last part, we were told there was only one videocassette left and that it had to be saved for some speech Fidel was going to give. In the end we never did tape it. People saw the first two parts of the play and never the third."
And there were bizarre regulations, according to Jorge Abello, who worked in Cuba as a television editor and, later, for the film Alicia. "It was explicitly understood that if a news program or government newsreel that was shown in theaters used the image of a dog, it could not be followed directly by an image of Fidel Castro," explains Abello, who left Cuba in 1992 and is now an editor at Channel 51 (WSCV-TV) in Hialeah. "It was absolutely prohibited."
In 1984, the same year he won his award for best young theater actor, Cruz landed his first movie role, in the romance A Time to Love by Cuban director Enrique Pineda Barnet. The film was set during the Cuban Missile Crisis; Cruz played a militia member accused of cowardice who later defuses a land mine and saves his comrades.
Like most other Cuban films of that decade, A Time to Love contained no controversial elements. The new head of ICAIC may have had something to do with this. The flamboyant Alfredo Guevara, who had guided the institute since its inception, was removed in 1981, after approving the making of the film Cecilia, which became scandalously expensive to produce. His old friend Fidel awarded him a sinecure, as representative to UNESCO in Paris. Film director Julio Garcia Espinosa became the new chief of ICAIC.
"Espinosa gave ICAIC his style," says Alejandro Rios. "He said Cuban filmmakers had to do a lot of popular films, comedies -- and to go back to the roots of Cuban history."
If the Eighties proved to be no golden era for Cuban film, it certainly was the most comfortable for Carlos Cruz. He was in his thirties then and remembers those years and the improved Soviet-supported island economy fondly.
"We would gather at the bar in the garden of the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists in Vedado," he recalls. "We would order out for food, drink our beer, and sit there for hours talking. There was enough money for us to get together at someone's house, cook some meat, drink, play some music, dance. Yes, things were good then."
A movie star by now, he continued to live the peculiar version of success enjoyed by some on the island. He'd been married and divorced twice, but because of a housing shortage, had always lived with his parents in Marianao. And though he still made about ten dollars per month in Cuban pesos (at least officially), he sometimes made extra money from foreign producers, which afforded him a better lifestyle than most Cubans.
"There were lots of coproductions in the Eighties with other countries, because that had become the way of financing films in Cuba," he explains. "The actors from the other countries would get paid in dollars or francs or whatever, but we were usually paid, officially, in Cuban pesos, which really were worth almost nothing. The foreign actors were assigned these luxury trailers, and sometimes they treated the Cuban actors like dirt. Occasionally the foreign partners would take pity on you and pay you something under the table, but not all the time."
He made almost nothing for his work in A Time to Love, and on top of that, the film was seen as a valentine to the political system. Cruz bridles when asked how he felt playing the part of a revolutionary hero when he himself felt differently. "To begin, when I take a role, I do my job," he declares. "I play that character the best I can. But also I am a patriot, and I am a revolutionary, a real revolutionary. I believe in equality, education, health care for all, and that people should live like human beings.
"I'm not sorry at all that I lived the revolution," Cruz continues. "But when some people can't be actors or baseball players or whatever because they don't think like someone else, that is not revolutionary. When one person has too much power, that is not revolutionary."
Given such thinking, Cruz was bound to have trouble with the Cuban cultural bureaucracy. But that day was still a ways off.
Toward the end of Eighties, a new chorus of critical voices was heard in the Cuban film community. The relative comfort of the decade had led to a cultural complacency, says Rios. "The new young people in the film industry got the old guys, who were sleepy, to wake up," he points out. "The Eighties generation came of age with the dissident movement," those Cubans who began to speak out against Castro's one-party government. "It was wonderful. It was legendary. The revolution of the past was the past. This was a new generation."
As artists began speaking more openly about their own professional frustrations and about problems in society, even the 1989 Communist Party Congress adopted a theme that reflected that spirit of challenge: "With ears open and tongues loose."
Cruz's tongue was among those loosened. "At that point," he says, "I had more than other people because of the occasional dollars I made. There were things in the stores, and I could buy them. But there were also tremendous inequalities in Cuba. If you had dollars, your life was totally different.
"You also had the fact that while foreigners could go certain places in the country, Cubans couldn't, even if they had dollars, like I did at times," he adds. "People I worked with on coproductions had access to parts of Cuba that I didn't."
And not all Cruz's friends were enjoying the success he was. "Many artists lived in total poverty," he recounts. "No home, no clothes, no nothing. I never stopped believing in what the revolution was supposedly about: equality. But there was, and is, no equality in Cuba."
But things were going so well in Cuba, Cruz offers, that nobody cared if he and others complained. Thanks to the Soviet Union, the economy was stronger than it had been for years, and more room existed for criticism. So Cruz was permitted to work in movies such as Jibaro, A Successful Man, Mascaro, and The Beauty of the Alhambra, all of which were relatively uncontroversial films.
Then in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and Cuba eventually lost the billions of dollars in subsidies it had been receiving from the Soviet Union. The island's economy went into the tank. After a time of relative affluence, serious shortages hit again in what was called the "special period," one of the worst in Cuban revolutionary history. Combined with a restless generation of young artists, it would spawn films critical of the regime -- and one that was unremittingly so.
The title character in Alicia is a theater teacher sent to work in the schools of a town called Maravillas, an imaginary place where the Cuban government has exiled workers and students, even children, who have run afoul of the system. In Maravillas the citizens are bombarded with the constant message -- in the media, in graffiti, in the official speeches -- that life in Cuba is wonderful. Meanwhile garbage wafts through the air, swarms of cockroaches infest buildings, and loudspeakers mounted along city streets intermittently belch and vomit, interrupting their saccharine messages. Exotic animals -- camels, crocodiles, and chimpanzees -- roam the streets. A zoo had been planned for the town, explains one character. "They sent the animals, but the cages never showed up."
Actor Reynaldo Miravalles, who now lives in Miami, plays the director of a sanatorium. His rambling orations are similar to Castro's, and he specializes in preparing mud baths designed to "cure" the misfits. Late in the movie, the mud is replaced with human excrement.
Cruz plays a petty bureaucrat named Perez, who is sent to Maravillas after having accused his bosses of incompetence. He has been driven crazy by a series of anonymous notes telling him what a wonderful person and public servant he is. The hypocrisy of those messages is so great that he finally shouts out in bald confession: "¡Yo soy un hijo de puta!"
"It's the only Cuban film that makes fun of everything that the revolution -- or at least Fidel Castro -- stands for," says Alejandro Rios. "The way health programs work or don't work, the problems with education -- everything -- and in a really sarcastic, bitter way."
Cruz recalls the making of the film. "The idea was to criticize some aspects of the revolution," he says. "And it went aspect by aspect until it ended up tearing apart everything. There was nothing really left to salvage. That's why the movie is so scathing."
Jesus Vega worked as an assistant to Alicia director Daniel Diaz Torres. "Everyone who worked on the film came up with more and more ways to say things we wanted to say -- more and more images," he explains. "Daniel kept saying, That's too dangerous. That's too dangerous!' But he couldn't go back. Our intention was to find those symbols, to show people that those symbols of the revolution were really bad and a kind of dogma."
It was a stroke of luck that the film escaped censorship. "The director of the ICAIC, Julio Garcia Espinosa, trusted [Torres], who was a member of the Communist Party," says Rios. "He sent it off to Berlin without even seeing it."
After screening in Berlin, where it was well received, Alicia was allowed to debut in Havana in June 1991, at the Cine Chaplin. That night itself could have been a scene in the film, says Cruz. It was nightmarish. "The Cine Chaplin in Vedado is where they always debut Cuban films, and there was always a certain public there," he recalls. "But this time almost none of those people were in attendance. Instead the government, in particular, the state security, filled the place, people both in uniform and not in uniform."
Once the film began rolling, the crowd became raucous. "Some people attacked the film from the audience, almost from the moment it began," Cruz recollects. "You could tell this was all planned. People had been told what to think about it before they saw it, and to protest it. When it was over, a woman sitting right in front of me, who I didn't know, turned and said to me: Excuse me, but that film is a piece of poison.' I answered her: Excuse me, but I disagree.'"
One of the most vociferous critics of the film was a onetime Revolutionary Youth Party official, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, who is now Cuba's ambassador to the United Nations. Alicia was shown for only four days in Havana and two other nights outside the capital, and very few Cubans managed to see it before it was withdrawn from circulation. "Films in Havana always debut on Thursday," says Rios. "It ran until Sunday. Every performance was packed with government supporters. After Sunday it was replaced by the movie Alien."
Cruz claims that his life changed after Alicia. "I wasn't blackballed at that point," he says. "But sometimes the pressures aren't open. There are subtleties. Word would reach me that I had to be careful."
Word from whom? Cruz shrugs. "Who knows? You collide with a structure, and that structure doesn't just have one face, a recognizable face. You never see who it is who is unhappy with you. But you just know that they are."
Actor Miravalles, who satirized Castro in Alicia, doesn't remember it that way. "I kept working. I always worked while I was there," he says. "I don't remember things the way Carlos does. Those things didn't happen to me. But I wasn't political."
Rios, however, remembers it much as Cruz does. "A guy named Patricio -- we never knew his last name or his exact title -- used to hang around the film people all the time," says the former film critic. "He was supposedly there to take care of you,' help you, but he was watching you, too. Those kinds of people are all over the place in Cuba."
One day in the late Eighties, Rios himself ran afoul of the government after giving some magazines to a visiting American academic, whom he later was told was a probable CIA operative. "Patricio came to my office, sat down before me, put his pistol on the desk, and told me I shouldn't have done what I did," he recalls. "That's the way it worked." An article Rios wrote a few years later in the magazine Gazeta de Cuba so angered censors that they barred him from publication for six months. He finally left the island in 1992.
In the aftermath of Alicia, the ICAIC fell into chaos. Garcia Espinosa lost the support of Castro for allowing the film to be made and released. At the same time, says Rios, he lost the backing of ICAIC members for refusing to support the film, as many other members had. He was removed from his post.
The person chosen to replace him was Alfredo Guevara, who was summoned back from Paris. Cruz returned to the relative safety of the stage in 1992 and 1993. He performed Shakespeare's Measure for Measure at the Rita Montaner. Then in 1994 he was picked by director Tomas Gutierrez Alea to star in the film Guantanamera.
"Titon," as Gutierrez Alea was known to his friends, had written and directed two of the greatest Cuban films of the revolutionary era, Death of a Bureaucrat in 1966 and Memories of Underdevelopment in 1968, and is considered by most critics to be the finest Cuban director.
His most recent success had been the Oscar-nominated Strawberry and Chocolate (1993), about the relationship between a gay Cuban man and the straight young communist with whom he falls in love and who is assigned to spy on him. The gay man, played by Jorge Perugorria, openly criticizes the banality of the Cuban cultural bureaucracy but refuses to be labeled a counterrevolutionary or to leave the country.
In Guantanamera, which was released in 1994, Cruz plays Adolfo, a provincial bureaucrat in the Ministry of Funerals faced with the problem of transporting the corpses of citizens who die away from home. Given Cuba's gasoline shortages, the burden of ferrying a body across the country for burial is onerous for the province in which a person dies. Adolfo comes up with the idea of transferring the corpse from one hearse to another at the border of each province so that the costs are shared.
"When the central government hears of your brilliant plan," one of Adolfo's co-workers tells him, "your career will be made in Havana." Of course it isn't. In the film the aunt of Adolfo's wife dies, and her body gets lost on its journey home. Meanwhile his wife falls in love with a truck driver who makes money in the black market.
That portrayal of the bumbling bureaucrat eventually earned Cruz a blackball from the Cuban film industry -- but very little else. "I was called to film 40 times," he complains, "and I made the equivalent of $300. The government would circulate this film all over the world and make money in dollars, but we made nothing" Although this was standard treatment for Cuban actors, Cruz refused to accept it.
In February 1998, several year after its release, Castro himself called Guantanamera "harmful to the revolution." According to Rios, Castro, who had never seen the film, changed his mind months later and apologized to members of the arts community -- but only in private. "He never said it in public or in the media," Rios says.
And Fidel never forgave Titon for Guantanamera, Vega says. Suffering from cancer and in need of an operation, the director requested that it be performed at the government hospital where Castro himself is treated. But obstacles were thrown in his way, and the surgery took place elsewhere.
"Titon talked to Alfredo Guevara, but it did no good," remembers Vega. The last time he saw Gutierrez Alea, he adds, the director cursed both Castro and Guevara. Vega left Cuba in 1995, about six months before Gutierrez Alea died. While in North Carolina for a cultural conference, Vega received word that Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and head of Cuba's armed forces, had delivered a stinging speech against intellectuals and dissolved some institutions that promoted cultural exchanges with the United States. Vega never went home.
Guantanamera haunted not only the director but Cruz as well. Castro's condemnation of the film in 1998 was "the beginning of the end for me," he says. Soon after Fidel's public comments, "turbas [pro-government demonstrators] tore down a television antenna on the roof of my house. Men started coming up to me in the street and whispering, Estas sucio' -- You're dirty. I went eighteen months where I didn't get a single job. One time, when they were casting a new film, Waiting List, the director picked me, but then he got a phone call from someone, and I was removed from the cast."
"Carlos was marked as an enemy of the government," says Vega. "That was why his career suffered, whereas other actors who had appeared in controversial films, but weren't as critical, continued to work and thrive. But there was another reason. Other top Cuban actors -- notably Jorge Perugorria , star of Strawberry and Chocolate -- were making film careers both inside and outside Cuba.
"Carlos never developed a career on the international scene," Rios adds. "If you did, if you were well-known in other countries, that would serve you, protect you to a degree. That applies to any artist in Cuba. Tomas Sanchez, the painter, got an award in Spain, and that protected him. Pablo Milanes is a revolutionary, but he has also said critical things and nothing happens, because he is so well-known outside the island. I think next to Reynaldo Miravalles, Carlos has been the best of the Cuban actors, but he never achieved that international following."
Cruz says when he did receive a foreign offer, the government tried to block it. A Spanish hotel chain wanted to feature him in a television commercial directed at attracting tourists to Cuba. Cruz maintains that Cuban officials tried to dissuade the company. "The government said, What happens if this guy defects? That won't be good for tourism, will it?' The Spaniards gave me the job anyway. Maybe that's what gave me the idea to defect: the government itself."
In September 1999 Cruz was invited to collaborate with a theater group in New York (he prefers not to name it). "They knew nothing of my plans," he explains, "and I don't want to ruin their ability to collaborate with other Cuban actors." From New York he flew to Miami and requested political asylum.
"I admire Carlos," says Rios. "First, he has talent. He didn't use anyone with influence as a ladder to get ahead in Cuba. He did it on his own. Also he never denied that Alicia was counterrevolutionary the way some others did. When asked, he didn't say anything. I'm sure he misses acting, but he'd rather be free, be himself. In Cuba from the hour you wake up, you have to put on your mask. I think he was fed up with the mask."
After years of pretending to go along with one system, Cruz refuses to don yet another mask in Miami when it comes to his political views. "I'm not sorry I lived the revolution," he says. "And I would never embrace the far right here because it reminds me too much of the far left in Cuba."
But Cruz also continues to cast a professional and critical eye toward Castro, as the Cuban leader plays his role on the world's stage. "What Fidel has is an absolute sense that he is the protagonist," he explains. "What Fidel desires is millions of people applauding him."
Like an actor.
Doesn't Cruz want the same thing? He smiles wryly and shrugs, "Yes, I guess I do."
Lights, Camera, Reaction
A contemporary Cuban film star discusses art and politics
Luis Alberto Garcia is one of the most successful movie actors working in Cuba today. Costar of heralded films such as Guantanamera and Life Is to Whistle, plus 34 other movies in the past sixteen years, he has chosen to live on the island while many of his colleagues have defected.
New Times asked Garcia to address the question of artistic freedom in Cuban cinema, which he did via e-mail from Havana.
In the United States it is said that censorship in Cuba is very severe and that you cannot criticize the social system in any public way. At the same time, Cuba has produced films that portray frustrations with that system, such as Memories of Underdevelopment, Death of a Bureaucrat, Strawberry and Chocolate, and Guantanamera. How do you measure the ability of Cuban cinema to express the reality of Cuba?
The Cuban Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry [ICAIC] is a body created and supported by the Cuban government. Two years after its foundation in 1959, [Fidel Castro made a speech] that has to be known as "Words to Intellectuals." One phrase from that speech defines some borders in Cuban culture dealing with what the capitalist world calls "freedom of expression."
The phrase in question was: "Within the revolution, everything; outside of the revolution, nothing." This phrase ... was uttered in 1961, the same year that the Cuban revolution declared itself to be "a dictatorship of the proletariat." For that reason if you want to make a film with the ICAIC against the ideas of the Cuban revolution, or against socialism as a system, or a film asking that Fidel Castro be overthrown or beheaded, you can be sure you won't be able to film one single frame for ICAIC....
Censorship exists in Cuba, no doubt about it. But it is much less than is alleged. I think Cuban censorship finds its greatest challenge -- and has made mistakes multiple times, of course -- in trying to decide who criticizes the errors of the revolution in order to rectify them and, in doing so, make the revolution better, and who criticizes the revolution with the idea of erasing it from the face of the Earth.
What has been clear for some time to the government and artists is that an apologist art, complacent and uncritical, is a species of very dangerous boomerang, much more dangerous in the long run than the most blatant and furious criticism. Years of discussions of all kinds between government officials and artists have won, not only for filmmakers, but artists in the plastic arts, writers, theater artists, singers, and others, the right to criticize what deserves criticism, among the Cubans on the island. I would be lying if I didn't tell you that at times nerves have gotten overheated and Torquemadas of all kinds have unjustly and wildly attacked creative artists who have aired their doubts and disappointments, but the waters have always eventually been calmed.
Films can be made that bother the "establishment," or part of it; films that show artists or phenomena that aren't agreeable to that establishment and which it would prefer not be shown to the public. But in the long run, a sense of the common good has won out, and all such films, absolutely all of them, have been shown commercially. [Note: Alicia in the Land of Wonders was seen by very few members of the general public in Cuba.]
In addition to the four films you mention in your question, I would add Adorable Lies, Plaff!, The Elephant and the Bicycle, Madagascar, Alicia in the Land of Wonders, Think of Me, Vertical Love, Thirst, The Wave, and Life Is to Whistle. In all of them, there are explicit criticisms.
Those who insist there is fierce censorship in Cuba, when they see the films that have been made and exhibited by the ICAIC, are left without solid arguments; and they are left to insist, feverishly and rabidly, that this is just another maneuver by Castro to appear like a civilized leader before the world. There are so many political resentments on both sides of the Florida Straits that it is useless to ask people on either side to tell you the truth. There is censorship everywhere of different degrees and shades. Not even Hollywood is free of it. Don't the major studios decide what is politically correct and incorrect in American movies? All of us in this world have our Senator [Joseph] McCarthy and our Hays Office [the office that censored American films in decades past]. Economic and political interests decide all of this. The ICAIC would never fund a film like Bitter Sugar [the 1996 anti-Castro film by Cuban exile Leon Ichaso], and Miami won't put one single cent in a film that supports the Cuban revolution. That's life."
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