August 29, 2005

Cuba @ the Movies: Bond, James Bond

On occasion, as it has become necessary to serve queen and country, super agent James Bond has had to infiltrate Cuba in order to save the world.

Bond’s most recent foray into the island takes place in Die Another Day (2002). He tracks a North Korean killer, who’s undergoing a radical gene-therapy procedure that will given him a brand new face and increased life expectancy.

He’s first spotted in what is supposed to be Havana’s Malecon, but turns out to be Cadiz. Moments later, at a Havana cigar factory, Bond identifies himself as a representative of Universal Exports looking for “Delectados.” (At one point his contact jokes, “we may have lost our freedom, but our healthcare system is second to none.”)

The obligatory action takes place in the fictional island “Los Organos,” where Bond meets the beautiful Jinx, played by Halle Berry. She comes out of the ocean in a bikini a la Ursula Andress in “Dr. No,” and after a passionate night together they go on to destroy most of the medical facility. The North Korean agent they were both after, however, gets away.

In GoldenEye (1995) Bond pursues renegade Soviet agents who stole a state of the art F3 helicopter and took control of a secret and powerful space weapon called GoldenEye (GE). The GE fires a powerful electromagnetic pulse that can disable power and communication grids anywhere on the planet. The last remaining satellite control center, which Bond must find and destroy, is somewhere in rural Cuba.

We see the green rolling hills that might be found in Cuba’s Oriente province, and as Bond and company search for the satellite, the CIA shows up to lend a hand. Eventually they find their target and put the bad guys out of business. The world is safe, again, for commerce and conquest.

Given what mystery modern Cuba is to Americans, I’m surprised that not more movies have taken advantage of this.


August 23, 2005

Why Can’t We Be Friends? Part 2: The Havana Club

“The movement in Cuba for annexation to the United States began as early as 1810,” writes historian Philip Foner in, “A History of Cuba and its Relations with the United States, Volume II, 1845-1895.”

A few wealthy Cuban slave-owners were “swayed by their personal experience of life in the United States, where they were infected by the ‘go-ahead spirit’ and ‘get-rich doctrines’ of American merchants and politicians.” United in their fear that slavery would end in Cuba, they formed the Havana Club, whose goal was annexation to the U.S. The Havana Club included many American land and slave owners; all expecting great commercial and industrial advantages once Cuba became a U.S. state.

The idea of joining the Union, however, failed to capture any kind of popular support and died in Cuba, but not before it spread among Southern U.S. slave owners and expansionists. Their main goal was to preserve slavery in the U.S. through the incorporation of Cuba into the Union.

After signing the Treaty of Gadalupe that ended the war with Mexico in 1848, the U.S. acquired about 918,000 square miles of territory, just before the California gold rush. This acquisition, combined with the convenient moral absolution of Manifest Destiny, only increased the appetite for Cuba in the slave-owner-dominated and land-hungry Polk administration.

The Southern U.S. states also feared that an independent Cuba would abolish slavery. On the other hand, as Foner points out, “adding one or two slave states to the Union would strengthen the political power of the South in the government.”

Once again, Cuba became the card that a new empire wanted to play; Free, Cuba was a threat to the slave owning south. Absorbed, it could become an important ally.


August 17, 2005

Why Can’t We Be Friends? Part 1: The Ownership Society

“Cuba must be ours… Give us Cuba and our possessions are complete.” - Moses Yule Beach, New York Sun, July 23 1847

For over 150 years the U.S. has attempted to annex, control or dominate Cuba, and some of us can’t accept that Cubans declared their independence from the U.S. in 1959 with the emergence of the Cuban Revolution. Some of us refuse to acknowledge that we have no right or moral authority to enforce our will on the island.

Traditional U.S. policy towards Cuba was originally articulated by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1823; “These islands (Cuba and Puerto Rico) are natural appendages of the North American continent, and one of them (Cuba) almost within sight of our shores, from a multitude of considerations has become an object of transcendent importance to the commercial and political interests of our Union… These are laws of political as well as physical gravitation.”

In December of that year, President James Monroe established the Monroe Doctrine to isolate the Western Hemisphere for U.S. influence, warning Europe not to interfere in the affairs of any of the American nations.

Two years later, in 1825, Secretary of State Henry Clay blocked a planned expedition from Mexico and Venezuela to help liberate Cuba from Spain. The decision was based on the belief that in due time, under the operation of the “law of political economy,” Cuba would come under U.S. control.

Such is the origin of U.S. policy towards Cuba.


August 10, 2005

Cuba @ the Movies: I know it was you, Fredo

Cuba is only part of what’s at stake for Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in “Godfather II” (1974). If things go his way, he will inherit control of the casinos and hotels in Havana from Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). Instead, the Revolution ruins everything. (The Hyman Roth character was based on Meyer Lansky.)

Just after Batista announces his immediate resignation, Pacino delivers the line to John Cazale: “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart! You broke my heart!”

Fredo runs away in fear of his brother’s anger, and Michael looses at once the Latin Las Vegas empire that symbolized U.S. authority over Cuba, and a brother that had betrayed him.

Not being able to film in Cuba, locations in the Dominican Republic were used, and production designer Dean Tavoularis does a great job of making sure the interiors and exteriors look very authentic. There are numerous street shots and views of the Hotel Capri and the Tropicana nightclub.

In the commentary track, Coppola explains that the gold phone used in the movie was based on a real gold phone given by ITT to Fulgencio Batista.

Most films that use the Cuban revolution as a backdrop (Havana, Cuba, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights) don’t usually come close to portraying a realistic picture of the revolution. By staying with the gangsters exclusively, director, co-writer Francis Ford Coppola shows us the value of the Latin Las Vegas of the late 1950s. “We have now what we’ve always needed,” says Roth, “a real partnership with a government.”

Comedies can afford to deal with Cuba in a more subtle way. In the popular family film “Captain Ron” (1992), a family of 4 finds itself on Cuban soil after the “pirates of the Caribbean” hijack their sailboat. It’s unclear if the pirates themselves are Cuban, and there’s nothing to indicate that they are, other than the fact that they were unloading the sailboat in Cuba.

The family steals back their boat with the help of Captain Ron (Kurt Russell), who shows up in a stolen ’56 Buick and cracks a funny about how the “pirates are easy. It’s the Cuban cops you got to worry about. Grand theft auto is a major biggie around here!”

Eventually they’re able to get their boat into international waters, where the U.S. Coast Guard appears just in time for a happy ending.

The “grand theft auto” joke probably works outside the context of the embargo, but its political edge is more apparent if you’re familiar with recent Cuban history.