September 26, 2005

Cuba @ the Movies: Thirteen Days

The most serious conflict in director Roger Donaldson’s “Thirteen Days” is not between the U.S. and the Soviets during the “missile crisis that shook the world” in October 1962. The clash here is between the U.S. President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Like a child with a hammer who only wants a handful of nails, the war complex can’t wait to go into action, even if it means unleashing thousands of nuclear bombs. Call it retribution for the failed invasion at Bay of Pigs, or just the opportunity for a mindless show of force.

Actors Bruce Greenberg and Steven Culp shine as President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and the story is seen from their point of view. They do a great job of portraying the strength and resilience of the Kennedy brothers in avoiding a war by controlling the situation. (Can you imagine GW Bush in Kennedy’s position?)

Unfortunately “Thirteen Days” doesn’t explore Cuba’s point of view. The U.S.-funded invasion at Bay of Pigs a year earlier is barely mentioned, and the U.S.-condoned (if not funded) terrorism against Cuba at the time is completely ignored. This is a dramatic mistake as well as a historical oversight that looms over the “story” like Godzilla over Tokyo. Without a more substantial exploration of the issues preceding the crisis, how can we fully understand our role in these events?

In one understated though poignant scene, right after a difficult meeting in which the JCS tries to manipulate him into launching an attack, President Kennedy wonders out loud, “How does a man get to a place where he can say ‘throw those lives away’ so easily…” That may be the high point in Kennedy’s career.

This is clearly Roger Donaldson’s best film, although I also enjoyed Cadillac Man, No Way Out, and The Getaway. The Internet Movie Database lists some of the film’s mistakes, most of which are minor.

Learn about the Missile Crisis at, where you’ll also find a crisis timeline, a list of books, letters between Castro, Kennedy and Khrushchev, and excerpts from the book Sad and Luminous Days.


September 22, 2005

Ivan the Terrible and Other Disasters

It seems fitting that a country in which blacks and whites fought side by side for identity and independence would also set the standard by which emergency response should be measured. In September 2004, a category-5 storm known as Ivan The Terrible passed through Cuba, unleashing 160-mph winds and destroying property like a special effect in a Roland Emmerich movie. The government knew Ivan was coming and had time to prepare, evacuating 1.5 million people (out of a total population of 11.5 million) and securing as much property and farm goods as possible. There were no deaths in Cuba as a result of Ivan the Terrible.

In early July of this year, Hurricane Dennis spread its 105-mph winds to mark the strongest hurricane to hit Cuba this early in the season in over 150 years. At least 10 people died, and, again, 1.5 million Cubans were evacuated.

Hurricanes are a staple of the Cuban experience… I remember the serious looks in the adults’ faces during a hurricane in the late 1960s (my one hurricane memory from childhood). Our home in Havana was new enough and strong enough to survive, and we were happy when it was over. But during the hurricane’s visit there was a frightening feeling that anything could happen. In recent years, hurricanes Isodore and Lili have also left scars on the island.

Last year Cuba also had to deal with the worst drought in the island’s history. Not only did it damage over 40% of the farmlands in Eastern Cuba, but nearly 4 million Cubans had to count each drop of water they consumed.

Of course, the worst disaster Cubans have had to deal with is a man-made embargo that has lasted over forty years now and grown into a category 5 blockade.


September 17, 2005

The Babalú Bad Boy

We were at a club in West Hollywood, well over 1.5 decades ago, waiting to see what was said to be one of the last performances by the great punk group The Dead Kennedys, when I got a mildly shocking, though pleasant cultural surprise.

The band was late, and the crowd was eager to slam-dance their nervous energy. The club announced that as we waited for the band to appear, we were all invited to participate in the first annual Ricky Ricardo Laugh Contest. The prize was $50 cash.

Contestants lined up to the right of the stage, and what a scene that was! Imagine a tall, thin, blue-spiked-hair young man with a torn T-shirt and leather pants and what looked like a bullet through his ear attempting the famous laugh. It was too much, even though he didn’t even come close to approaching reality, the crowd loved the effort, and so did I. (No, I didn’t enter the contest.)

At that moment I realized that I wasn’t the only one watching reruns of “I Love Lucy.” Who doesn’t know about Ricky Ricardo?

Ricky was the first fully Cuban character on American television. Over the years, a great deal of negative attention has been placed on the actor who played him, ignoring his accomplishments and positive qualities.

Many, to this day, don’t recognize Desi Arnaz as a real musician, overlooking the fact that he made a living as a bandleader before going into movies and television.

His numerous extramarital affairs were highly visible before WWII, and almost ruined his marriage to Lucille Ball. Then came “I Love Lucy,” the television landmark that’s still popular 50 years later.

Today, many look at the sexist attitudes of the times, particularly as portrayed in “I Love Lucy,” and they blame Desi, who must have invented sexism single-handedly. His character, Ricky, didn’t want his wife to go into show business. That was his domain. He wanted her at home, preparing his meals, washing his dishes and fully dependant on his success. Of course, this conflict gave us some of the most hilarious television moments ever, and it had nothing to do with the real life couple, who were wealthy, glamorous personalities.

Ay, ay, ay…

September 12, 2005

Cuba at the Movies: Sean Connery in “Cuba” (1979)

As far as I know, Sean Connery never went to Cuba as James Bond, but in the film “Cuba” directed by Richard Lester, it often feels like he wished he were somewhere else.

Connery plays a British soldier of fortune that comes to aid Cuba’s dictatorship from the advancing rebels, but the story is weak and uninspired, and we never feel close enough to any of the principals to understand them or care what happens.

Chris Sarandon’s character, the unnecessarily selfish and unlikable rich-boy-son Juan, seems to be here only to make the romance between his wife (Brooke Adams) and Connery appear plausible. His Cuban-playboy persona is all left-wing stereotypes in broad strokes.

Brooke Adams is the heart and soul of the film; at least what there is of it. At least she seems to respect those in service to her.

The story makes a crucial historical error when the words “Havana, 1959” flash on the screen near the beginning. If we’re to take the story seriously, then it should be late 1958. Another obvious mistake is Castro arriving at the Havana Airport on New Year’s Day, 1959.

The soundtrack is downright awful, which seems impossible when you consider how alive Cuban music has been since the 1930s. There’s some nice drumming here and there, but that Cuban musical urgency is nowhere to be found.

Lonette KcKee is striking in a small role as the Cuban factory worker having an affair with Juan, even though she was just as stereotyped as all the others. But it’s a small role that can’t save a film with bad music, where the male lead would rather be in a Bond movie, and the history of the island seems to have been unintentionally shaken and then stirred.

“I consider the time spent away from Cuba as time lost,” says Adams to Connery in the movie’s best line. As much as I liked the idea of a film like this, and as much as the background politics seemed close to real life, watching it also seemed like time lost.


September 06, 2005

Why Can’t We Be Friends? Part 3: Manifest Destiny

In 1848 President Polk offered Spain $100 million for Cuba, and in 1854 President Pierce upped the ante to $130 million. Spain declined the offer both times. Through diplomatic channels, the U.S. government made it known that “it would forcibly resist the acquisition of the island by any other nation.”

Spain was equally locked into its position; “(We) will neither now nor ever enter into any transaction having as an object the abandonment of her rights in the island of Cuba and Puerto Rico,” said Spanish Minister of State Pedro J. Pidal. “Sooner than see the Island transferred to any power, we would prefer seeing it sunk in the ocean!”

The U.S. civil war temporarily distracted efforts to acquire Cuba. Attempts to purchase the island continued during the 1890s, even as Cubans fought a bloody war for their independence.

After the U.S. entered the war and defeated Spain in what is barely remembered as the Spanish-American War, it was the U.S. flag (not the Cuban flag) that was raised in Havana, and to add insult to injury, the Cuban generals were not allowed to participate in the ceremony.

The U.S. took possession of Guantánamo Bay at that time, and the military occupation lasted until 1901, when a U.S.-style constitution was hatched up that included the Platt Amendment, which made Cuba a pseudo-colony.

For the next six decades the U.S. controlled Cuba through intimidation, puppet governments and friendly dictators. But all that came to an end in 1959 with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.

Partial embargoes began in early 1960, and a new era of Cuban politics, under a one-party system, ever so vigilant of pending U.S. aggression, was well under way.