The impact of the Cuban revolution on the world has been profound. It provides ordinary people a picture of life without capitalism and demonstrates the power we have to make this change. No wonder the United States wants so desperately to kill it. But nothing — not 42 years of economic blockade, military invasions, attempted assassinations of its leaders, biological warfare nor intensive counter-revolutionary propaganda — has been able to force Cubans to surrender what they started in 1959: to build a socialist society. When in trouble, Washington can always call on the movie industry for help, from propaganda films to presidents. Julian Schnabel’s anti-Cuba film, Before Night Falls, is one of its more sophisticated offerings.
Before Night Falls is based on the autobiographical memoir of Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas. Released last year, the film was acclaimed as “Movie of the Year” by the American Film Institute and made it onto more than 75 U.S. reviewers’ top ten lists. Schnabel, the film and cast — which includes Johnny Depp and Spanish actor, Javier Bardem, who plays Arenas — were nominated for the prestigious Independent Spirit awards for independent film. Schnabel was on the cover of New York Times Magazine and featured in a New Yorker profile. And on the accolades went.
Why the fuss? Arenas was a prominent gay artist who “escaped” Cuba for the United States in 1980. Ten years later, destitute and dying from AIDS, he committed suicide in his New York slum dwelling. The U.S. press had published his farewell letter, in which he blamed the Cuban revolution for his exile and suffering. In promotional interviews, Schnabel, claiming not to know much about politics, said the film is “…against totalitarianism in any country. It is about tolerance.”
Before Night Falls was not made for rightwing opponents of Cuba. It is aimed squarely at people who support Cuba as well as those — including queers — most receptive to what Cuba can teach us: that socialism is the only solution to the oppression we all experience under capitalism. Schnabel seeks to turn Cuba’s natural allies into its enemies and further isolate it.
The film uses a few devices to achieve this. The artistry is top notch. The film’s credentials are helped along by the contributions of well-known performers, starting with Depp who stars seductively in both his roles — first as an imprisoned transvestite and later as a prison official who gets Arenas to denounce himself. Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson’s original works add to the fantastic array of music. The cinematography is equally evocative. Combined with a plot about systematic persecution of gays under a revolutionary regime, Schnabel’s creation takes on an aura of sensitivity and righteous passion — which some gay press have unfortunately fallen for.
This is where the rewriting of history comes in. The film revolves around Arenas, with archival film footage interspersed throughout to give the story an appearance of historical context and veracity. The film starts with his impoverished pre-1959 boyhood in the countryside, but the story centres on his development and life as a writer and an identified homosexual in the first 20 years of the revolution.
This is a very rich revolutionary period for Cuba. From 1960, the first year of the revolution, Cubans were introduced to freedoms that would transform their lives. What allowed this to happen was the nationalising of the country’s economy, trade and production which had been in the hands of U.S. interests and Cuba’s rich families. The needs of working people and the rural poor, like Arenas’ family, were given priority. In that year, the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) formed. Women were freed from their domestic and sexual servitude, as wives, housemaids or prostitutes, and trained to participate in the production and public life of the new society. Abortion was legalised, divorce was made easy, free childcare was set up, and women’s right to make their own reproductive choices was institutionalised. Racist laws were overturned. In 1960, the FMC ran the national literacy campaign, which became a landmark of the revolution. The priority on giving everyone the chance to perform to their potential extended into the arts and culture of the country. Arenas himself was awarded a scholarship under this new system.
But none of this is mentioned in the film. Instead, we watch a young and gifted writer being persecuted for his homosexuality. Unlike the 1993 production, Strawberry and Chocolate by Cuban Director Tomás Gutierrez, Before Night Falls does not present the period as one of contradiction. Nor does Schnabel examine the nature of revolution, like Cuba’s, as self-critical and ever-evolving. Instead, he leaves the viewer to conclude that Cuba is a blot on this earth that should be removed.
For the first two decades, homosexuals were treated as pariahs and homosexuality as bourgeois decadence. Therefore, anyone queer was regarded as a throwback to the days when Cuba was a playground for U.S. businessmen, or faced being denounced as a counter-revolutionary. They could not hold positions in the Cuban Communist Party or jobs that involved working with children.
In the film, the infamous Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) receive prominence. In response to the U.S.-organised Bay of Pigs invasion, the 1962 missile crisis (when President Kennedy brought the world to the brink of nuclear war over alleged USSR missiles in Cuba) and U.S. troops in the nearby Dominican Republic, the Cuban government mobilised the entire population for military self-defence. In 1965 the UMAPs were set up for those considered to be social delinquents, including lesbians and gays. Queers worked alongside Jehovahs Witnesses and others to satisfy Cuba’s non-combat military obligations, such as harvesting sugar. But the UMAPs brought loud protest, both inside Cuba and from Cuba supporters internationally. Castro’s government disbanded them in 1967. The film would have us believe that the UMAPs were an outcome and permanent fixture of the revolution. On the contrary, they were abolished because they went against its goal: to build a society that does not discriminate.
Any socialist revolution worth its name never stops questioning itself, analysing its mistakes and working toward correcting them. Cuba is not only a product of colonialism and Catholicism, its early revolution was influenced by the Stalinist leadership of the Soviet Union. There, homosexuality — decriminalised in the early days of the 1917 Russian Revolution — was re-criminalised by Stalin in 1934. In 1935 he outlawed abortion, overturning another of the revolution’s first reforms. Stalin’s “revolutionary family” returned women to the home and queers to the closet. The bureaucratism and anti-gay prejudices that marked Cuba’s leadership reflected the Soviet Union’s so-called Marxist orthodoxy. But Cuba’s leadership did not wrap itself in Stalin’s mantle. This is because the Cuban revolution stayed connected to its base — the people. Revolution is not a single event, it’s an ongoing process.
In his excellent review of Before Night Falls, Jon Hillson quotes a young man who served in the UMAP: “…we who were in the UMAP discovered that the Revolution and the UMAP were separable. And we said to ourselves: We won’t leave Cuba, we’ll stay and make what is bad not bad.” This is what a socialist revolution looks like: an unstoppable struggle to reach a shared prize. This is what Schnabel doesn’t want us to see.
So we watch Arenas go in a direction opposite to that of of the young revolutionary UMAP inmate. Arenas and his circle of friends fight repression by having sex. This eventually leads Arenas to prison on charges for molesting a minor and eventually his departure from Cuba.
What we don’t see is the raging debates about sexism and homophobia — coming from the centre of Cuba’s revolution: feminism. It was in this period that Castro said a society must be judged by the condition of the women. In Cuba, women’s entry into all aspects of revolutionary life was clearing the way for those remaining on the margins, including queers. Sexism and heterosexism are central to the nuclear family. They are double barreled oppressions within a system that is based on private property and profit. At the core of women’s fight for equality is their sexual and reproductive freedom. In Cuba, they were making great strides. Because the elimination of male supremacy is the defeat of heterosexism, their closest compañeras/os in this “revolution within a revolution” are homosexuals. In 1994 the FMC screened Gay Cuba, a U.S.-Cuba documentary by Sonja de Vries. Through interviews with queer and straight Cubans — including soldiers, factory workers and young people — this film shows a progressive change in popular views on same-sex relations.
In 1979 Cuba decriminalised homosexuality. The next year, Arenas left Cuba by ship, as part of the Mariel Exodus. In 1980, 125,000 Cubans emigrated to the United States — expecting a new life in the land of the free, where the streets are paved in gold. Arenas became one of the thousands of pawns in Washington’s unrelenting propaganda war. Its immigration policy for Cuba is a lure for people wanting to leave, either for the same reasons as Arenas or because of the material shortages caused by the economic embargo. The U.S. government parades new arrivals, such as Arenas or, more recently, young Elian Gonzalez, as trophies. Meanwhile thousands more die, either by drowning en route or from the racism and poverty that befalls them in the U.S.
Arenas lived in New York City, where he was involved in activity against Cuba, such as speaking tours, petitions and collaborating with anti-Castro emigrés. But this part of his life is not shown in the film.
One of the film’s most disgusting scenes is Arenas’ damning contrast of New York to Havana: gleaming skyscrapers versus buildings in disrepair; jazzy capitalism versus soulless socialism. Disgusting because it’s so superficial and dishonest. Socialism needs wealth if people’s material and cultural needs are to be fully met. As long as Cuba is encircled by a capitalist world and cut off by the U.S.-imposed blockade, then such wealth is impossible. But despite economic hardship, Cuba provides what no ordinary American or Australian has ever had: for starters, universal free healthcare and education, reproductive rights for women, the elimination of racism and the inalienable right of everyone to reach their potential.
There is a poignant scene. Arenas is being released from a New York hospital — even though he’s too sick from AIDS to go home. The African American male nurse is concerned that Arenas has no health insurance. As a person of colour in the United States, he understands what this means. He has none himself.
Schnabel’s selectivity is designed to have us think that Arenas was driven by a quest for freedom, and he died for it. If it weren’t for the film’s glaring omissions, the viewer’s conclusion would have been the same as Hillson’s: “…he was destroyed by AIDS, destitute, in the richest country in the world — some freedom! — as someone who betrayed the revolution that liberated him from rural poverty and became the willing tool of a criminal policy whose goal is its suffocation.”
Before Night Falls is a slick piece of disinformation. Although made before the September 11 attack on the United States, it is perfect propaganda for Bush’s war drive — which has Cuba in its sites. As a visitor to Cuba in 1985 and 1997, I witnessed what I’ve never experienced while growing up in the U.S. or living in Australia: a centrally coordinated economy where wealth is shared, not horded; a society where responsibilities like education, childcare or aged care are collectivised, not privatised; where solidarity and respect — and dancing — are ingrained in everyday life. That’s freedom, even in scarcity. We who want freedom must defend Cuba — not only for its courageous people, but for ourselves. When we follow their lead, we all will learn what freedom feels like — in abundance.