The new era of relations between Cuba and the United States is not yet four months old but it has already witnessed an extraordinarily eclectic range of public moments and not all of them positive.
Tania Bruguera, an internationally renowned Cuban performance artist was detained in Havana before she was to “perform” free speech. President Raúl Castro demanded Guantánamo be returned to Cuba, before furthering diplomatic relations.
A Russian spy ship docked in Havana’s harbor a day before the arrival of the US delegation charged with normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba. And last but not least, celebrities Paris Hilton and Naomi Campbell fraternized with Fidel Castro’s sons over cigars, and of course, documented that “party” with selfies.
This easy display of eye-catching headlines about Cuba and the US makes it difficult to recall even very recent times, let alone the relationship that overshadowed all others in Cuba for much of the past half century: the “friendship” with the Soviet Union.
The remnants of this friendship may be downplayed by the US media but they are very much part of contemporary Cuban culture.
The difficulty of forgetting
It was in 1960 that Fidel Castro’s Cuba and the Soviet Union cemented the economic relationship that was to be so important to the Caribbean island’s economy. Moscow purchased Cuban sugar and extended credit of $100 million for technical equipment, petroleum and other products. According to political scientist Mervyn J Bain, in the 20 year period up to 1985 Soviet trade with Cuba increased thirteen fold.
But when their “big brother” collapsed in 1991 Cuba’s exports fell by 80%, its GDP by 34% and its oil imports to almost nothing. The Cuban-Soviet friendship was – for a time – buried.
The country then entered into a period of economic crisis with severe shortages of fuel and food that was officially called the Special Period in Times of Peace.
Trying to forget the Soviet Union was a strategy adopted to get through the hard times as unscathed as possible.
But by the end of the 1990s, Cuban art began to reckon with the bittersweet memories of their country’s past kinship with the Soviet world.
Documenting the past
It is striking how many Cuban documentaries of the past decade focus on the Cuban-Soviet relationship.
They do so through exploring the physical places and objects that linked people from the two countries and through telling the stories of individuals who were on the front line of this international “marriage” (yes, the metaphors between fraternity and romance frequently shift).
These filmmakers are creating what French historian Pierre Nora calls “realms of memory” that “block the work of forgetting.”
Two films, however, stand out in the way their style and their content deal with Cuban-Soviet history. They do not make it easy to reincorporate the Soviets back into any national narrative.
The first of these, Esteban Insausti’s documentary Existen (They Exist, 2005), suggests that past agreements between the two countries – visualized through footage of the 1960 Soviet exposition at Havana’s Fine Arts Museum – are partly responsible for the mentally ill visible on Havana’s streets in the early 21st century.
In other words, Insausti is arguing that the Soviet-Cuban relationship, combined with the US embargo, failed to give rise to an autonomous and fully functioning people. Instead, it produced confusion and disfigurement.
The film’s soundtrack – that includes obviously 21st century techno music – makes a marked contrast with the technological advancements on display at the 1960 Soviet exposition. World Health Organization data on mental illness and economic health are juxtaposed with Cuban statistics that show an increase in the diagnosed cases of schizophrenia since 1985. Viewers are provoked to think about what progress was actually made in the 20th century.
The century’s project: wanting more
The second film I want to highlight is Carlos Machado Quintela’s feature, La obra del siglo (The Project of the Century, 2015), that made its North American debut in Miami on March 8.
This film chooses to study 20th century (and some 21st century) progress through the lives of three generations of men housed in an apartment that overlooks an abandoned nuclear reactor.
The apartment building is located in Juraguá, Cienfuegos, a city that was built according to the socialist realist design of Eastern Europe, part of an agreement between the Soviets and Cubans signed in 1976 to build two nuclear reactors.
Construction in Juraguá began in 1982 only to stop in 1992 after the Soviet collapse. La obra del siglo brilliantly juxtaposes documentary footage in color from the city’s own television station with the black and white reality of the characters’ contemporary life .
The film pays homage, among others, to the Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin who - together with the space race - evokes a much more hopeful era. The extent to which Gagarin was a hero for Cubans is clear, for example, in the number of male Cubans whose first name is Yuri. As I have documented in my own work, Gagarin is a recurring reference in contemporary literature and visual art.
In fact, I would go so far to say that La obra del siglo is the first Cuban feature film where you can see the Soviet Union-Cuban friendship actually shaping the lives and desires of Cuban denizens as well as those of people born in the USSR.
These lives, however, also take place against the background of the global 1980s, a point reinforced by one of the film’s theme songs Me quedé con ganas (I still wanted more) that shows the influence of American pop music of the same era.
One of the most intimate and strange scenes of the film takes place in bed. Rafael studied engineering in the Soviet Union. His new lover asks him to speak to her in Russian to evoke her former Soviet lover. Nowhere else in Cuban culture do we see Cuban men supplanted by Soviets in the bedroom. While Soviet women are often portrayed as desirable, Soviet men are rarely portrayed as up to Cuban standards. Throughout contemporary Cuban literature, Cuban characters’ interactions with Soviet characters reveal a lot about how Cubans think about their own racial and gender identities.
Cuba’s official narrative about its sovereignty and national triumph is constantly questioned in this film that juxtaposes the 1976 Cuba-USSR agreement with the country’s present-day war against mosquitoes.
So who is the island’s next big brother?
It’s notable that La obra del siglo’s grandfather replaces a photograph of St Basil’s Church in Moscow with one of an Asian woman. But viewers’ expectations of China as a major presence in Cuba’s contemporary imagination is not further explored in the film. Instead it ends with the transformation of the Soviet inspired and subsidized nuclear plant into international storage for toxic waste. Cuba’s future is more global but not necessarily optimistic.
As for the United States, it barely figures as a reference point in this superb feature. The award-winning director Carlos Machado Quintela has, like Existen’s Esteban Insausti, chosen to link his country’s haunting, yet supposedly ideologically promising past to a disfigured present and a toxic future.