The ambitious name and narration of Soy Cuba indicate its intent from the start – a film portraying the heart of the Cuban country and experience, from US playground to revolutionary battlefield. But in personifying the country and attempting to define the experiences of a nation, a frankly propagandist film falls flat in places.
Produced in the midst of the Cold War by a Soviet Russian filmmaker, Soy Cuba epitomizes the hostility many Latin Americans and Marxists alike felt for the United States. What it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in emotional impact, particularly in the first two vignettes that make up the film. Maria, the young Cuban girl with a double life as a prostitute to rich Americans, is clearly meant to inspire sympathy, and inequalities are emphasized and heightened, particularly as she dances. The camera work is excellent as “Betty” is spun about the floor, passed from man to man, out of control, dizzy, entirely dependent on someone else to catch her and stabilize her. The American tourists are white, male, and physically imposing. Beside them, her vulnerability is evident, as a young, relatively powerless black Cuban female, unable to provide for herself in other ways, unable to say no even as she seems unwilling and preoccupied, unable to control her own body as she dances with the men. Her failed romance and abysmal living conditions are not unexpected, and provide a futile echo of the city scenes.
The second segment is similarly evocative, with the injustice of the plight of the everyday, hardworking Cuban farmer on display, although it lacks the innovative filmwork that lends such visceral impact to the first. From there, the film’s effects steadily decrease to the viewer; although conditions to this point are undeniably horrific, the glory of Fidel Castro and the Communist Revolution are not particularly convincing, and the propagandist bent shines through clearly. The fallen martyrs and earnest gunmen, carrying rifles obtained in the heat of battle to ensure peace, hold less relevance for the average American (certain Second Amendment enthusiasts aside.)
This is not to say that the central message of triumph over corruption and tragic poverty is lost. Under Batista, Cuba epitomized the Latin American “banana republic,” with large amounts of land owned by United States businessmen rather than its own citizens, and locked into an economic system dependent on sugarcane and tourism. Among other obvious detrimental effects of the dominant sugar industry, this created a culture of racial prejudice: hundreds of thousands of black Cubans arrived on the island originally as seasonal sugarcane workers, to unreceptive Cuban elites, and certain beaches were closed off to Afro-Cubans “to suit the race prejudice of US tourists.” (de la Fuente 51, Chasteen 273.)
But conditions following the Cuban Revolution were hardly the immediate paradise promoted by Communists and their allies. According to de la Fuente, black workers had become an increasingly large part of Cuba’s Communist movement by the 1930s, and racial equality was a central tenet of the Communist platform, ensuring the eradication of institutional racism in Castro’s first year. However, Castro too effectively silenced discussions of race, with an emphasis on Cuba as a post-racial society and a growing move to focus on a national identity that disavowed any racial disparities. (de la Fuente 59-61.)
Meanwhile, fledgling Communist Cuba suffered economically as the US and most of its allies enforced a trade embargo, forcing dependence on a “distant” Soviet Union more interested in exploiting Cuba’s sugarcane than in the promised developmental aid (Chasteen 269, 271.) Dissent against government production goals and enforcement mechanisms was sharply silenced.
While Soy Cuba contains elements of a stirring tale of self-actualization, it is imperative to note that the tale is not told by a Cuban director, but a Russian. The quest for a unified Cuba, encompassing all the elements presented in several vignettes under the banner of triumphant nationalism, marginalizes the underwhelmed middle and upper classes and detracts from any lingering racial tensions and social if not legal inequalities. The portrayal of the revolution downplays darker sides to promote a clear agenda, and only partially succeeds. Can an entire nation be swept up in a revolutionary movement? Can a film by a foreign director claim to speak for all of Cuba? It is doubtful.