Academic journal article Cuban Studies

Between the Market and a Hard Place: Fernando Perez's Suite Habana in a Post-Utopian Cuba

Academic journal article Cuban Studies

Between the Market and a Hard Place: Fernando Perez's Suite Habana in a Post-Utopian Cuba

Article excerpt

La revolución cubana ha dejado de ser heroica. Cinco minutos, acaso cinco años para cambiar el mundo y volver a dejarlo igual aunque con canciones y fotografías, eso habría sido heroica para la literatura. Cuarenta y cinco años de insistir y de errar y de rectificar y persistir para dar cuenta de una verdad tan simple como el máximo beneficio de los accionistas no es compatible con el bien de la comunidad, de la comunidad completa, se entiende, pues no hay otra. Cuarenta y cinco años ensayando no son jamás heroicos, ni literarios.

Belén Gopegui, El lado frio de la almohada

"De pinga la habana."

Cuban comment overhead after seeing Suite Habana

"Silence and indolence are no longer possible."

Leonardo Padura1


In spring 2004, while strolling through the campus of the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), Cuba's premiere art university, I noticed a hammock swaying sixty feet above ground between two graceful palm trees. When I asked a student why the hammock was placed so high, he told me that it was a metaphor for the Cuban Revolution: "We build our dreams so high that nobody can reach them." As Cuba limps into the twenty-first century, trying to rebuild itself after the dramatic economic and existential crisis following the abrupt end of Soviet subsidies and trade in the early 1990s, the revolution's Utopian ideals may offer the only glimmer of hope in a reality of material scarcity. Yet, having staked the Cuban Revolution's reputation on achieving such monumental feats as erasing illiteracy, a ten-million-ton sugar harvest, and nothing less than the creation of the New Man, Fidel Castro has created hopes that are difficult to satisfy. Since the 1990s, Cuban filmmakers have responded to the gap between the ideals of the revolution and the reality of everyday life by turning away from grand historical representations of the collective Utopian revolution, and focusing instead on more personal, individual portraits of people struggling to survive. Fernando Pérez's 2003 film Suite Habana reflects this trend, at the same time as it invents a new cinematic aesthetic that appeals to both international and Cuban audiences.

During the Special Period, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuban artists were encouraged to produce for the international market to garner desperately needed hard currency for the country. The state expected artists, filmmakers, and intellectuals to become economically autonomous and not rely on state subsidies; this new market orientation forced cultural producers to seek foreign financing or simply to leave the country altogether. The impact of the economic crisis hit the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográfico (ICAIC) directly, leading to an exodus of personnel and the slowing down of production to the extent that, in 1996, the Institute did not release a single feature film whereas it had previously released eight every year.2 Filmmakers adapted to their new market-oriented role in society, shifting their attentions from grand historical socialist-themed narratives to more personal and individual expressions of Cuban reality, especially highlighting themes that had been previously taboo subjects, like homosexuality. In her insightful book Cuba Represent!, Sujatha Fernandes notes that "themes of homosexuality and AfroCuban spirituality are seen as particularly appealing to international audiences, given the attractiveness of 'difference' as a marketable commodity."3 Cuban filmmaker Pastor Vega commented that in this period he had to change the way he worked: "Before one only thought about the Cuban public. Now you have to think about 'marketing' and 'profits' and all that."4 Of course Vega's statement doesn't acknowledge that in the Soviet era Cuban filmmakers had to think about state censorship, and not just the public. Nonetheless, in addition to the constraints of producing for a capitalist market, the market-orientation has opened new possibilities for expression in a variety of artistic fields, including cinema, literature, and the plastic and performing arts. …

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