The documentary “Embargo” is technically flawed, tedious, confusing – and not up to the standards of a Miami Film Festival with a track record of excellence on films about Cuba, whether they’re made on the island or abroad.
The work of a novice filmmaker, Jeri Rice, a Portland woman who went to Cuba some years ago and met Fidel Castro, the film asks a good question: Why do we have an embargo?
But it delivers a propagandistic answer straight from the Cuban government playbook about the historical oppression the U.S. has exerted over Cuba, with no counterbalance whatsoever about the myriad crimes the Castro regime committed that merited sanctions. No mention of the millions of dollars in aid Cuban-Americans have been sending to Cuba every year. No mention that after President Barack Obama restored relations and began to unilaterally chip away at the embargo, opening travel and trade, Raúl Castro responded with more repression.
Featured are a montage of staple images from the Cold War, a bizarre and concocted connection to the “I Love Lucy” show that has nothing to do with the politics at hand, and talking heads that push a one-sided narrative on the complex issue of U.S-Cuba relations. Along the tortuous 90 minutes, there’s a mix of cliché and known history about the mafia in pre-Castro Cuba, links to the CIA, and incompetence of U.S. administrations in dealing with Castro.
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Unless you’re an expert on Cuba, it’s tough to follow. But there’s one thing you can’t miss: The portrayal of the Cuban community in Miami as terrorists and custodians of the U.S. embargo against the poor Cuban people.
At the Little Havana opening at the Tower Theater, some people walked out, while others found it worthwhile, flaws and all. But some Cuban-Americans – anti-embargo and First Amendment-loving, I should note – are rightfully outraged and questioning why and how propaganda made its way to the revered film festival.
“I felt like I was in Kansas, not Miami,” art patron Rosemary Ravinal told me. “The downing of the Brothers to the Rescue planes was justified because they invaded Cuban airspace? Cuba only exports doctors to countries in need with no intent to spread communist ideology? Say what? This film was not art, it was propagandist confabulation.”
The film’s financier is billionaire condo developer Jorge Perez, a philanthropist after whom Miami’s art museum is named. Perez is also – and this is an inherent conflict of interest – a major donor to the film festival. His company, Related, is listed as a premiere sponsor. And he also gave the festival a $15,000 grant some years ago to bring Cuban films and filmmakers to Miami.
Did he exert influence to showcase a poorly made film to curry favor with the Cuban government for his development ambitions in Cuba? Or, were the stewards of the film festival all too eager to please their benefactor at the expense of the community?
“I DID NOT personally push for the inclusion of this or any film in the Miami Film Festival,” Perez told me via email.
He, too, thought the film was “too left-leaning and idealized Castro too much.” He, too, was troubled that the film “appeared to condone the shooting down of the planes,” and said he tried unsuccessfully to have that removed.
“At the end of the film, they added the name of Fidel Castro with his date of birth and death as if film was in his honor, which I disliked very much,” Perez said. If he financed the film and was interviewed and filmed strolling the streets of Havana with the filmmaker, it’s because he believes “the embargo is wrong” and wants to see change in Cuba through the exchange of ideas and trade.
“I have NO desire to work with or for the Cuban government,” Perez said. “My only statement has been that if I ever could be involved, and only if it was legal in both the U.S. and Cuban law, I would love to contribute, in a non-profit basis, to the historic redevelopment of Havana,” he said.
But everyone involved should have seen this coming. Rice is not unlike some Americans who travel to Cuba and readily buy the government’s song-and-dance when they won’t do so in their own country.
Rice recalls how she was “waiting to meet the monster” that haunted her childhood dreams after her family’s urgent preparations for nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 traumatized her.
Yet, when Castro walked into a gathering of the Federation of Cuban Women she was attending, he was oh, so humble.
Rice says he told her: “I tried to create a utopia and I failed. And I don’t have time to fix it.”
Pobrecito comandante, sniff, sniff. Poor little tyrant.
This is how you ruin an esteemed – and hard-fought – institution like Miami’s international film festival.
And for what?
"Embargo" doesn’t shed any new light – and it certainly doesn’t bring us any closer to Cuba.