In memory of four Brothers: Armando Alejandre, Jr., Carlos Costa, Carlos de la Peña and Pablo Morales
Ever since the 1993 release of the popular Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate, by directors Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío and with a script by Senel Paz, a lively debate about its content and significance has taken place. This was in itself predictable, given both the subject of the film—the sentimental education of two Cuban men, one gay the other straight—and the specific circumstance in which the film was produced—the so-called Cuban “special period,” following the collapse of Real Socialism in Europe and thus in the middle of the worst crisis the Castro regime has faced in its thirty-eight year history. Whereas outside of Cuba the film was hailed as further evidence that perestroika had reached the island and the Castro brothers were finally releasing their grip on dissidence, within the Cuban community, both in the island and among exiles, the film sparked conflicting opinions. Some viewed it as an unwitting critique [End Page 407] of long-standing official policy regarding gays, while others saw it as manipulative, further proof of the regime’s ongoing deception about its actual policies, particularly at a moment when it attempts to win over allies abroad in order to resolve an unprecedented economic and political crisis. The debate appeared to reach a climax when the film was bought up by Miramax for U.S. distribution and nominated for the Oscar for best foreign film. And it appeared to resolve itself when the film lost out to no less than Russia’s entry in the same contest.
One can of course only praise that a film would be capable of sparking discussion on such vital civic topics, even if the debate should have been based most often on previous political positions rather than on close readings. Indeed, contribution to civic discussion was the substance of the directors’ ultimate defense of their film. Yet despite their best wishes, the equivocal nature of the debate has been especially glaring, I think, precisely among members of the Cuban community, both in and out of the island. For us the film poses not just a limited statement about the status of gays in Cuba, but, according to what the directors themselves claimed, a general plea for tolerance, and thus presumably and by extension, a plea for the co-existence of contesting political philosophies, such as one-party socialism and multi-party liberalism; capitalism and state-directed economy, within the same national ethos. 1 If we agree that in [End Page 408] the film Diego is not just a gay man but a Cuban nationalist and, in the end, a future exile, and further, that David is not just a straight man but a reformed or newly-enlightened young Communist, then it is is clear that under the banner of a strong nationalism the film proposes the eventual reconciliation of the two political halves of the Cuban nation, torn asunder for almost four decades by the Communist regime. In one of the film’s final scenes, when the two friends are taking a view of Havana harbor, Diego laments that he is enjoying that view for the last time, to which David responds by questioning whether in fact it would be his last. Barring the possibility that here David is referring ironically to Diego’s future reconversion to revolutionary zeal, his question suggests that Diego will indeed return to Havana after the disappearance of the regime’s historic intolerance, perhaps even the disappearance of the regime itself.
That reconciliation should be the ultimate ethical horizon of Fresa y Chocolate should not surprise us, therefore, if we view the film within the context of the Cuban government’s recent attempts to pursue that precise policy with respect to Cuban exiles. Under the general rubric of diálogo, Havana has encouraged and at times sponsored sustained contacts with sympathetic groups of Cuban emigrés since at least the late 1970’s. Under this policy, family reunification, money remissions, guided tours and participation...