By LEONARDO HECHAVARRIA & MARCEL HATCH
“Before Night Falls” is not a crude “Reefer Madness” type of scare flick. Instead, it’s finely crafted cinema, with strong performances by a top-flight international cast featuring Javier Bardem, Olivier Martinez, Andrea Di Stefano, Johnny Depp, and Sean Penn.
This U.S. production, directed by Julian Schnabel and shot in Mexico, has grabbed numerous awards with its rich visuals and heart-rending emotionalism. Billed as a “true story,” it is also chock full of half-truths and sophisticated anti-Castro hogwash packaged as art and poetry, wrapped in sexuality. And, true to formula, the homosexual dies before the final credits roll.
The film is a sanitized version of the life of the noted Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas. We see his peasant childhood, his poetic talents and same-sex leanings blossom.
We follow his social and hormonal trysts, his voyage as an author, his frustration with anti-gay mores of the period, his disillusionment with Cuba, and his imprisonment.
We witness Arenas’ self-exile and his life in New York-where he contracts AIDS, lives in squalid poverty, writes voluminously against Cuba, and commits suicide in 1990.
We leave the theater with the impression of Cuba as a corrupt Stalinist police state-a gulag for homosexuals, intellectuals, and artists. Does it work? Sadly, based on nearby Kleenex consumption, we suspect it does.
Do these writers recommend you boycott it? No. But we urge you to question critically its assertions. We know of no Cuban, for or against their government, who finds the movie credible. Nor do smart gay activists.
In the May 7 issue of the The Guardian, Dr. Steve Williamson, an expert on Arenas’ work, says the film “rehashes a very old, distorted story.” He believes the poet was delusionary, if not suffering from outright dementia, when he wrote “Before Night Falls” during the final stages of AIDS.
Williamson adds: “Cuba has changed dramatically since then. It is by far the most progressive country in Latin America as regards gay rights.
“[Arenas] undoubtedly suffered because of what happened to him during that period in Cuba, which was wrong, but if you elevate what he wrote and what the film presents, you are falsifying history.”
The film assumes its audience is blind or ignorant, but not utterly hostile to Cuban reality. Yet, in a queer cinemagraphic twist, it erases the achievements of Cuban toilers, women, people of color, and indeed gays, who’ve made stupendous advances since 1959.
The end of hunger, homelessness, illiteracy, high infant mortality, and foreign domination of the island are of course undeniable-all fruits of the revolution.
It was Clinton/Bush-inspired destiny that a hot-button-pushing, gay-themed, anti-Cuba melodrama would be released. The persistent myth, promulgated chiefly by right-wing Cuban Americans (most of whom are hyper-homophobes), that homosexuality is illegal in Cuba, that gays and lesbians are banned from the Communist Party, and that they are savaged and tossed in the slammer, is pure bunk.
This political falsity has widespread currency among liberal skeptics and, within the queer community. It is to this audience the film was targeted. It is necessary for friends of Cuba to dispute this fable with facts.
Brief history of gays in Cuba
Before the 1959 revolution, life for lesbians and gays was one of extreme isolation and repression, enforced by civil law and augmented by Catholic dogma. Patriarchal attitudes made lesbians invisible. If discovered, they would often suffer sexual abuse, disgrace in the community, and job loss. Havana’s gay male underground-some 200,000-was a purgatory of prostitution to American tourists, domestic servitude, and constant threats of violence, and blackmail.
The closet was the operative image. Survival often meant engaging in fake heterosexual marriage, or banishment to the gay slum. Existence for queers in Cuba paralleled that of other countries.
Following the revolution, women won near full equality under the law, including pay equity and the right to child care, abortion, and military service, among other historic gains, laying the basis for their higher social and political status. This foundation, a first in the Americas, played an important role in women’s greater independence and sexual freedom, a prerequisite for homosexual liberation.
The Cuban Revolution also destroyed the Mafia-controlled, U.S. tourist-driven prostitution trade that held many Cuban women and gay men in bondage. The revolution undertook to provide ample education and employment opportunities for female prostitutes. Advances for women in general were naturally extended to lesbians, and many became among the most ardent defenders of the revolution.
On the other hand, a significant minority of gay men left Cuba. Some joined the counter-revolutionary expatriates in Miami or were blackmailed into doing so. Ironically, the U.S., which was busy flushing out and jailing its homosexuals during the McCarthy period, welcomed Cuban gays as part of its overall campaign to destabilize the island.
Latin machismo, Catholic bigotry, and anti-gay Stalinism combined in the early years of the revolution to limit specific legal reforms for lesbians and gays. Nonetheless, the latter joined the effort to build socialism; the majority was looking to a better future, while temporarily remaining in the closet.
In 1965, Cuba was under siege from the U.S. (Bay of Pigs 1961, Missile Crisis 1962, systematic military and biological incursions from Florida bases).
Counter-revolutionary bandits were holed up in the Escambray Mountains. In a misguided scheme to put thousands of draft dodgers-from gay men and transvestites, to Jehovah’s Witnesses-to work to bolster sugar yields, the government initiated Military Units for the Aid of Production (UMAP).
Ensuing domestic and international pressure, along with direct political intervention by Fidel Castro, shut down the penal labor brigades after only 18 months. Cubans consider the UMAP project a serious error and a breech of the principle of socialist equality. Yet, right-wingers persist in describing UMAPs as concentration camps, and imply they still exist.
“Before Night Falls” seizes on UMAPs to punctuate its image of Cuba as a penal colony for gays.
By the late ’60s, the Cuban approach toward lesbians and gays was in sync with Europe and Canada. Homosexuality was treated as an “illness” to be cured and no longer a criminal activity. In the 1970s, the transplanted Stalinist-Maoist notion that gays were a “manifestation of capitalist decadence” was abandoned. Homosexuality was viewed as a form of sexual behavior requiring study.
A 1971 Cultural Congress declaration that “no homosexual shall represent Cuba” was a setback. The decree was challenged in court by a theater group and rescinded two years later.
As in Canada and the United States in the 1970s and early ’80s, Cuban gays suffered routine police harassment, resulting in shameful public outings. But in Cuba, there was never physical torture by cops.
Leaps forward for Cuban gays
1975: Rules limiting employment of homosexuals in the arts and education were overturned. A Family Code was adopted, calling for equal responsibility for child-rearing and household duties between men and women.
1979: Homosexual acts were decriminalized.
1981: The Cuban bestseller, “In Defense of Love,” by Dr. Sigfried Schnabl, declares homosexuality “not a sickness, but a variant of sexuality.”
1986: National Commission on Sex Education introduces a program on homosexuality and bisexuality as healthy and positive.
1987: Police are forbidden to harass people because of appearance or clothing, largely benefiting gays.
1988: Law against “flaunting homosexuality” is rescinded. Fidel Castro explains the need to reject rigidity and change negative party and societal attitudes towards gays.
1992: Vilma Espin, a leader of the revolution and president of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), condemns prejudicial views against lesbians and gays. Castro speaks in defense of women’s equality and rebukes anti-gay sentiments: “I am absolutely opposed to any form of repression, contempt, scorn or discrimination with regard to homosexuals. [It is] a natural human tendency that must simply be respected.”
1993: Release of state-sponsored blockbuster film, “Strawberry and Chocolate,” which is critical of Communist Party discrimination against gays in the 1970s and ’80s. It is widely viewed in Cuba and praised internationally. The first gay men’s group is launched to combat AIDS.
1994: The Documentary film “Gay Cuba,” by U.S. director Sonja de Vries, frankly examines the island’s gay rights record. It opens an FMC event in Havana. The FMC invites the U.S. Queers for Cuba group to tour the island.
1995: The Cuban documentary, “Butterflies on the Scaffold,” chronicles how transvestites became a respected part of a Havana suburb. Cuban gays and transvestites dance at the head of the parade at Havana’s May Day celebration, and two U.S. queer delegations participate in the march.
1997: The last traces of anti-gay references in Cuba laws are removed.
1998: A nationwide television program launches a debate on lesbians and gays to vast audience interest. The topic is discussed in communities for weeks following.
End the blockade!
Unlike many gay rights leaders in Canada and the United States who see gay marriage and same sex benefits as the final frontier, lesbians and gays in Cuba are not clambering for the same. In Cuba, marriage is not considered an ultimate life achievement. Cuba’s collectivized social system ensures life-long equal benefits for all persons, especially children and elders.
Similarly, health care, food, shelter, education, and employment are not the central issues for queers in Cuban as they are in “advanced countries” because under the island’s socialist system they are guaranteed. AIDS victims in Cuba (which has the lowest rate of AIDS in the Americas), receive full wages and free medication, regardless of ability to work. Gay bashing has been absent since 1959.
The media does not portray lesbians and gays as hedonists, narcissists, or pederasts. Well-financed lobbies and rallies against gays don’t exist. Lesbians, gay men, and transvestites can freely assemble, as long as drugs and prostitution are not involved. Transsexuals get state-funded operations. Unions, schools, and mass organizations defend their homosexual members against discrimination as a matter of policy. Petty police harassment is in sharp decline.
The gay rights struggle in Cuba may not look like the movement here, because many legal and equality goals we seek have already been met. What queer Cubans want is full respect and dignity within the social arena, and recognition that their individual social contributions as gays, lesbians, and transgendered people are as worthy as those of their heterosexual compatriots.
With every television report of a gay murdered in the United States and elsewhere, Cubans recoil in horror, reflect on both the obstacles and mistakes they’ve overcome, and redouble their commitment to integration of their own gay citizens. In the early 1960s, a section of the Cuban Communist Party considered homosexuality to be a result of capitalist decay. Today, Cubans understand that hatred and discrimination against gays, and against women and people of color is a malady peculiar to capitalism.
Many scholars, community activists, and political leaders voice this analysis, as well as the woman on the street. This transformation and understanding truly makes the Cuban Revolution, “a school of unfettered thought.”
The U.S. blockade of the island is the primary cause of lesbian and gay suffering. Lack of resources impedes material improvements that gays and all Cubans want and deserve. Sparse public and private space for gays to meet is a major problem, as anyone can imagine. Job opportunities in careers of choice are negatively affected.
An end to the blockade would help increase employment and wages, ending a trend among a portion of young lesbians and gay men to gravitate to prostitution for extra cash, or to leave the island for the same. Like their straight peers, gay Cubans want the financial means to travel, to keep the wardrobe current, for more public and private transport, and houses with more living space.
In our opinion, Cuba is destined in this decade to become a world leader in gay dignity and equality. We believe the greatest solidarity is the help we can provide to end the U.S. blockade. We have much to learn from our Cuban sisters and brothers, including about the superiority of their collectivized economic and social system.
Socialist revolution has ensured measures of security and dignity for working people, and for women especially-goals for which North Americans still dream and battle. It has laid the basis for progressive social change and freedom in thought.
Unfortunately, Mr. Schnabel and the cast of “Before Night Falls” are treacherous obstacles on the road to freedom and lesbian-gay liberation.
THE AUTHORS: Cuban citizen Leonardo Hechavarría is a translator and interpreter, who resides and works in Canada. He is a passionate advocate of the Cuban Revolution and works for increased acceptance of lesbians and gays in his homeland.
Marcel Hatch is a typographer and a veteran gay rights activist and Cuba defender, who lives in Canada.
Together they organize the annual New Democratic Party Cuba Education Tours sponsored by the New Democratic Party Socialist Caucus and the Cuban Peace Movement (see http://www.ndpsocialists.ca).
Hechavarría and Hatch can be contacted at email@example.com.