Cuban Spies and Cold War Syndromes: A Review of ‘Wasp Network’

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The customary “script” on Cuba reads something like this: Cuba is ruled by a communist regime, at the helm of which was the authoritarian Fidel Castro and, later, his brother Raul Castro.  Its totalitarian system is both politically repressive and economically foolish, having deprived its people of democracy and human rights.  Indeed, so abysmal is life in Cuba that thousands have fled in make-shift rafts, risking their lives to reach Florida’s shores and enjoy the fruits of the free market system and the American Dream.TM 

     I don’t mean for this to sound flippant, of course.  No one—least of all those of us with Cuban family or loved ones—can deny the turmoil, privations, and persecutions that have plagued so many Cuban lives—for over fifty years no less!  The well-publicized accounts of travesties of justice or economic hardships in Cuba—let alone the sobering “human interest” stories about Cuban balseros (rafters)—are not lies.  Yet nor are they properly contextualized.  In fact, so much of what passes for “news” on Cuba in the United States (and elsewhere) would be dismissed as fallacies or methodologically invalid in standard college classes on logic or statistics: loaded and incriminatory language, cherry-picked testimonials, straw man caricatures, circular reasoning, allegations and anecdotes that masquerade as facts and data, and convenient omissions (i.e.. the embargo). 

     Yet with remarkable consistency media outlets as ostensibly diverse and reputable as the Miami Herald and The New York Times or CNN and NPR reiterate more or less the same fallacy-ridden script.  Given that their staff are talented and resourceful, it’s hard not to conclude that they’d rather ridicule, vilify, or otherwise silence the Cuban Revolution than take it—let alone revolutionary politics—seriously.  Indeed, the cumulative effect of all such news isn’t just to misinform Americans on socialist Cuba; it’s to demoralize anyone who believes that a people’s liberation movement could yield a more decent, if still fallible, world.  Anyone who’s read or been subjected to it (basically all of us!), knows that sympathizers are cast as naïve “liberals” or worse: accomplices to human rights violations.   

     Such is the case, moreover, in the venue and medium with which we most routinely associate the notion of a “script,” namely Hollywood cinema.  A not insignificant number of films—not limited, you’ll note, to the Cold War era—have either overtly or obliquely portrayed socialist Cuba and Cuban revolutionaries as synonymous with terrorists, drug traffickers, invaders, indoctrinated buffoons, or fanatical dictators: Red Dawn (1984), A Few Good Men (1992), GoldenEye (1995), For Love or Country (2000), Die Another Day (2002), Bad Boys II (2003), The Lost City (2005)… I could go on. 

But, for now, you’ll note the unrivaled celebrity power brought to bear, however unwittingly, on socialist Cuba: Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze, Pierce Bronson, Halle Barry, Will Smith, Andy García, etc.  And such a list wouldn’t be limited to frivolous “entertainment industry” films.  It would include critically acclaimed works like the gorgeously crafted Before Night Falls (2000) and its star-studded cast of Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Benjamin Bratt, and Javier Bardem, whose role as persecuted gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas is unforgettable.  Either way, all these films abide by some variant of that hegemonic script which renders the Cuban Revolution a blunder, at best, or a menace to the world—and, for good measure, incorrigibly homophobic!

     It is for this reason alone that the new film, Wasp Network, directed by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, is noteworthy.  Any film that so handedly breaks from the mainstream script deserves our praise—and our scrutiny.  It is not the first such film, of course.  There is a rich history of heretical and nuanced indie documentaries on Cuba, works such as Estela Bravo’s Fidel: The Untold Story (2001) or Catalan filmmakers Carles Bosch and Josep Maria Domènech’s Balseros (2002), about the not so enviable fate of Cuban “rafters” in the so-called “land of opportunity.”  But Wasp Network stands out as (i) a fictional drama with (ii) a celebrity cast that is (iii) streaming on one of the most coveted venues of our time, namely Netflix (with its 72 million paying subscribers in the US and 192 million worldwide).[i]

     Wasp Network is a cinematographically beautiful and complex film about the Cuban Five.  Based on the book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War (2012) by Brazilian writer Fernando Morais, it tells the story of the “network” of Cuban intelligence officers sent to infiltrate counterrevolutionary organizations in the United States so as to prevent terrorist attacks on Cuban soil.  This network of twelve men and two women came to the US in the early 1990s—that is, at a decidedly volatile and vulnerable time for Cubans and the Revolution.  The Soviet Union’s dissolution left Cuba without its most important military and commercial ally.  Its economy contracted by roughly a third and life became dire.  Food and energy were rationed and caloric intake and fertility rates fell dramatically, as oxen replaced tractors, bicycles automobiles, and candles electric bulbs.  Even things as prosaic as soap and matches became coveted commodities, as illicit markets with high prices for food and other goods emerged.  Not surprisingly, this fostered a sense of disenchantment and embitterment.[ii]   

     Such misery did not come about on its own, however.  The “anti-Castro” US and Cuban exiles—let alone the corporate media—saw the “end of history” as their chance to do away with the Revolution once and for all.  Indeed, it enforced harsher punitive measures in hopes to sow misery and, thereby, dissent.  The 1992 Torricelli Act forbid, for instance, US subsidiaries in foreign countries from doing business with Cuba—regardless of (or precisely due to) the fact that food and medicine accounted for as much as 90 percent of such trade.  It also stipulated penalties for those countries or institutions that granted aid to Cuba.  Thereafter, the 1996 Helms-Burton Act extended the US’ prosecutorial powers to any foreign company that invested in Cuba and, among other things, renewed a budget in the order of tens of millions to fund dissidents on and off the island.[iii]  

     The Cuban government did not, of course, stand idly by in this “Special Period in Times of Peace,” as it was officially (and euphemistically) termed.  It sought out new trade partners and investors, especially joint ventures to rebuild its tourist economy; handed over state farms to farmers’ cooperatives and fostered urban agriculture and farmer’s markets; and issued licenses to its citizens to open small businesses, not least in the hospitality sector.  And this worked fairly well, under the circumstances.  Cuba’s “exotic” niche as tropical island andsocialist relic proved irresistible to western Europeans and Canadians. 

     Cuban exiles accordingly upped the ante.  With the aid of hired (Central American) mercenaries, they fired machine guns on Cuban beaches and, most egregiously, bombed hotels.  The objective: frighten away the tourists and their dollars (or euros, etc.).  All the while, the US turned a blind eye, whenever it didn’t actively aid or abed such terrorist acts. 

     Enter La Red Avispa, that network of Cuban spies that in due course foiled terrorist attacks and saved hundreds of innocent lives.[iv]  Director and screenwriter Assayas and his crew bring this history to dramatized life in Wasp Network.  The film opens in the Havana tenement of René González (Edgar Ramírez) with his wife, Olga (Penelope Cruz), and infant daughter.  We see what seems like a hard-working, honest family and functional marriage.  In the next scene, however, René, an armed forces pilot, calmly steals a small propeller plane and heads for Miami.  Then comes Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura from Narcos), who swims to Guantanamo Bay Naval Station and defects.  He, too, is a pilot and settles in Miami.  For the first hour of the film, the viewer follows a series of episodic vignettes of these men’s lives in Miami—and, occasionally, Olga’s lonely and ostracized life in Havana.  As pilots, both men are recruited by José Basulto, also a real-life character and founder of the “humanitarian” organization Brothers to the Rescue.  The Brothers fly planes over international waters to assist and rescue Cuban rafters at sea.  But they also taunt the Cuban government with flyovers in Havana, dropping leaflets and calling on Cubans to overthrow the “dictatorship.”  René, a hardworking and stoic loner, is ambivalent about anything illegal or unethical.  The further he delves into the Miami-based Cuban exile community, the more he (and the viewer) learns of laundered drug money and FBI payrolls.  Meanwhile, fellow defector Roque becomes a well-compensated FBI informant and lives a glamorous life with his new wife, a Cuban American socialite named Ana (Ana de Armas).

     For this first full hour of the film, thus, the viewer is led to believe that René and Roque are bona fide defectors.  But then a flashback scene—“four years earlier”—tells us otherwise.  Here we’re introduced to the professorial-like Gerardo Hernández (Gael Garcia Bernal), who is assigned as the ringleader of the Wasp Network.  An omniscient narrator and a stylized sequence of stills set to theme music worthy of Hawaii Five-O introduce us to the larger network of intelligence officers.  Next comes a montage of unassuming disguises, rendezvous, handoffs, and nonchalant stares all familiar to the spy genre.  The remainder of the film picks up pace as Olga learns of her husband’s true mission and moves with her daughter to Miami.  There are a few scenes of suspense and terrorist acts foiled as well as morally ambiguous moments.  The two Brothers to the Rescue planes shot down by the Cuban Air Force in 1996 is, for instance, reenacted.  But not in a scenario of freedom fighters versus dastardly communist villains.  The viewer knows that Brothers to the Rescue is not exactly an “kosher” organization and that it has taunted Cuba on many occasions.  The context invites the viewer to ask themselves what the US Air Force would have done if it was Cuban planes dropping seditious leaflets over Washington, D.C.  I could see it now: Top Gun II, with Tom Cruise blowing Cuban Migs out of the sky and a soundtrack that features Gloria Estefan! 

     As in real life, the “anti-Castro” exiles retaliate with hotel bombings that kill and severely injure tourists and Cubans alike.  Cuban authorities share their intel and evidence with the United States, in hopes that the latter will prosecute or extradite those responsible for these high crimes.  Instead, the US unearths the network and arrests ten of the Cuban spies.  The film then ends with moving scenes of Olga visiting an incarcerated René, as the viewer takes stock of the hefty price this family has paid for its integrity.

     All told, thus, Wasp Network depicts Cuban revolutionaries not as caricatured villains nor does it lionize them as “heroes,” at least not conventionally so.  Indeed, to an extent it breaks with the spy genre with its focus on families.  And on this count, it reconceptualizes the “heroic” and its familiar rhetoric of “sacrifice.”  There is no armed guerrilla with all the cigar-waving bravado and militant paraphernalia of a young Fidel or Che and their romanticized defiance of the Yankee imperialist.  As much as I’d love to see a more action-driven (and morally unambiguous) movie about a Cuban Rambo that pummels Alpha 66 paramilitaries, this juvenile (and Hollywood-induced) desire is frustrated.  To the contrary, we are left to reckon with unassuming “heroes” and the not insignificant “collateral damage” that comes with (counter)revolutionary politics. 

     No one embodies this better than Olga.  Partly this is due to Assayas’ praiseworthy choice to include her life’s trials and tribulations, and partly it’s Penelope Cruz’s exceptional performance.  We see her raising her daughter alone, working at the tannery, being ostracized in Havana, relocating to Miami, working odd inglorious jobs, consoling her confused daughter, becoming a mother anew, being arrested by the FBI, having to (indefinitely) leave behind her youngest daughter, and having to steady herself for her incarcerated husband.  In a sense it is Olga’s suffering and strength that drive the “plot.”  That Cruz’s is by far the most “authentic” Cuban accent and comportment makes this all the more compelling. 

     The film does all of this, moreover, with its quota of factual credibility.  The prefatory “Based on a True Story” is reinforced throughout the film with occasional archival footage, which includes a televised interview with Fidel Castro.  In that interview, Castro clarifies that no one can rival the spying apparatus that is the United States—in Cuba and the world over.  Cuban Americans are not cast as exclusively counterrevolutionary gusanos (worms), as they’re called in Cuba’s political vernacular.  René and Olga’s extended family in Florida (a pair of elder aunts) are portrayed as loving and dignified.  Nor are Cubans on the island, for that matter, portrayed as blithely nationalistic pawns—let alone the citizens of a socialist paradise.  The film makes clear that the “regime” was merciless with dissent.  This is accompanied by authentic images of prisoners in Cuba and a context that bespeaks unjust treatment. 

     Even so, the film (and its distributor) has already been maligned and harassed.  The Miami Herald headlined it as “a tale to glorify criminals,” decrying in particular the portrayal of Ana Margarita Martínez (Roque’s wife) as demeaning and inaccurate.  Ms. Martínez had already sued Cuba for punitive damages; now, with the advocacy of two Miami law firms, she is suing Netflix.  One can expect more reprisals and “flak,” as Chomsky would say.  To wit: other exile groups have sent  letters of protest to Netflix, the National Review has referred to it as “dishonest and irresponsible,” and (Spain-based) Cuban writer Zoé Valdés has used her Facebook platform to call for a boycott of the film (placing, in red letters, the word “Disgust” over the movie poster).

     The truth is the film does leave quite a bit to be desired.  The chronology is confusing and the first hour much too belabored.  Its episodic and untethered format asks a lot of a viewer not interested—let alone familiar with—the topic and never quite amounts to a satisfying story.  Nor are the performances by Ramírez as René and Moura as Roque as excellent as Cruz’s or Bernal’s.  Ramírez seems not sure how to play René, who comes across as subdued and politically vacant.  Moura as Roque is inscrutable, a constant vague smirk on his face and a “playboy” like persona.  He treats Ana with contempt, and his only love seems to be his Jeep Cherokee.  The two actors (Moura and de Armas) are conventionally attractive, and this may explain why they receive so much (sexually tense) screen time.  But Roque left for Cuba early and was never arrested.  He isn’t even one of the storied Cuba Five!  Assayas, I think, missed an opportunity here to dwell with more interesting characters like ringleader Hernández, played by Bernal (of Y Tu Mamá También and Motorcycle Diaries fame).       

     The film is, moreover, exceedingly benign towards the US.  The FBI is depicted as an ordinary state apparatus and the CIA is nowhere to be found.  Granted, this makes sense strategically.  The film’s target is a much more easily palatable foe: revanchist Cuban exiles.  The notorious founder of the Cuban American National Foundation, José Mas Canosa,[v] and wanted terrorist Luis Posada Carriles[vi] have (marginal) roles as mafioso-like dons with no scruples.  These are not enviable people, not even for younger Cuban Americans, who as a whole aren’t as rabidly anti-Castro and even occasionally vote Democrat.[vii]  All told, however, the US government—and, especially, the Republican Party—are left off the hook. 

     Lastly, while the closing scenes of Olga and René trying to hold hands across plexiglass are heart-wrenching, the film ends rather abruptly.  The ordeal of the Cuban Five—from the outrageous charges (conspiracy to overthrow the US government), the prejudicial venue (Miami), the absurd sentences (four life sentences each), their solitary confinement, the appellate process (a new trial was called for), the Bush administration’s interventions (overruled the appeal), to the international campaigns and backdoor deals (with Obama) to free them between 2011 and 2014—is not covered at all.[viii]  In truth, the subject calls for a mini-series akin to Assayas’ critically acclaimed Carlos (2010), a three-part TV mini-series about the life of notorious Venezuelan guerrilla fighter Illich Ramírez (played by Edgar Ramírez), known as “Carlos the Jackal.”

     In the end, I agree with Arantxa Tirado and Simón Vázquez’s statement in Jacobin: “Often a movie’s importance has less to do with its cinematic quality or its production values than what it tells us politically.”  Wasp Network brings some cinematic credibility, drama, and (dare I say) glamor to the story of the Cuban Five—if not the Cuban Revolution.  As Assayas puts it: “Carried away by the Wheel of history, prey to their demons and illusions, yet also victims of both, the players in the drama of politics are our brothers [and sisters] as we are also their accomplices.”  My less poetic rendition: watch the movie and ask yourself, to what am I willing to be an accomplice?

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in southern Florida, Eric Morales-Franceschini is a former day laborer, US Army veteran, and community college grad who now holds a PhD from UC, Berkeley and is Assistant Professor of English and Latin American Studies at the University of Georgia.  His scholarly works have appeared or are forthcoming at Global South Studies, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Centro, and Comparative Literature and his poetry and reviews at Moko, Witness, Acentos Review, The Rumpus, Newfound, and elsewhere.


References

[i]  Wasp Network debuted on Netflix in mid-June 2020.  It should be said that Netflix has featured other high-quality works based on Cuba.  The 8-episode series The Cuba Libre Story (2015) recounts Cuba’s history in ways more or less consistent with the best scholarly books, such as Richard Gott’s Cuba: A New History (Yale University Press, 2004) and Louis Pérez Jr.’s Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2014).  For all that, it flounders in predictable ways when it comes to the post-1959 era.  The 4-part Four Seasons in Havana (2016), adapts to film Cuban writer Leonardo Padura’s series of noir detective novels with an “all-star” cast of Cuban actors (Jorge Perugorría, Luis Alberto García etc.), but its decontextualized portrayal of Cuba puts forth a bleak, dreary (and unredeemable?) nation of bygone revolutionaries, opportunistic bureaucrats, maimed Angola war vets, impoverished doctors, and evangelicals.    

[ii] For excellent accounts of this period, see Susan Eckstein, Back from the Future: Cuba under Castro, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2003) and Max Azicri, Cuba Today and Tomorrow: Reinventing Socialism (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001). 

[iii] For an excellent survey of the embargo’s history, see: Salim Lamrani, The Economic War Against Cuba: A Historical and Legal Perspective on the U.S. Blockade (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013).

[iv] According to the National Committee to Free the Five, such terrorist violence has resulted in a total of 3,478 Cuban deaths and 2,099 injuries over the years (sadly, it’s an old story to Cubans).   http://www.freethefive.org/whoarethefive.htm

[v] The CANF models itself after the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC.  According to its website, its mission is to bring “freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights to Cuba.”  Like other right-wing organizations, it has appropriated leftist discourse and tactics to undermine genuinely progressive governments and policies in Cuba, the US, and Latin America.

[vi] Posasda Carriles (1928 – 2018) was affiliated with CANF’s and the exile community’s paramilitary branches. Trained by the CIA, he was a “consultant” to notorious (and genocidal) military dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Venezuela and involved in many bombings in Cuba from the 1960s through the 1990s.  He and Orlando Bosch are widely considered responsible for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people.

[vii] Even the Cuban Studies Institute (whose “corporate clients” include Texaco, Kodak, and the International Republican Institute) has to admit this: https://cubansinflorida.us/portfolio/facts-figures/

[viii] For a fuller account, there’s the film’s key source, Morais’ eminently readable The Last Soldier of the Cold War (2012); and also Stephen Kimber’s What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five (2013); or EcuRed: https://www.ecured.cu/Los_Cinco_H%C3%A9roes

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