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‘Before Night Falls’

Hollywood projected Cuba as 'police state' for gays

Lavender & red, part 93

Published Mar 18, 2007 10:08 PM

Hollywood turned up the volume on charges that Cuba was a “penal colony” for homosexual males with its release of “Before Night Falls” in August 2000.

The movie was based on a memoir by the late anti-communist Cuban homosexual writer Reinaldo Arenas, who emigrated to the United States in 1980. A decade later Arenas committed suicide in a dilapidated Hells Kitchen apartment in Manhattan, the capital of capital. Impoverished and dying as a result of AIDS, he had no health insurance and could not afford high medical costs of care—rights enjoyed by every Cuban under the Revolution in his homeland.

Since the early days of the 1959 Revolution, the CIA had trolled for grievances about the Revolution—real, manufactured or exaggerated.

“Before Night Falls” is the pinnacle of this propaganda campaign, by virtue of having the most capital invested in its production, its cast and distribution network; the publicity generated for its release; and the accolades and awards that gave it the imprimatur of “truth.” Interspersed snippets of actual archival footage from the early days of the Revolution and snippets of newsreel of Fidel Castro’s speeches aim to lend the film the appearance of historical authenticity.

As the movie begins, the cameras pan across what is actually rural Mexico, the backdrop for Arenas’ childhood in Cuba. The reality of agricultural plantation enslavement is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the voiceover narrates that the author’s childhood was “splendor,” adding that “it was absolute poverty but also absolute freedom ... .”

Projected onto movie screens, “Before Night Falls” becomes an imperialist-era sequel to “Gone with the Wind.”

In both reactionary propaganda films, bygone epochs of white-supremacist plantation slavery—which shackled African and Indigenous peoples—are nostalgically revived, revised and romanticized. In both films, the armies that break the manacles of slavery for profit are cast as the bad guys.

Pre-Revolution:

exploitation, not freedom

Viewers of “Before Night Falls” are left with the overall impression that the U.S.-backed Batista regime actually offered greater “freedom.”

In an October 2001 movie review about “Before Night Falls,” entitled “Gays in Cuba, from the Hollywood School of Falsification,” Leonardo Hechavarría and Marcel Hatch took on this fiction. (www.walterlippman.com)

Hechavarría’s biography describes him as a Cuban citizen, a translator and interpreter, and states that “he is a passionate advocate of the Revolution and works for increased acceptance of lesbians and gays in his homeland.” Marcel Hatch is identified as a typographer, “a veteran gay rights activist and Cuba defender.”

In their review, Hechavarría and Hatch wrote: “Before the 1959 Revolution, life for lesbians and gays was one of extreme isolation and repression, enforced by civil law, augmented by Catholic dogma. Patriarchal attitudes made lesbians invisible. If discovered, they’d 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.”

For more analysis of “Before Night Falls,” also see “The Sexual Politics of Reinaldo Arenas: Fact, Fiction and the Real Record of the Cuban Revolution,” by Jon Hillson, at www.blythe.org.

Researchers Lourdes Arguelles and B. Ruby Rich concluded about life for the homosexual/transgender urban work force in pre-Revolutionary Cuba, “If legal sanctions and official harassment were rare, this tolerance was due less to social acceptance than to overriding considerations of profit and the economic interests of the underworld that dominated the Cuban political apparatus.”

But the misery of urban sexual enslavement in brothels, casinos, domestic work and drug networking is nowhere to be seen in “Before Night Falls.” Neither is the apparatus of the Batista dictatorship’s police, secret agents and army.

Workers’ state, not bosses’ state

“Before Night Falls” is the blockbuster of the propagandistic charges that the Cuban Revolution ushered in a “police state,” similar to fascist Nazi Germany and the bloody 1973 counter-revolution in Chile.

These vilifications purposely confused the difference between a workers’ state and a bosses’ state. Understanding the class character of the Cuban workers’ state is very important for those who seek their own liberation today.

Cuba was a newly developing workers’ state—which had to literally battle overt and covert military onslaught and economic strangulation by U.S. imperialism. At the same time the Revolution had to fight the legacy of racist, sexist and anti-homosexual/transgender indoctrination by patriarchal colonialism, capitalism and imperialism.

In contrast, the state machineries of the exploiting classes—and the church hierarchies that serve them—have always relied on repressive terror, and deepening and strengthening homophobia and transphobia, in order to conquer and rule.

For example, the Spanish colonial state in Cuba enslaved the Indigenous population on the island, castrated those it considered “sodomites,” and forced them to eat their own testicles coated with dirt. (“Los Negros Curros,” 1986)

In order to save German capitalism, a wing of industrialists and bankers bankrolled the fascists who forced tens of thousands of gays and lesbians to wear the pink triangle in slave labor and extermination camps.

Víctor Hugo Robles wrote of Chile—where the mass of workers and peasants were not armed against the 1973 CIA-backed counter-revolutionary—that, “Perhaps the most forgotten are the many transvestites who were executed during the days immediately following the coup.” (“History in the Making: The Homosexual Liberation Movement in Chile”)

In the imperialist United States, homosexuality and sex/gender variance were so viciously criminalized and punished by state repression that a mass political movement arose to resist it. Despite widespread struggle, same-sex love remained illegal in the United States until 2003. Currently, at least 65 percent of transwomen and 29 percent of transmen are estimated to have been imprisoned at some point in their life in the United States. (Critical Resistance)

And today it is U.S. imperialism that has set up concentration camps—from Abu Ghraib to Guantánamo—where anti-gay and anti-trans rape and humiliation are incorporated into the science of torture.

The state of former slaves

The Cuban workers’ state, like the armies of Bolívar and Toussaint L’Overture, is an armed liberation struggle of the oppressed up against the Goliath force of the oppressor state.

An estimated 20,000 Cubans died in two years of battling the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship—up against bombs, aircraft and artillery. The Revolution disarmed the Batista regime’s army and secret police networks.

However, simply dismantling the bosses’ apparatus of dictatorship did not create a new mechanism to defend the island from counter-revolution and invasion. Imperialism soon cinched an economic noose around the island, its Pentagon a constant threat.

A new state had to be built, from the ground up. It took a mass mobilization of the population to defend the gains of the Revolution. The National Revolutionary Militia and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution organized the entire population into a network against CIA-organized subterfuge and sabotage.

This block-by-block watchfulness, combined with old, deep prejudice against same-sex liaisons, made life uncomfortable for some Cuban male homosexuals. While they had experienced extreme isolation and alienation in the sexual exploitation industry, they had also found refuge in urban anonymity and privately-owned casinos, bars and other meeting places.

However, unlike its portrayal in “Before Night Falls,” the Cuban workers’ state was not a repressive apparatus. Rather, it had the task of defending 11 million Cubans from re-enslavement by U.S. finance capital. The Cuban Revolution could not have survived a day, let alone a half century, without organizing and mobilizing the population to defend its independence from imperialism.

The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and the Cuban popular militias—which armed millions of women as well as men—are the protective might of a formerly enslaved population against enraged former plantation owners, bankers, industrialists and syndicate bosses.

Arming the Cuban population of workers—rural and urban—made it possible to defeat the invasion at Playa Girón (the Bay of Pigs). At the same time, this defense allowed the Revolution to boot out the U.S. sugar plantation owners and gave the land back to those who tilled it. It allowed the Revolution to oust U.S. industrialists and bankers, and crime syndicate bosses who ran the lucrative brothel, gambling and drug networks. The Revolution could begin deconstructing the white supremacist and patriarchal systems that hadn’t allowed Cubans of African descent to set foot on the beaches, and had kept women in servitude.

This was a workers’ state.

‘Dispute this fable with facts’

Calling for an end to Hollywood’s blockade of Cuba, Hechavarría and Hatch stress about “Before Night Falls”: “[I]n 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.”

After the Revolution, “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.” (walterlippmann.com)

Hechavarría and Hatch added: “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.”

Hechavarría and Hatch stated categorically: “We know of no Cuban, for or against their government, who finds the movie credible. Nor do smart gay activists.

“This political falsity,” they concluded, “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.”

Next: Cuban Revolution: trajectory of progress for homosexual/transgender population.

For more on homosexuality/transgender and the Cuban Revolution, see Lavender & Red parts 86-92, at www.workers.org. Look for the lavender and red logo.

E-mail: [email protected]