By Louis Proyect
Most of the action in "Strawberry and Chocolate" takes place in Diego's (Jorge Perugorría) living room, a gay character struggling with sexual and cultural repression in the Cuba of 1979. Despite the limited physical parameters, it opens up a universe of the human heart. In these close quarters overflowing with symbols of the homosexual demimonde, Diego attempts to seduce David (Vladimir Cruz), an earnest but dogmatic member of the Young Communist League attending college. However, it is Cuban society itself that is ultimately being seduced in this remarkable state-sponsored film.
Diego initially lures David to the apartment with a promise of photos that Diego took of him performing in a college play. After arriving there, Diego showers him with all the forbidden fruit that a good Communist would deny himself, from English tea served in fine china to Maria Callas arias. David is simultaneously repelled by and attracted to his host. Although the thought of gay sex is the last thing on his mind, he finds himself drawn into Diego's nonstop, impromptu lecture on fine literature and the need to be cultured, even in a revolutionary society. After Diego announces that he cannot find the photos, both the audience and David understand that this is just a ploy to get him to return.
And he does return. At first, under his room-mate's advice, he returns to "gather intelligence" about this sexual and political subversive, especially his role in organizing a sculpture exhibit by a gay artist and friend, whose work mixes Christian iconography and elements of sadism. Diego complains openly to David that art in Cuba is either shallow propaganda spoon-fed to the masses or clumsy attempts at modernism. After a few more visits, David begins to warm up to Diego as a human being, while Diego also begins to forget about seduction.
Starting out as a hard-liner, David defends the status quo by stating that you have to make a choice between the class struggle and its enemies "out there", pointing at Miami and Washington. Despite this, he continues to be drawn in by Diego's refined sensibilities and charisma. While some American critics have found fault with the character's campy mannerisms, there is much more to him than a limp wrist and a lisp. In scene after scene, he insists that unless there is room for him and people like him in the revolution, then it is not a genuine revolution. For the revolution to triumph, it needs an open mind toward sexuality and culture. As he puts it, "The best is not to be shocked by anything, and to sip from every cup.'"
Made in 1993, "Strawberry and Chocolate" was the last film directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who was dying of cancer. Juan Carlos Tabío, who, like Alea, makes films that serve as a prod to the social conscience of Cuba, co-directed. In his latest film "The Waiting List," Tabío takes aim at bureaucratic inertia in a bus station. The two stars of "Strawberry and Chocolate" are reunited there, with Cruz starring as an audacious young engineer organizing the transformation of the station and Perugorría as a mechanic feigning blindness just so he can get to the head of lines.
The willingness of such Cuban films to take aim at entrenched and backward political and social institutions should challenge critics of Cuban communism to reflect on the usefulness of such terms as "Stalinist" or "bureaucratic." In bourgeois society, change generally comes through pressure on the government, while state cinema in Cuba seems to exist in large part to exhort society to adapt to a changing world.
Even the mainstream press in the United States is waking up to new Cuban realities. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution (March 19, 1995) reports:
--- Because he was gay, Reynaldo Garcia once was ostracized as a member of "La Escoria," the official Cuban government term for homosexuals, convicts and the mentally ill. It means "the scum."
Now Garcia can do something he never dreamed would be possible - walk hand in hand down the streets of Havana with his lover of six years without fear of reprisal.
"I never thought I would see this day. It's a beautiful feeling," Garcia said. "I feel like people are starting to see us as human beings, like anyone else." Cuba is backing away from years of discrimination against homosexuals. Once packed off to work on rural farms alongside dissidents and religious Cubans, or nudged into exile, gays have entered a period of tolerance. ---
In 1995 Havana held its First International Transvestite Festival, a celebration of Cuban-style camp in which prancing female impersonators aped Whitney Houston, Tina Turner and Diana Ross to a dazzled audience sprinkled with fellow cross-dressers.
After the appearance of "Strawberry and Chocolate," one Communist Party leader took Alea aside told him he was ashamed to see himself in the cinematic portrayal of a homophobic party hard-liner.
In a gay-oriented email list, U.S. citizen Larry R. Oberg commented on his trip to Cuba:
"What I found in Cuba was a gay community with many parallels to the gay community in North America and a few differences as well. For one thing, there are no laws on the Cuban books that discriminate against gays. (This is to be contrasted with the United States where all too many states retain outdated sodomy laws and where, increasingly, repressive legislation is enacted at the state level.) I have talked with literally hundreds of gays (mostly men) in Cuba and I found none who believe they are being persecuted by their government. Discrimination by individuals is reported, however, and there is also a lot of resentment of the residual macho attitudes that remain stubbornly embedded in some levels of Cuban society, attitudes that perpetuate highly dichotomized sex roles and prejudice against homosexuals amongst the population at large. But none reported active or systematic repression by the state.
"It seems to me that it is important to put Cuba's past record of mistreatment of gays in its proper perspective. For example, thirty-five or so years ago, in Boise, Idaho, hundreds of gay men were persecuted, driven from their homes and families and imprisoned in one of the more infamous anti-gay actions in our history. Florida itself has a dreadful record in terms of gay rights and only about 10 years ago in Adrian, Michigan, the police staked out a public park for months and then arrested over 30 men at their homes, in front of their wives and children and, in a couple of cases, grand-children. (With one exception, all of these guys were married self-identified heterosexuals.) Cuba's past record on gay rights may be no better than our own, certainly nothing to be proud of, but in my experience gays in today's Cuba are better off than they are in any other Latin American society (check the murder rate in Rio) and better off than they are in many states in our Union (think Matthew Shepherd).
"Cuban society, like most North American and European societies, is undergoing a profound review and reconceptualization of its attitudes towards gays and lesbians. Most of you probably know about the film Strawberry and Chocolate, the first Cuban film to deal openly and directly with homosexuality. (If you haven't seen it, I recommend it.) What you may not know is that the film was wildly popular in Cuba (indicating, no doubt, a repressed need to talk about this issue). Apparently it played simultaneously at 10 or 12 theatres in Havana for months to lines several blocks long.
"Another seminal incident along the road to acceptance for Cuban gays occurred in 1996. Pablo Milanes, a Cuban nova trova singer who has achieved quasi-sainthood amongst the island's population, wrote a song about gay men entitled Original Sin (available on his CD entitled Origines), a song he dedicated to all Cuban homosexuals. Introduced at his annual holiday concert held in the vast Karl Marx Theater in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana, El Pecado original took the audience and the country by storm and did much to advance the cause of gay acceptance."
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