What is the earliest memory that you have as a child living in Havana, Cuba?
I remember being, if you go way back, I remember my home and being in my crib and what the crib felt like and what the floor of the hall felt like, which was a granite floor. I remember the combination of coolness of the granite floor compared to the heat that was outside the house. I remember having chalk milk in my crib outside of Havana. My memories go way back a long, long time.
Most people cannot remember that far back.
I think because I left [Cuba] something happens to you when you realize that you may not be going back. I’ve tried to analyze it over the years and I think I’ve protected those memories because I didn’t think I would ever see the place that you left, the place you cherish. So, they become very precious to you. I think the mind is a very powerful thing and it sort of froze those images for me and those memories.
I guess at the age of five, when you and your family left Havana, you really did not know what was going on when it came to the political turmoil that was happening in your country.
But I was being affected by it. The Batista Army was there. We left two and a half years after Fidel [Castro] came into town. They had taken that over. As a young boy, one of the moments that crystallized for my family was that I was marching outside of our house and humming The Internationale, which is the communist anthem. Two and half years after that Castro had already solidified power and betrayed all the promises of the Revolution and the restoration of the constitution and the democracy. He declared himself a Marxist and took over the country without an electoral process. The indoctrination of this new revolutionary man had begun. I was being affected by it.
So, you were young, but you definitely knew something was taking place.
Oh yeah. All over. It was all about propaganda and fervor. That was what going. Rallies and long speeches on the television and the radio. It was all there.
I interviewed a gentleman once that told me about his time in Havana as a child. He said the Castro government would take kids aside and ask them, “Do you believe in God or Castro?” If the child said God, they would ask them, “Well, then ask God for some ice cream.” Of course, ice cream would not come, so then they would ask, “Now ask Castro for some ice cream.” Then, of course, they would bring the ice cream out for them. Did you ever go through any of these brainwashing techniques as a child?
Well, I wasn’t in school so I didn’t get into that. That is one of the reasons we left the country because there was a law past called patria potestad, which basically means that [parents] lost control of their children at the age of five. You would have to go into the state-run educational system of the new revolutionary man, which isn’t education but indoctrination. The 12-year-olds would have to go into the military service. These things were going on and my parents said no. Enough is enough. You’ve already taken our rights away. You’re not going to take the rights away from our children. So we left. We were lucky we got out. We were blessed. That was a huge sacrifice my parents made, but I wouldn’t be talking to you now if it wasn’t for that.
At what point in your life did you finally understand the reason your parents had to make that decision to leave Cuba?
Very early on. It was very much the topic of conversation in our household and in the community. As soon as I could comprehend history in elementary school, it was very clear what was going on. I was very much aware that we were not going back and the reasons why we came. As I became a young adult, on my own, I began to research Cuba. I was very stimulated by the music of Cuba. I stared collecting all the music I could find, reading all the research books and collecting photographic images. All these things formulated as soon as I began making movies in the mid- 80s. I realized that this was a story I wanted to tell and the journey to make this movie began.
I could sense the amount of research that went into making this film because in it you seem to capture the culture of the country really well, although you did not grow up around it. That leads me to believe that you studied the country on many different levels.
Well, I’m a product of that culture and a product of that story. Also, you have to look at it like I’m a student of it. I’m a student of its music, its architectural history, its design history, and its art history. I care about them and continue to learn about them. You live with Cuba everyday in exile. I think all exiles are profoundly nostalgic for the country where they lived. It’s not just particular to Cubans. If you’re from Mexico and you move to American, you can be always thinking about back home no matter what. The trouble with exile is exile.
Watching this film, you can easily tell that it was a very personal story for you to tell. What was the main mission behind creating this film? What did you want to say?
The prime motivation was to pay tribute to the music of Cuba and to use music as a metaphoric protagonist. Then, I always thought that there were elements that happened in that time period because of this dramatic ideological change that happened in Cuba. This movie has classical elements from the movies that I have always responded to like Casablanca or Godfather or Dr. Zihivago or Cabaret or (Bernardo) Burtoluccis 1900 or the (Lucino) Visconi films. All these things that I saw, I wanted to play with in this film music, design, fashion, dance, a political backdrop, and a microcosm of a family and how brother can turn against brother.
I read that this film took 16 years to make. Talk to me about that struggle you had to endure to final see this film come to fruition.
We developed the picture at Paramount. The regime that was interested in helping making this picture started to change. The new head of Paramount wanted to hire a new writer and I didn’t want to abandon Mr. (G. Cabrera) Infante. I was not able to get any support from any other studio. So, you become an independent film trying to look for money outside the system. Then you get the diplomat answer [from studios]: It’s very interesting, but it’s not for us.
Fidel Castro is going to be 80 in August. What do you think is going to happen to Cuba once he finally passes on?
Well, you would hope it would gravitate towards the promises of a revolution, which is to restore a democracy. It is hard to predict. I can only tell you what I would hope for, but I do not know what’s going to happen. There is a dissident movement in Cuba that is calling for democracy, but is that [group] going to be strong enough at that particular moment to override the military dictatorship that exists there. There will be no other person there that has the pull or weight that Castro has. Then the question is, what does the international community do? What is their position? There are a lot of factors that can help it turn toward the original promises of revolution, which is to restore the original constitution of the 1940s and have an election. That is what I would hope for. A democracy is what people want. I truly believe that.
Why do you think Fidel Castro is one of those few leaders that have received such a wide range of praise and criticism at the same time?
There is no simple answer to that. In theory, he uses as his political platform that he stands up against America. He uses America as his abuser to the north. He is the one that is saying that he is fighting against American imperialism. Meanwhile, he will open the front door to fight against American imperialism and open the back door to Russian imperialism. There is a great hypocrisy there. But he does have this combative position against America. He gets supported by many people who want to perpetuate him and want that to exist. Then they will turn a blind eye to the atrocities that are going on in his own country in terms of human rights. We have to remember that there is a U.S. embargo against Cuba, but Cuba trades with the entire world. The economic problems in Cuba are not due to the American embargo in my opinion.
What did you learn about yourself as a director in this, your first attempt? Do you plan on directing again in the future?
I’m very stimulated in directing. I hope to continue to direct. I learned that it is a lot more fun to direct when you don’t have to act. That doesn’t mean that I might not do it like that again. But I know the days I didn’t have to act, it was really liberating. The projects that I want to do are very eclectic projects. They are not easy projects to get off the ground. I hope I don’t get in another 16 year battle with something.