There is little nuance in public discourse about Cuba. Even six decades after the rupture between the United States and Cuba ushered in by the socialist Cuban Revolution in 1959, polarized views—from the anti-communist Miami Cuban exile community or from leftist apologists for the Castro regimes—still dominate in the media. But this dichotomy doesn’t represent the majority of Cubans’ perspectives or even those held by Cuban Americans.
Belly of The Beast is a new Havana-based media project headed by Cubans that is looking to change that. The project is produced with the collaboration and financial support of American partners, including notable leftist Hollywood names Oliver Stone and Danny Glover. The organization seeks to counter “parachute journalism” and allow Cubans to tell their own stories to Western, particularly American, audiences. Their mission is to go beyond the distorted narratives about the relationship between the two countries that are propagated both by Cuban state-run media outlets and by U.S.-based media.
Their new documentary miniseries, The War on Cuba, which premiered on YouTube on October 9, is meant to expose the political and economic interests driving U.S. policy and the ways it harms Cubans on both sides of the Florida Strait (while claiming to not be blind to the Cuban government’s faults).
Suffocating the private sector suffocat[es] Cuban people.
In fact, the documentary’s message hews quite closely to a Cuban government perspective, which it aims to present to an American audience. Documentary host and journalist Liz Oliva Fernández reproduces many talking points found on the Cuban news regarding the harm the U.S. embargo—referred to as “economic warfare”—does to everyday citizens on the island. That said, it does manage to emphasize the human costs of the embargo by highlighting the situation of Cuban entrepreneurs.
In episode one, Oliva Fernández interviews a farmer who has prosthetic legs, which he gets free of charge through the famed Cuban universal healthcare system. He can’t access the higher quality prosthetics he really needs to work because the embargo prevents Cuba from buying them on the international market. We also see how the embargo prevents much-needed medication from getting into the country; recently, a Swiss company refused to sell Cuba ventilators because its parent company was American.
We also meet a baseball player who aspires to make it to the major leagues, but can no longer do so because the Trump administration eliminated the Cuba-MLB partnership, and the owner of the first independent design company in Cuba, Idania del Río. Del Río, an entrepreneur, talks to Liz about how all the gains she made with the normalization of relations under Obama were halted with Trump’s policy reversals that essentially cut off American tourism to Cuba. “Suffocating the private sector,” she says, “suffocat[es] Cuban people.”
Episode two focuses on the close relationship between Cuba and Venezuela, established once Hugo Chávez came to power in 1998. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s economy contracted by 40% due to the loss of its principal patron. The two Latin American countries struck a mutually beneficial deal to exchange Venezuelan oil for Cuban doctors. Venezuela’s “oil diplomacy” allowed Caribbean countries in general to be less dependent on the U.S., and that’s why, as Liz notes, the Trump administration has been so hell-bent on toppling the Maduro regime.
Oliva Fernández’s mother was one of the Cuban doctors who completed a mission in Venezuela. Despite how difficult it was to leave her 10-year-old daughter behind for a lengthy period of time, the financial benefits were too attractive to pass up. Cuban doctors on international missions earn more than 10 times their regular salaries, and her mom was able to remodel their house with her earnings.
Episode three of the documentary focuses specifically on Cuba’s international medical program, which began in 1960, when Cuban doctors were sent to Chile after a massive earthquake. In the early decades, these missions were completely humanitarian—the government didn’t get paid anything—but in recent decades, Cuba’s stagnant economy has made it necessary to charge wealthier countries.
The controversial aspect of these missions is that although Cuban doctors get paid much more than their regular salaries, it’s still only 25% of what the receiving country pays Cuba for their services; the other 75% goes to support the Cuban health system. One doctor explains that they don’t see it as “unjust,” but rather understand that it’s for the greater good of Cuban society. Undoubtedly, not all Cuban doctors feel similarly, which is why some choose to defect while on international missions. Nonetheless, anti-Cuban propaganda disseminated by the State Department and the Jair Bolsonaro administration (calling the missions “human trafficking” and “slave labor”), has led to an increase in hostility toward Cuban doctors in Latin America. Ironically, Brazil found itself rehiring Cuban doctors in March to take on the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The War on Cuba” won’t be particularly revelatory for those knowledgeable about Cuba, but the documentary succeeds in countering mainstream U.S. media discourse, which tends to favor the perspectives of the Miami Cuban exile community, particularly by humanizing the toll the embargo takes on Cubans.
Critics of the Cuban government will undoubtedly see this documentary as an extension of the propaganda coming from Havana. A certain amount of bias is evident, such as the statement in episode one that the U.S. embargo is responsible for locking Cubans out of sites on the internet, like Zoom. While this is true, it’s not the whole story: until very recently, the Cuban government held a tight grip on citizens’ access to the internet and still blocks dissident sites. The limited scope of the documentary also means it doesn’t address the most difficult social issues in Cuba, like racism, anti-LGBTQ prejudice, and the repression of dissent.
Nonetheless, there’s never been a more important time to document the negative effects of the U.S. embargo and the catastrophic rollbacks of Obama-era policies by the Trump administration. These policies have done real damage to the Cuban economy, and the pandemic has only made the situation more desperate.