This documentary uses the strange device of a fictional narrator, a Cuban exile who is considering returning home. His reminiscences are accompanied with testaments from different real Cubans living in Cuba (even if there are more academics than anything else). They all come to roughly the same conclusion: we want socialism, but not necessarily this sort of socialism.
We hear some history of how we have got here – the insurgency against the corrupt Batista régime was followed by a nervous and frankly threatening US reaction which resulted in the Cuban government taking a turn towards increasing dependency of the USSR, which artificially sustained the Cuban economy by buying sugar cane above the market price.
After the USSR imploded, for some time Venezuela was able to help, but now it “has its own problems”. There had been some hope of a rapprochement with the US, which was partly accompanied by the opening of of Cuba to private industry. The election of Donald Trump makes any further thawing of the diplomatic ice seem highly unlikely.
I say that we hear this history – and it is all interspersed in amongst the film. But this is not the sort of documentary that attempts to build a case on the basis of developing an argument. It is much more impressionistic than that. So, the economic background story falls slightly into the background behind people saying that they like socialism but would like to own their own company.
Despite the title, the film is pretty vague about what this socialism is, which is being experimented. People are adamant that Cuban socialism is quite different to that of the Eastern Bloc, but are very vague about what drove either economy. Socialism is seen as being indubitably a good thing without us really getting a clear definition of what it actually is. The idea that socialism may be about more than more small businesses isn’t really discussed.
Now, as a structure for a documentary all of this is perfectly legitimate. If I want a film that answers my questions, I should go out and make one myself. But you do sometimes get the feeling, why has this documentary been made? After hearing all these people saying they want change while keeping whatever it is they have, what is the film actually looking for?
You (that is to say, I) occasionally wonder if there would be the same level excitement about a political ideolofy if it were to be found in Siberia, say, or Grimsby, Whatever the deficits of Cuban socialism, it certainly looks and sounds great, and there’s plenty of film of lush, verdant landscapes and impressive statues and murals, while the soundtrack is tremendous.
And what is slightly missing from a film that mentions socialism so often is any mention of workers or collective action. Some of the people interviewed are certainly poor, but they pretty much all look towards an individual way out of their current despair, by owning a small business, say. But what is to happen to the people who will then work for them?
For all that, this is a film worth watching as it asks some important questions, sometimes despite itself. How has Cuba managed to maintain a remotely functioning economy in the face of vicious sanctions? Is there any alternative to Cuba’s “State Socialism” or rampant capitalism? Indeed does socialism even remotely resemble what we have, and have had, in Cuba.
The fact that the film is better at asking questions than answering them should not necessarily count against it. This is something which should be watched and then discussed intensely in the bar afterwards. Preferably with the great soundtrack playing in the background. That fictional narrator doesn’t add anything, mind.