Cuba film makes Bay Area man a witness to history

Last month I was in Cuba for the Latin American premiere of my film, “Havana Curveball,” the story of my son Mica, who sent baseball equipment to young Cubans as his bar mitzvah project. I had no idea I would also bear witness to history.

An audience of about 100 attended our premiere, including a Cuban teen Mica had played baseball with, members of our film crew and a delegation from El Patronato, Cuba’s largest synagogue.

A few days later, I met a friend in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood to discuss a new film project. She breathlessly blurted out, “Alan Gross has been released! Raul Castro makes an announcement in a few minutes!” 

We hustled to our favorite eatery in time to join a group gathered around the television. We watched Castro celebrating the return of Cuba’s “three heroes,” just released from U.S. jails, en route to their first family Christmas in 16 years. We saw President Barack Obama welcoming Alan Gross home to his first family Hanukkah since his arrest in Cuba five years ago on charges of “crimes against the state,” and calling for an end to the 52-year embargo of one of our closest neighbors.

Serendipitously, a few hours later my film was scheduled to screen at the U.S. Interests Section, now slated to become a proper embassy. I stood in front of a spirited group of filmmakers, actors, artists and community organizers, and said, “Todo ha cambiado, no?” (Everything has changed). They erupted in applause. An hour later, when the credits rolled, there was heartfelt applause and emotional commentary, both about the film and the historic moment.

A director of a film festival invited me to bring the film to Cuba’s outer provinces in April. A 30-year-old filmmaker told me in tears that he felt humbled that an American teenager had done more for his country than he himself had. I assured him that there was much work left to do.

To a person, every Cuban I spoke to, from storekeepers to actors, voiced optimism that the easing of hostilities from their northern neighbor would mark a transition. Nobody I spoke with pretends to know the future. But everyone I spoke with, and overheard, said that it was a great day for Cuba, for the United States and for the world.

Many of the editorials I have since read have been critical of Cuba, hoping this change will reform its economy, increase access to the Internet, guarantee U.S.-style freedom of expression, and perhaps even establish a legal pipeline for Cuban ballplayers to head north.

Old Havana street scene photo/shutterstock

But absent are the brushstrokes that make a portrait of today’s Cuba compelling — near-universal literacy and high school graduation, an exemplary health care system that not only provides Cubans a higher life expectancy than our own, but also sends medical personnel around the world (the Cuban contingent in the Ebola hot zone is the world’s largest), urban streets that are safe from crime (gun crime is virtually nonexistent, murder rates are below those of most Latin American nations, and Cuba has escaped the terrible fate of other countries on drug routes to the United States, such as Columbia, Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras), and a world-class culture of art and sport, where Cubans can see baseball, string quartets, ballet, jazz and visual art for a few pesos.

Cuba may be the final theater in the Cold War, and sadly, many Americans’ opinions are of the superficial “us good, them bad” variety. It is true that Cuba’s economy is weak — pundits can continue to argue whether Cuban mismanagement or the pressures of the longest standing embargo in modern history are responsible. And certainly, Cubans would benefit from robust political and economic debate unencumbered by fear of government reprisal. Yet while some young Cubans are impatient for change, others are wary at the prospect of abandoning the successes of the Cuban experiment. Several Cubans I spoke to explained, “We see housing, food, education and health care as the most important things. Everything else is secondary.”

A deeper understanding of Cuba, the United States and our relationships with Latin America illuminates some Cubans’ concerns about greater U.S. engagement. Our past support of a gaggle of unelected dictators (Trujillo, the Somozas, the Duvaliers, Pinochet, Stroessner, the juntas in Argentina, Guatemala and El Salvador, and, of course, Cuba’s own Batista) has engendered great distrust. It is my hope that our future engagement with Cuba be measured, thoughtful and respectful of Cuba’s history.

To clarify, the embargo is still in effect, and President Obama’s opponents have already stated that they will resist any changes to current Cuba policy. The embargo has cost American farmers billions of dollars, denied Cuba a strong trading partner and diminished our international standing. At the last U.N. vote on whether to maintain the embargo, in October 2014, we lost, 188-2, joined only by Israel.

My interest in Cuba is personal. It dates back to 1941, when my father and grandmother, having fled Austria, arrived in Havana. Refused entry into the United States, they were given refuge in Cuba, where their Jewishness did not matter. They remained for two happy years, until the United States allowed them in.

When I was a child, dad told me he was thankful that Cuba had saved his life. Yet while he no longer supports the embargo, he would not travel with us to Cuba, saying, “I have fear and apprehension about going to a place my government doesn’t want me to go.”

Upon hearing the story of my father, my Cuban friends inevitably ask the same question: Why has he not visited? In the Parque Central, I explained to a fellow baseball fan that many Americans fear travel to Cuba, thinking of it as an enemy nation. He asked me quizzically, “Enemies?”

“Havana Curveball,” a film by Ken Schneider and Marcia Jarmel, plays at the New Parkway in Oakland at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 3 and at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco Feb. 8-12.  Trailer and ticket info at www.havanacurveball.info.

Ken Schneider and his wife, Marcia Jarmel, have been making films for 20 years. They live in San Francisco. Ken also has edited more than 35 feature-length documentaries that focus on human rights, untold American histories and social issues.