Cuba, Si! Nueva Zelandia, Si!
Cuba, Si! Nueva Zelandia, Si!
By Yasmine Ryan
Miguel Ramirez Ramos, the Cuban Ambassador to our part of the world, visited New Zealand from his base in Jakarta to coincide with the Si! Cuba! film festival being held in Auckland and Wellington. The Ambassador was in Auckland on Saturday and Scoop took the opportunity to speak to him about Cuba’s relationship with New Zealand, the New Zealand–Cuba Film Exchange, and the impact the US-led blockades are having on Cuban culture.
Cuban Ambassador, Miguel Ramirez Ramos.
In February 2004 audiences in Cuba were treated to an exposition of New Zealand films for the inaugural event of the New Zealand–Cuba Film Exchange, titled Muestra de Cine de Nueva Zelandia. This month, audiences here are having the chance to see some of the finest films to come out of Cuba over the past 35 years, notably including the 1969 epic Lucía.
Organizers from both countries hope that the exchange will become a regular event, and plans for next year’s festivals are well under way promises Ambassador Ramirez. Next year, he says, the theme will be films directed by women, while in January there will be a retrospective of films directed by Peter Jackson.
Cuban 1969 epic movie, Lucía.
Apparently Muestra de Cine de Nueva Zelandia was very popular with Cuban audiences. Once Were Warriors in particular struck a cord – its themes of machismo are extremely relevant to local experience there, and are also common in Cuban cinema. Overall, says Ramirez, people “were very satisfied with the New Zealand movies.”
Cultural exchanges of this type are extremely important for Cuba. Despite its richness and vitality, Cuban culture has been severely affected by the world’s longest-standing blockade, imposed on the Caribbean island nation by the United States.
Aside from preventing trade in material goods, the blockade also places harsh restrictions on sporting, medical, intellectual, and cultural exchange, allegedly for “national security” reasons. Ramirez argues that “the blockade is an institution, a whole system of laws, a network that goes for everything. The American companies are not allowed to import Cuban music, to import Cuban movies, they are not allowed to engage in any cultural exchanges with Cuban artists, they are not allowed to invite any Cuban artists to the States, they are not even allowed to come to Cuba to see it on their own…it affects Cuban cultural life hugely.”
If, for example, a Cuban is nominated for a Grammy Award, notes Ramirez, “the American government does not allow them to travel to attend the functions, thus limiting marketing of the product.” Cubans who wish to perform in the US must do so free of charge. Last year the Ballet Nacional de Cuba performed in 20 US cities without earning a thing.
Ramirez says his government views the blockade as a form of economic genocide: “if you read whatever the Geneva Convention says on genocide, you will see that it applies exactly with what the American government wants to do with Cuba – that is, try to surrender by hunger, by fear, the population, even if it has to starve. So this is a form of genocide.” Cuba estimates the total damage for the duration of the blockade to its economy at $79.325 billion.
In spite of this hurdle, Cuban cultural exports are very much in demand in the global market. In Latin America, although the earning capacity is not particularly high for pricier items, there “are guaranteed markets for Cuban music and movies.” Cuban art, cinema, and performances are popular in Europe, Japan and Canada, and Cuban films are regularly included in international film festivals.
Unlike many other developing countries, the Cuban domestic market has not been saturated with cheap Western cultural products. As a socialist government, the Cuban authorities exercise “some level of discretion... to select which cultural products are going to enter.” This is not censorship, argues Ramirez: “it’s not a problem of ideology but of quality.” He says that the system is quite relaxed, and that “we believe that we have to keep an open mind, an open window, and to allow exchanges of cultural values, but not to be inundated by Hollywood or by other rubbish cultural values.”
Indeed, more than 300 US films a year are screened on Cuban television or at the cinema. Under US law, Cuban copyrights are ignored. One benefit for the Cubans is that they do not have to respect US copyrights, so the government often screens US films on Cuban television before they have been released in the US market, laughs Ramirez.
But not only US films are popular. Cubans are familiar with the best of Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish, Argentinean, Mexican and Brazilian cinema. The average Cuban, says Ramirez, has more knowledge of global cinema “than probably the average American citizen or most of Europe, because they have been able to exchange opinions, to have a different perspective.”
In terms of the relationship between New Zealand and Cuba, Ramirez is very positive. We share a solid bilateral relationship, he says, and there is constant dialogue at different levels. Cuba already imports around $NZ100 million worth of dairy products. They hope to establish a wider range of exports to New Zealand, “particularly bio-technology, rum, cigars, cultural acts, bands, cultural movies.”
The Ambassador feels that biotechnology could be a very important area of cooperation. Biotechnology in Cuba is a huge growth industry: “the only synthetic vaccine in the world is produced in Cuba, the only meningitis vaccine is produced in Cuba, the only neck and head cancer treatment is in Cuba, so there is a huge explosion of biotechnological development in Cuba. And I believe that that could be an important area, particularly considering that New Zealand has a problem has a problem with meningococcal disease. And you have a specific strain, where the Cuban vaccine is a general vaccine.”
The inaugural New Zealand–Cuba Film Exchange includes a compilation of films spanning the last 35 years. Despite the small size of both island nations, each has established world-class film industries, and produced films which strongly reflect its national identity.
In Auckland Si! Cuba! is being held at the Academy Cinema, September 30 – October 13. In Wellington, films are being screened at the Paramount Theatre, October 7 – 20.
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