Hollywood Comes to Havana

Costner, Castro Watch Thirteen Days Together

American actor/director/producer Kevin Costner traveled to Cuba last month for the Havana premier of his latest film Thirteen Days, and even attended a private screening of the film with Cuban President Fidel Castro himself. It was the second time in recent weeks that a high-profile American delegation visited the island and its enduring political leader to reflect upon events that, nearly four decades ago, were to shape the future of US-Cuba relations.

Costner's trip comes on the heels of the "Bay of Pigs: 40 Years Later" conference, which concluded here on March 24th. The conference, organized in collaboration between the University of Havana and the National Security Archive at George Washington University, was held in anticipation of the 40th anniversary of the failed invasion by the CIA-backed Cuban-exile Brigade 2506 in April 1961. Attendees — including Castro, Kennedy advisors Arthur Schlesinger and Richard Goodwin, Jean Kennedy, a host of academics, and Bay of Pigs veterans from both countries — met first in Havana before traveling to Giron Beach, the site of much of the fighting.

The conference and Costner´s visit are signs of an increased interest in Cuba among many Americans. The dramatic custody battle over six year-old shipwreck-survivor Elian Gonzalez brought the effects of the embargo out from the back pages of the more specialized political journals and on to the evening news, even becoming an issue in the U.S. presidential election last year. Cuban music and culture have become fashionable in the United States. Every year, greater numbers of Americans visit Cuba, with or without their government's permission.

Though Costner did not attribute a specific political agenda to his visit and claimed to be "unqualified" to make political judgments about Cuba, he was clearly moved by his encounter with the Cuban President. "It was an experience of a lifetime to sit only a few feet away from him and watch him relive an experience he lived as a very young man," Costner said at a press conference on April 11th at Havana´s elegant Hotel Nacional. "We all live in this world, and we all recognize Cuba is a big player although it is a small country," he said. "My interests aren't as political -- my life has been chosen to make films. I think humanity is a great experiment. Who is to say ... [that] the United States is right and Cuba is wrong?"

Castro reportedly enjoyed the film and displayed an interest in the American perspective on the events of October of 1962, according to Costner´s press spokesman Steven Rivers. Rivers indicated that though many Cuban scholars and political advisors who saw the film objected to the representation of certain historical events in Thirteen Days, they all agreed on the film's importance as a means of bringing attention to the tense Cold-War episode that Cubans call "The October Crisis".

Castro, before another screening at Cuba's Convention Center, spoke highly of his visitor. "We're very grateful for such a friendly and dignified gesture, and for having had the graciousness to come show the film at his own initiative," he told the audience of historians, film critics, artists, and government officials. "I don't have any doubts about the positive intentions behind the making of this film," he said, "the best thing we can do is continue to look deeper into these themes." Since then, Castro has expressed interest in sponsoring a film depicting the same events from a Cuban perspective.

On Wednesday night, as Thirteen Days also opened in Moscow, Costner presented the film before an invitation-only crowd prior to its premier at Havana's Charlie Chaplin Theater. "You've done us a great honor by filling this place," Costner told the enthusiastic audience, "my heart feels really big right now." The Cuban Film Institute is reportedly planning to screen Thirteen Days at theaters nationwide.

Thirteen Days, which opened in the United States last December, is a dramatization of the Kennedy administration's tense negotiations and internal power struggles during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Costner stars as Kenny O´Donnell, one of Kennedy´s closest advisors during the crisis. During Costner's visit to Cuba, he repeatedly emphasized that Thirteen Days is an attempt to portray the American version of events during the crisis, and does not pretend to provide a totalizing vision which covers the Soviet and Cuban sides as well. A review from Thursday's edition of Cuban daily Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) described the film as being "emotionally patriotic, in the tradition of classic American cinema" and "extremely sympathetic" in its portrayal of the Kennedys. Still, Costner's appearance seemed to stir up quite a bit of fanfare on the streets of Havana, where he was cheered and applauded wherever he appeared in public. Cubavision, one of the two state-run television channels, even broadcasted Costner's epic Dances with Wolves on his last night in Cuba.

For most Americans, events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion have now been comfortably retired into the Cold War chapters of history books and Hollywood cinema. But more than ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US embargo continues to weigh heavily on the daily lives of ordinary Cubans, limiting their access to medicines, basic foodstuffs, and other necessities. This year will also mark its 40th anniversary, as eight U.S. presidential administrations have repeated their commitment to maintaining what Cubans commonly refer to as “El Bloqueo” (The Blockade). The ninth administration is avowedly opposed to lifting it as well, and recent bipartisan attempts at easing its terms have floundered in Congress. For the time being then, the embargo appears just as politically immutable now as it did in October 1962, when the threat of Soviet missiles on the island once brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Articles from Cuba's
Prensa Latina, Juventud Rebelde, and Granma contributed to this report.