The exiles become tourists during a long sequence shot on location in the Tropicana nightclub.
The exiles take Reina on a tour of Havana.
García Espinosa foregrounds some of the city’s major landmarks and tourist destinations.
At the National Capitol Building.
Carmen mentions that the Cathedral in Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Carmen and Reina enjoy daiquiris at the Floridita, an Ernest Hemingway haunt popular with tourists.
The lighting and tone change when Carmen reveals her plans for Reina to return with them to Miami in order to work as their grandson’s nanny.
Reina tells Carmen that her real name is Yolanda.
Carmen believes that Reina will leave the country with them. But when it’s time to go to the airport, Reina is nowhere to be found.
Carmen tells a neighbor that she always treated Reina as a family member.
Reina will not be repatriated to the nation in exile. She chooses instead to wait it out and see if Rey will return.
Here Carmen becomes the focal point of the sequence, emerging as the primary character with whom viewers identify. Her apparent arrogance is stripped down as she confides in Reina about never having been to the club, which to her is a source of real embarrassment, and she tears up at several points, expressing a real sadness over the divide that separates friends and families inside the island and out. The film also encourages sympathy toward Carmen by showing that she is unaware of her insensitive husband’s serial lechery, a detail that increases her vulnerability. Overall the Tropicana sequence, which begins with an uncomfortable distance between the two women — a despondent old Habanera and a loud Miami Cuban — ends with a sense of shared intimacy.
This sequence operates on multiple levels, as it deals with intersecting issues of tourism, doble moral, and power, in addition to reconciliation and the construction of transnational cultural identity. In one sense, it attests to Cuban cinema’s engagement with issues of exile nostalgia, showing the extent to which culture produced on the island is aware of, and at times even sympathetic to, the preoccupations and longings of Cubans living outside the nation-state. The fact that the sequence begins by stressing Reina’s discomfort with and estrangement from Carmen and Emilio and ends with a brief moment of transnational understanding, prompted by their mutual respect for Celia Cruz, reflects a conciliatory point of view and draws attention to the role of popular culture in mediating the discourse of reconciliation. However, the scene is also critical of the power dynamics that shape exile return, emphasizing Emilio’s sexual-colonialist attitude and Carmen’s presumptuous social demeanor. In Reina’s face one can read a critique of the social and cultural repercussions of dollarization and the doubled economy, as she, who has been desperately searching for food to give her dog, watches food and drink be indiscriminately wasted at the club in shots that foreground her subjective point-of-view.
That one of the lengthiest sequences of the film is shot in the Tropicana club—where Garcia Espinosa lingers on the dancers, showmanship, and professionalism of the space in a straightforward manner that is stylistically similar to commercial touristic visual culture—suggests at least a nominal complicity with the exigencies of that market. Later there is an extended montage sequence, which depicts the trio touring other Havana landmarks — the Cathedral, the steps of the University of Havana, where they take photos — and eating at populated cafes, where roving son guitarists serenade them. The amount of time the camera spends exploring such touristic sites suggests the film’s interest in advancing of that market. This feeling of complicity with the tourist sector is bolstered, too, by Carmen’s speech about how satisfying it is to engage with her homeland as a tourist. Carmen is unironic about her delight with the shift in perspective that now has her seeing Cuba from the eyes of a visitor instead of a resident.
What is most significant about the scene is that only once Carmen begins to behave more like a tourist and less like a presumptuous returning exile does Espinosa encourage some viewer identification with her, in the editing and through her performance. As she becomes more sympathetic, so too the discourse of reconciliation becomes more transparent, as the two women make their toasts and Carmen says, “It’s time to open the window and let a little air in,” thus setting the tone for the exterior touring scenes that follow this sequence, taking us from the dark, socially claustrophobic space of the club to the brightly lit, open framing of the city.
This sympathetic portrayal of Carmen at the Tropicana club and representation of a more conciliatory exile-national relationship are made possible precisely because Carmen in this scene is no longer coded as a returning exile—she is not making social or material claims to her things, her house, or her neighborhood (nor, for that matter, is she being hyper-critical and acting like a know-it-all). More than simply humbled, Carmen is ecstatic with the thrill of discovery that this touristic encounter affords and expresses a kind of gratitude for it. Thus it is precisely Carmen’s enthusiasm about being a foreigner that makes her less threatening, less arrogant, and ultimately, more sympathetic.
In this respect Reina y Rey presents an inversion whereby the exile must be stripped of his or her nationalism and made into a foreigner and tourist in order to be incorporated into the homeland. As Rob Nixon has aptly written, when used in an exilic context, the word return, “summons to mind, above all, emotional and economic claims to land” (149). It is logical that overtures toward reconciliation and transnational dialogue are more likely to be made in a context in which émigrés are not seen as threatening in this way. Transforming the figure of the returning exile into a tourist diminishes the former’s associations with reclamation and restitution. The figure of the émigré tourist — even better, the Cuban American tourist — is not enacting a homeland journey of return but is, significantly, just visiting. As tourists, moreover, émigrés bring hard currency to the island, which has come, positively, to associate them with economic growth in the doubled economy, as opposed to material repossession.
Since 1990 the promotion of international tourism has been the most successful economic development program initiated during the Special Period. In the nineties, the sector grew at an average of eighteen percent each year, and by 1993, tourism had overtaken the sugar industry as the primary producer of export revenue. Officially designated as the leading economic development program, the Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR) was created with the goal of making Cuban tourism structurally competitive with other destinations in the Caribbean. Despite the U.S. embargo’s continued restrictions on travel, tourists with U.S. citizenship are estimated to have increased tenfold during the decade, according to the World Tourist Organization. One of the more interesting aspects in the reporting of these statistics, however, is the Cuban government’s assertion that the majority of U.S. visitors to the island are, in fact, Cuban Americans (Espino 364).
It is not the precision of these numbers that matters here so much as the Cuban government’s desire to publicize them. By emphasizing the extent to which Cuban Americans are returning as visitors, Cuba strategically, and somewhat ingeniously, intervenes in the discourse of exile hardliners who have actively promoted a policy of total economic disengagement with their homeland since the sixties, a stance that certainly precludes travel, not to mention remittances, third-party investments, and even telephone calls. Of course, in reality, contact between Cuban Americans and Cubans has always been much more commonplace than exile lobby groups and hegemonic voices emanating from Miami would admit. As David Rieff of the World Policy Institute points out, there is a contradiction between the polls that show Miami Cubans overwhelmingly supporting the embargo and the number of phone calls this group makes to Cuba each day (84). In the nineties, however, such transnational ties were becoming more public. The Cuban government’s exposure and publicizing of these ties — which, in addition to depicting Cuban American tourism as both desirable and normal, also meant the political destigmatization and active encouragement of dollar remittances, key to economic survival — is representative of the tidal shift that has been taking place in Cuban-exile relations during the Special Period.
Reina y Rey seeks in part to further discursive currency of reconciliation in the context of an economic transnationalism already taking place. When Carmen is shown participating in the economy as a tourist, when she is shown taking photographs and enjoying herself at Havana’s major landmarks, she manifests behavior that in other context might be interpreted as obnoxious, or as loud and gauche. In Reina y Rey, however, the minor or comic cultural insensitivities that accompany touristic behaviors are presented as just that, minor and comic — and rather than serving to alienate viewers, Carmen’s over-the-top enthusiasm and lack of critical self-reflection are somehow endearing. Indeed if Carmen behaves like an “ugly American,” it is thankfully so, since such behavior functions as a reminder that her visit is temporary; she will not and cannot stay. When she evinces any preference for the way things are done in Miami, this serves to make her more ridiculous and by extension less threatening.
In fact it is just when Carmen prepares to leave the country that she lets slip how American she has become, and it is in that moment that Reina y Rey fully reveals its most striking irony—Carmen becomes most sympathetic in the very act of disavowing the nation she has just re-revisited. In this scene she has an outburst, because Reina has not shown up to say good-bye and is, by extension, refusing the offer to join the family in Miami. The previous evening Carmen has been filling out visa applications with a typically reticent Reina, who even while giving the pertinent information never says that she will emigrate. On the contrary, when it is revealed that Carmen does not even know Reina’s real name, which is Yolanda, viewers understand that the continuation of this employer-employee “friendship,” or the repatriation of Reina to a pre-revolutionary work structure in the exiled nation, can never take place.
When the film cuts from the visa application scene to the following day, with Carmen, anxious about missing her flight, pacing about in front of Reina’s front door and complaining to the neighbor about Reina’s failure to show up, even calling Reina an “ingrate,” Carmen’s performance is amusingly manic. After having throughout the film shown Carmen rhapsodizing and tearing up with love for her homeland, enthusiastically touring Havana, and intimately expressing her nostalgia and sadness over her remove from friends and family — a category in which she includes her former domestic servant, now “ingrate” — Espinosa shows just how easily Carmen’s bottomless love for country can turn shallow. In the most satisfying and unexpected moment of the departure scene, Carmen makes her move toward the rental car to leave for the airport and says that she cannot believe Reina’s preference for “this shitty country.”
With this line of dialogue, Carmen solidifies her identity as Cuban American tourist and expresses a clear desire to return home — to Miami. The moment works as satire, since it shows Carmen’s hypocrisy, but it is allows empathy too, because Carmen is self-identifying, not as an exile waiting for her chance to return to Cuba and reclaim it, but as a typical tourist who has had enough and is ready to get out of the Third World. Unlike her over-the-top declarations of love for the homeland, Carmen’s disavowal appears less vicious than self-aware, as if on some level, she finally understands that she really cannot recreate the past.
In the film’s final sequence, the camera follows Carmen into the car. As she gets in, García Espinosa shows her in close-up for her last shot, in which she turns to the neighbor and asks her to relay a message to Reina. “Tell her,” she begins, and then after a pregnant pause continues, “tell her I left dying with laughter.” If only briefly, Carmen again shows that she masks vulnerability and is genuinely wounded by Reina’s failure to appear. She simultaneously lives up to and undercuts her own stereotype, achieving some sympathy just as (not coincidentally) everything serves to emphasize her departure — the bags, the rental car, her travel costuming, and this last line of dialogue, which posits her absence as an already accomplished fact.
If, at the beginning of the film, Garcia Espinosa introduces Carmen and Emilio as returning exiles, returning to their house and assuming that things can resume as they left them, by its conclusion, he strips the two characters of such illusions and shows that they are best served by the brief, manageable exposures to “national culture” that tourism affords; exposures that make Carmen’s claim that she “left dying with laughter” more plausible than one might think. This process whereby the film deconstructs the figure of returning exile — debunking the proprietary claims upon which much exilic identity is based — and constructs in its place the figure of the Cuban American tourist, builds a case that the “exiles” have at bottom no real interest in returning to Cuba, because they have become so fully Americanized. Such a perception, furthermore, functions to render them more, not less, fully accepted into the homeland.
The relatively sympathetic representation of exiles in Reina y Rey, as well as the film’s promotion of the tourist sector and the new category of exile as tourist, reflect émigrés increased value in the new economy and the extent to which market demands are helping shape representational practices. It is emblematic of a kind of pragmatic coming to terms with the rise of tourism in the doubled economy. Some critics find fault with the manner in which García Espinosa — the theorist responsible for “Imperfect Cinema,” and longtime leader in a national film industry internationally known for its revolutionary socialist politics and aesthetic innovation — made a film that shows signs of complicity with capitalistic interests.
Such a perspective, however, would constitute a kind of fetishization of national cultural authenticity and assign an ahistorical interpretive rigidity to theorizations that were never intended to reify filmmaking in Cuba. Even before the Special Period, in his essay “For an Imperfect Cinema…Fifteen Years Later,” García Espinosa emphasized that Imperfect Cinema has always been an evolving, adaptive process. The fact that García Espinosa, a founder and director of ICAIC from 1983-1991, had experience negotiating Cuba’s film administration may have contributed to his sense of pragmatism. As a leader at ICAIC, he was known as a collectivist who accommodated new young talent and worked to increase co-productions with filmmakers in Latin America. In 2001 García Espinosa advanced what is probably the most liberal definition of Cuban revolutionary cinema to date, saying,
There can be no clearer statement on the extent to which contemporary Cuban cinema, given the economic crisis and global dominance of major transnational corporations, has little choice in whether or not to negotiate the economic demands of the market. The film industry is in no way immune from the belief, popularly held among Cubans, that they invent their economy day by day. Instead of reading Reina y Rey’s in terms of ideological loss, it is much more useful to see in it a portrayal of Cuba’s changing reality, one that is increasingly engaged with foreign capital. Tracing how images of exile return have evolved with this increased transnational sector — and specifically tourism — suggests that contemporary Cuban economics may be breaking down the distances that have traditionally separated exiles and nationals, for better or worse.
Reina y Rey was not the first ICAIC-produced film to deal with the exile-national relationship. Jesus Diaz’s Lejanía (1985), distributed in the United States as A Parting of the Ways, and Ana Rodríguez’s short film Laura, one of the five shorts making up the feature-length anthology Mujer Transparente (1990), are two earlier examples. These films focused on the emotional and psychic divides separating exiles and nationals, presenting somewhat pessimistic stories of private loss and abandonment. Reina y Rey, with its lighter, more conciliatory approach, introduces a new trend in Cuban cinema during the Special Period, one that favors a reconfiguration of the exile as a transnational traveler. By 2001, Humberto Solás could make a film like Miel Para Oshún (Honey for Oshun), the first Cuban film to present a narrative focused entirely around a Cuban American character’s subjectivity (that character is also played by one of Cuba’s biggest stars, Jorge Perugorría). It treats the issue of exile reconciliation with an enthusiastic explicitness and presents Cuban American touring as an opportunity for the construction of cultural identity.
In Reina y Rey, Garcia Espinosa succeeded in teasing out certain changing realities in Cuban life whereby the figure of the exile was replaced with the figure of the transnational. To examine the political-economic context in which this shift has occurred is not to argue that it was merely a byproduct of new business practices and policies, but these must be taken into account. Too often, in studies of diaspora and nation-state relations, culture, imagination and subjectivity on one hand, and mobile capital and state power on the other, are posited as mutually exclusive categories. Analyses of the Cuban case, so fraught and rich with the many paradoxes, doublings, and seemingly incommensurable realities characteristic of life in the Special Period, could never support such a dichotomous separation.