Azucar Amarga (Bitter Sugar)

When does art turn into propaganda… or, when does propaganda become art? Leon Ichaso’s Azucar Amarga is a vibrant and angry Exhibit A in the case of propaganda vs art. Just one look at its IMDB user reviews shows you just how divided people are on the film- it’s either a 5-star masterpiece, or a total piece of biased garbage, depending on your political position on Cuba. For most people- Americans, at least- the question of Cuba is unknown territory. They know nothing about the country other than Fidel Castro & Communism, that Americans can’t go on vacation there (or can they? Who knows?) and that people are poor but the food and music is amazing. Buena Vista Social Club and all that.

But the truth about Cuba is a lot more complicated. In some ways, it’s a success story- an example of Communism gone right, a society truly providing for the people in a way that our Neo-Liberal version of Capitalism has failed. Great health care, free schooling, the whole deal. But the mainstream narrative has truth to it as well- there is a lot of poverty, there is political suppression; basic things here are totally upside-down there. The fact that today, Cubans are fleeing illegally in record numbers is not a myth- they’re leaving for a reason. But what is that reason, exactly? And which Cuba is the real Cuba?

If you’re to believe Ichaso, Cuba is a failed experiment: an ideological failure that brainwashed an entire country into believing in a false revolution, and an economic failure where educated people with degrees make way more money serving drinks to foreign tourists than they do practicing the career they studied for. A failure where college girls have to prostitute themselves for a chance of a better life; a failure where young, idealistic artists prefer to inject themselves with AIDS because they’d rather die than continue living in this oppressive police state.

If you think that’s a bit over-the-top, well, it is- Azucar Amarga is definitely not trying to be subtle. But it’s all based on truth, too- all of these things have happened in Cuba to real people. The tourism trade is a black market that pours backdoor money into the economy out of necessity, but has created their own version of apartheid, where local Cubans are physically banned from patronizing bars and restaurants set aside for foreign tourists. Azucar Amarga takes all of the criticisms one can think of and rolls them into a single narrative- that of Lavan, a young believer who falls in love with the beautiful Matye. But this seaside romance quickly slams into the reality of Cuban life- no money, no freedom, no future. Everything that can go wrong, does. Those who can’t swallow such a loaded narrative pill are missing the point- sure, no one single person would go through all of this in such a short window of time, but the film is a parable, not a documentary. It’s hitting all the issues Cubans have had to face and squeezing them into a 2-hour window, hoping you’ll see life from their perspective. In that way, the film is a success.

While Azucar Amarga is definitely one-sided, it’s a side that screams to be heard, and that’s what Ichaso has done with his melodramatic, black-and-white cinematography and rock-n-roll attitude. The guy clearly believes in the American ideal of freedom (especially freedom of expression) passionately, and waves that flag up high. And of course, the U.S. itself is full of problems and issues that such a naive attitude ignores- as well as one of the main reasons Cuba is in such a mess (with its embargo,) but again, that’s not the point here- this is not academic analysis, it’s art. As a personal work of expression, Azucar Amarga does it’s job well- it puts you in the shoes of someone else, someone you were completely unaware of, living a life you had no idea existed. Though the film is from the mid-90’s and Cuba has changed quite a bit since then, much of that core struggle and sentiment remains true. Art? Propaganda? Yes to both.

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