In July 1953, Fidel Castro, a young lawyer, led 160 followers in an attack on an army barracks in Santiago, Cuba, to protest the rule of dictator Fulgencio Batista, who had seized power in a coup the year before. The barracks were named for Gen. Guillermo Moncada, a Black officer, son of a freed slave, who commanded troops in the Cuban War of Independence against Spain at the end of the 19th century.
Castro hoped his assault on the Moncada Barracks would be the beginning of the end of Batista, and in that he was not wrong – it would just take another six years. But first, his rebels were outnumbered by the army and shot down. Castro was apprehended and tried that fall. This culminated with him delivering a four-hour speech in which he quoted from Thomas Paine and the Declaration of Independence, concluding, “I know that imprisonment will be harder for me than it has ever been for anyone ... Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”
Once his revolution toppled Batista, Castro established a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship that continues on the winsome island to this day, now in the hands of his 89-year old younger brother, Raúl, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba. (Its deputy secretary is also 89.) Through many succeeding decades of rule, misrule and adventure, Fidel kept giving marathon speeches, often under a blazing sun, many of which promised Cubans a better material standard of living that still has not arrived.
For the Castros and their many loyalists, the only hitch was the existence of the United States, which never cared for a Soviet client state in its backyard through the Cold War years; and as Cuban exiles amassed in Florida and other places, their animus against communism fueled the dispute, as did the U.S. embargo of the island, which is still largely in place and which the Cuban government calls “the blockade.” Both sides are guilty of myopia; the U.S. for thinking it can starve Cuban communism into submission and the Castros for pretending the U.S. should not mind having a well-armed and antagonistic neighbor.
There is a little-seen attraction in Havana’s prettiest preserved neighborhood, the Museum of State Security, which recounts the incredible and mostly true history of irregular warfare between the two nations. A more balanced, compressed and dramatic episode is on view in the new movie “Wasp Network,” which was released in the U.S. on Netflix on June 19. With stars Penélope Cruz and Gael García Bernal, it takes viewers on a sometime scrambled roller coaster ride through the infiltration of the Miami exile community by Cuban spies 30 years ago. It culminates in the 1996 shoot-down of two small prop planes piloted by an exile group 10 miles from Cuban airspace, obliterated by Cuban Air Force MiG-29s; and the roundup of the spies.
“Wasp Network” is like the wordless Mad magazine cartoon Spy v. Spy – drawn by Cuban expat Antonio Prohías – but it is too easy to say everyone was wrong. What it proposes, beguilingly, is that the spies were sacrificing themselves to protect their homeland and revolution against traitors who would do anything to hurt it and Castro, as when we see the string of bombings of Havana hotels in 1997.
Drama can do what history cannot, at least for an American audience: Stretch your sensibilities to encompass the humanity of your enemies. For the Cuban agents to live under deep cover as Miami exiles presented few technical challenges but a great moral one – and that’s the heart of the movie.