The Cuban Comedy (Non-)Crisis

Why are there no swimming pools in Cuba?

Because everyone who knows how to swim has already left the island.

This barb entitled “Swim Practice” was one of many inside-jokes in Cuba smuggled from behind closed doors 90-odd miles to the north. But let me get to the horse before showing the cart’s entire contents.

Despite its spitting distance of the Florida coast, the Republic of Cuba has long ceased to pose the threat it once did to American lives. For most of us young folk, the Bay of Pigs is a date and name we had to memorize for AP US History. Gael Garcia Bernal and Benicio Del Toro’s respective portrayal of revolutionary icon Che Guevara permanently diminished my personal ability to see him as anything other than a pop culture relic. I’m sure Che didn’t foresee his legacy splashed across ironic t-shirts and dorm rooms, but that’s how many Americans have come to recognize him. In the US, at last, his once-feared face is now synonymous with hookahs, hemp and liberal arts students.

But for me, Cuba has also always held a mythical quality built on loose fragments of urban legend and folklore. All kinds of antiquated bans meant little access to the “real” Cuba. After all, you have to first go to Canada or Mexico to even fly to Cuba — or so I’ve been told. Everyone’s a doctor, all medical school is free/excellent or the medical care is outstanding — definitely one of those, if not all. The literacy rate is almost 100%. The cigars are the best in the world and some would argue reason alone to lift the trade embargo. And, everyone plays baseball. Yet, famine runs rampant, as do gas shortages, and in general we are taught that despite all the good stuff we hear about that may or may not actually be true — communism has failed the Cubans.

We are kind of told to accept the idea that Cuba isn’t threatening anymore, but it’s still bad. Maybe it’s a leftover distaste from the communist heyday of the Cold War. Like an annoying ex-boyfriend who still pops up in your peripheral social circle. The government and media generally place Fidel Castro in the pantheon of the late Jong Il’s, Sadam’s or the still alive (for now) Hugo’s. How can a government led by such a terrible man be good? These are the black and white terms with which we as Americans are usually encouraged to view the world. Election 2012, let the generalizations begin!

Sometime last year, though, things started to change. Actually, things have been changing within Cuba for quite some time — but, you know, from the American angle. Perhaps the most influential factor was Fidel stepping down as President to allow another member of the Brothers Castro (there are three in total) to ascend the throne. This was not an entirely selfless act on Fidel’s part. He was actually quite sick and there was speculation of imminent bedlam should he die while in office. Raul Castro, the youngest brother, is technically the incumbent President of the Council of State of Cuba, but the transition signaled a time of change and potential for reform.

In 2011, President Obama lifted some bans between the US and Cuba, allowing students and religious organizations to travel there — as well as allowing certain US airports to allow certain licensed charters. Now that’s change you can believe in! While trade embargoes have yet to be lifted, one Cuban export will be making it’s way to the United States in 2012: Juan de los Muertos.

Cuba’s supposedly “first horror film” has already been picked up by Focus Features for distribution later this year, after strong showings first at the Toronto Film Festival and later at Austin’s Fantastic Fest. Though full of cringe-worthy gore and violence, the film is actually a spoof, and a great illustration of Cuba’s black humor.

If we’re in the business of invoking revolution, it is pretty revolutionary that a film of this subject matter was even made, let alone publicly screened in Havana. Cuba may no longer pose international danger, but the government still makes open criticism and negative free speech pretty dangerous for its people. Yet, Juan of the Dead — a distant cousin of Dawn and Sean — implies the 52 years of socialism has turned Cubans into zombies. The jokes are campy, but the undertone is purely satirical — and a potential sign of newly open times in Cuba.

According to a Times article covering the movie’s Havana film festival premiere, Juan was one of the most expensive Cuban films ever made and almost all the financing came from private investors. The lack of public sector involvement may explain how the filmmakers got away with including such plot points as the government-controlled news media informing Cubans that they are not actually experiencing zombie attacks, but rather a covert operation paid for by the United States. That’s a pretty bald-faced dig at the government line, one that could land a Cuban in jail for making a similar joke at the wrong place or time.

Cubans have a storied history with dark humor and political jokes, or chistes. In 2009, the Alexandria Library published a book entitled Laughing Under Castro: A 50-year revolution? You must be kidding! Author Modesto Arocha spent years covertly collecting the jokes in Cuba eventually smuggling them to Miami. These were the jokes told behind closed doors, under breath, among trusted friends, because as the book’s prologue points out, in Cuba “expression is restricted and often punished.” Despite this adversity, the prologue describes how the Cuban people have “nonetheless developed a broad repertoire of humor mocking the repressors with creative wit and resourceful genius.” The humor of Juan of the Dead probably did not materialize overnight. This book argues this signature Cuban humor is as old as the revolution itself.


Be Like CheA drunk walking by a school one morning hears a shout rise from the schoolyard. “Be like Che!” the children called out, echoing a popular slogan of the revolution.“That’s right,” the drunk responds, “Be like Che: asthmatic.”The Return of NapoleonNapoleon came back to life in the mid-1980’s and held a secret meeting with the leaders of the world. He addressed each individually.“Monsieur Gorbachev, he began, “if I had your prudence, I never would have fought in Waterloo.”“Monsieur Reagan, if I had your military might, I would have been victorious at Waterloo.”“Monsieur Castro,” he continued, “If I had your Granma newspaper, no one ever would have learned of my defeat at Waterloo.”Naming tripletsThree triplets are born in Santiago de Cuba, sons of a devoted party member who names them Cuba, Populace and Fidel. When Castro calls the man to congratulate him, the triplets’ mother answers the phone.“How are the triplets doing?” the head of state asks.“Very well, Comandante,” the mother responds. “Cuba is crying, Populace is fast asleep and Fidel is sucking me dry.”Futile searchA foreign intellectual visited Cuba recently to listen to the opinions and arguments of a revolutionary. He couldn’t find anybody…Seven Six Deadly SinsIn Cuba, gluttony isn’t a sin. It’s a miracle.Cold Cuts“Where are you off to  in such a hurry?”“I don’t want to miss the meat.”“Don’t be silly, it’s 8 o’clock at night — and they stopped selling meat years ago!”“No, no, no…I’m going to see meat on the nightly news.”911An American visiting Cuba is telling his hosts about some of his country’s technological breakthroughs. The Cubans are especially impressed with the advances in telephone services.“…and in the United States, if you dial 9-1-1 from any telephone in the country, the call is automatically directed to the nearest police station, you are identified and the call is recorded.”“Oh, that’s nothing,” says one of the Cubans. “Here in Cuba, that happens and you don’t even have to dial 9-1-1.”Set the watchesAs the small jet lands at Havana’s Jose Marti airport the pilot announces. “Welcome to Cuba. Please set your watches back 50 years.”

These are just a few of the hundreds of chistes picked up from the streets of Cuba and catalogued in this book. They not only illustrate the Cuban people’s sense of humor, but also the unsatisfactory conditions that inspire the jokes. Taken all at once, the situation in Cuba seems not at all funny, but horrifying. But, laughter is a universal coping mechanism and just what the well-trained Cuban doctor ordered. In fact, jokes like these are increasingly common in Cuba — politicians are even known to pass around their favorites. Not that you would ever want them overhearing one from your lips.

The irreverence may reflect overall disenchantment, but it also reflects resilience.

There is some state-sanctioned humor in Cuba as well. Since 1979, Havana has been home to a Museum of Humor. Last year, the museum hosted the 17th International Graphic Humor Biennial. Another exhibition last year in Havana was entitled La Ubre del Humor — which means The Udder of Humor. It is named for a monthly cultural magazine’s humor section, called “The Udder.” Exhibition Curator Caridad Blanco discussed her Cuban humor expertise with Cuban Art News last year. She discusses the evolution of humor in Cuba, specifically through graphic arts, but also among Cuban people. In regards to the survival of this humor, here is what Blanco says:

Undoubtedly, Cubans laugh as much as they an and they also joke or mock…A 1996 work of Reynerio Tamayo illustrates this attitude even in difficult circumstances: “A Cuban, living in a ruined and buttressed building, defiantly shouts at a terrible blast of wind: “Let the hurricane come, I am waiting for it.

Irreverent resilience.

In the book Changing Cuba/Changing World, Sara E. Cooper reflects on Cuban funny papers and how they reflected the national climate first in 1959-1960 and then contrasted with those of 2007-2008. She labels the Cuban sense of humor as downright “notorious,” and the proliferation of funny papers and cartoons since that time allowed the government an entertaining avenue for their agenda. Political cartoons anti-US, pro-Cuba or neither at all have been a cultural institution in Cuba since the revolution. If you’re interested in learning more, the article is required reading — and available online here.

Since Cubans seem to be unanimously described as having a great sense of humor, Fidel Castro must be the only person in all of Cuba without one. Taking a closer, if brief, look at Cuba through a humorous lens has brought me to one definitive conclusion:

I don’t care what my government says, I want to hang with the Cubans!

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

The Cuban Comedy (Non-)Crisis