Wasp Network enters against the pastel backdrop of the storefronts and cafes lining the streets of Havana in early 1990. Cafecito poured, monstera leaves simmering in the sun, the scene brings a nostalgia and warmth that is hard to come by for many Cuban Americans. Since landing on Netflix on June 19, the film has been a point of contention between those who see the story of the Cuban Five— five arrested members of the Cuban spy group known as the Wasp Network— as either anti-American or anti-Cuban, with Cuban immigrants stuck on the threshold between.
Based on The Last Soldiers of the Cold War: The Story of the Cuban Five by Brazilian journalist, politician, and global best-selling author Fernando Morais, Wasp Network (2019, 130 minutes) follows René González, the first of the Cuban Five to be released from the US prison system, from his sudden departure from the island to his arrest in 1998. The film has a gorgeous, star-studded cast, featuring Penélope Cruz, Édgar Ramírez, Ana de Armas, and Gael García Bernal, but skimps on important historical context to fully understand volatile Cuban and American relations in the 1990s.
The film has a gorgeous, star-studded cast, featuring Penélope Cruz, Édgar Ramírez, Ana de Armas, and Gael García Bernal, but skimps on important historical context to fully understand volatile Cuban and American relations in the 1990s.
The film earned a measly 40% on RottenTomatoes, with critics describing it as “choppy and confused,” and viewers have taken to Twitter to call Wasp Network “absolute propaganda” and demand Netflix remove the film from their streaming service. In an effort to blur the allegiances of the spies highlighted in the film, the non-chronological narrative loses the average viewer in a mess of unaddressed tragedies and pro-Castro pathos.
Pro-Cuban democracy non-profit Center for a Free Cuba rebuked the film in a lengthy but well-informed review, calling the film “a masterclass in misinformation,” arguing that it “paints a sympathetic and whitewashed picture of the Castro regime’s spy network.” The organization pins the film’s failures on its creators: Morais for his original work, and Olivier Assayas who wrote the screenplay and directed the film.
Morais is considered an icon of the Brazilian left, historically pro-Cuba and Castro-supporting. Center for a Free Cuba believes Assayas furthered this political narrative by shooting the film on-site in Havana, which required permission from Cuban authorities. As a result, Wasp Network is devoid of any anti-Castro sentiments that would set off regime censors, shutting down the production; on-location B-roll shots take precedence over balanced historical context.
Assayas said in an interview with IndieWire, “it was extraordinary because it was the first time that the Cubans opened the doors to have a filmmaker explore their contemporary political history, but at the same time, we shot during a very tense time because of the political context, particularly due to the Trump administration. We were observed very closely by the Cuban state and subjected to the fluctuations of the political climate.”
In an effort to blur the allegiances of the spies highlighted in the film, the non-chronological narrative loses the average viewer in a mess of unaddressed tragedies and pro-Castro pathos.
Assayas’s outsider perspective of Cuban-American relations at the end of the Cold War is evident in his cherry-picking of the struggles Cubans faced under the Castro regime: while highlighting the caps on electricity, constant surveillance, and rationing of food, Assayas avoids addressing the tension in Cuba following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Castro brothers’ growing paranoia.
This political context illustrates the delicate relationship between pro-democracy and pro-Castro Cubans, defecting citizens and the authoritarian government, Cuba and America. With pro-democracy Cubans organizing terrorist attacks against Cuba’s tourism industry and economy to weaken Castro’s dictatorship and Castro’s growing fury towards his opponents, the real-life Wasp Network, “La Red Avispa,” was comprised of 41 spies sent to Miami to observe and infiltrate Cuban-American groups, gathering intelligence that would lead to the deaths of four Brothers to the Rescue during a flight in Cuban airspace: Carlos Costa, Pablo Morales, Mario de la Peña, and Armando Alejandre.
The Ochoa Affair is mentioned briefly at the beginning of Wasp Network, but fails to recognize Fidel Castro’s role. General Arnaldo Ochoa, a highly respected Cuban leader and recipient of MINFAR’s highest decoration, Hero of the Republic, was arrested for corruption, drug smuggling, and high treason before being put on a show trial and executed by firing squad. The huge leadership overturns of the Ochoa Affair is speculated to be a countermeasure to remove evidence of the Castro brothers’ orchestration of massive drug trafficking arrangements, removing key American witnesses and worthy cause for invasion.
With pro-democracy Cubans organizing terrorist attacks against Cuba’s tourism industry and economy to weaken Castro’s dictatorship and Castro’s growing fury towards his opponents, the real-life Wasp Network, “La Red Avispa,” was comprised of 41 spies sent to Miami to observe and infiltrate Cuban-American groups.
Wasp Network seems to value Florida-based Brothers to the Rescue, a group of Cuban exile pilots who made dangerous trips to rescue Cuban defectors, but neglects to mention Castro’s fury when their pro-democracy leaflet drop coincided with a vigil for the Tugboat “13 de Marzo” Massacre. The massacre occurred when a tugboat of defectors was purportedly downed by a Cuban military vessel, taking at least 35 Cuban lives while survivors begged the military vessels for rescue. Cuban authorities have never officially acknowledged the massacre.
Though Wasp Network comes off as tone-deaf toward the martyrs who gave their lives to save Cuban refugees, some of its best moments in the representation of Cuban-American stories in the film underscore prevalent experiences for immigrants. Penélope Cruz’s marvelous work as René González’s wife, Olga, captures the familial trauma of immigration to America: wives and children left at home, babies sent to live with grandparents. What the Wasp Network gets right is the heartbreaking and seemingly endless struggle to keep a refugee family together.
Despite its mediocre reviews, I would recommend Wasp Network to fellow Cuban Americans; where the film fails to give a balanced historical context, it forces a critical eye on how Cubans interpret Cuban nationalism and morals. This story shares a common theme: love for the Cuban people, and, of course, hope.
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