Wasp Network Is a Rare Movie That Doesn’t Paint Cubans as Cartoonish Villains

It might be surprising to find a movie on Netflix that presents Cuban agents as self-sacrificing idealists and Miami exiles as right-wing terrorists. But Wasp Network offers a sober portrayal of how Cubans resisted the Miami opposition’s violent campaign of attacks in the 1990s.

Wasp Network (2019).

Often a movie’s importance has less to do with its cinematic quality or its production values than what it tells us politically. This is certainly the case with Wasp Network, a film about Cuban spies which has made waves since it was released on Netflix this June. Its portrayal of Cuba has drawn sharp critiques from anti-communists as from hardened Castroites — who, depending on their particular views, take the movie either for “pro-regime propaganda,” or exactly the opposite.

But the fact that Wasp Network has been released on Netflix has a lot to do with its importance. Appearing on such a platform means it can shape the common-sense view of Cuba among a broad swath of Western audiences — influencing consumers of commercial cinema who would never watch a film on this theme produced by some overtly “politicized” outlet. On that basis alone, it seems like a goal scored for the Cuban Revolution. So, this is a film that defends the revolution without itself being revolutionary? Well, let’s see.

Based on Brazilian writer Fernando Morais’s book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, the film focuses on the Wasp Network, a spy unit of the Cuban secret services designed to infiltrate the main — and most violent — organizations of the Cuban diaspora in Miami.

These latter not only acted as a powerful lobby group in US politics but carried out terrorist outrages against Cuba itself: according to Cuban data, from 1959 to 1999, 234 innocent people were killed or injured by such militants. Taking the form of an action thriller, this film tells us the story of the Cuban agents who passed themselves off as enemies of the Castro government in order to infiltrate the terrorist groups who worked to destabilize Cuba in the first difficult years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

These years, known as the Special Period, saw Cuba’s economy suffer the grave consequences of the loss of Eastern Bloc support, and a turn to build up the tourist sector in order to draw the foreign currency that would make up for the sharp fall in Cuban GDP.

In this hard time for Cuba, the pro-capitalist opposition tried to sabotage tourism infrastructure with violent attacks also aimed at scaring off visitors. The terrorists’ objective was to bring down a system which, unlike the bulk of the socialist camp, had managed to remain in place thanks to the tenacity of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) and the revolution’s deep roots among the population.

Wasp Network is an international co-production directed by Olivier Assayas, a French filmmaker already known for politically themed works like Something in the Air (2012) — winner of an Osella d’Oro at the Venice Film Festival for best original screenplay  — which portrayed the aftershocks in France following May ’68, or the 2010 miniseries Carlos, on the famous Venezuelan guerrilla fighter Ilich Ramírez.

Wasp Network itself parades an all-star cast, from Penélope Cruz to Edgar Ramírez (who also starred in Carlos), Wagner Maniçoba de Moura (famous for playing Pablo Escobar in Narcos) and Gael García Bernal.

While some of these actors have appeared in politically inflected movies before (for instance, García Bernal’s portrayal of Che Guevara in the 2004 adaptation of the Motorcycle Diaries, and his leading role in 2012 film No, about the successful campaign to unseat Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet), they are also known to a general audience uninterested in militant filmmaking.

Countering the Clichés

From the beginning, the film plays with our pre-established notions (or at least, the hegemonic ones). It initially presents the main characters in a way which makes them appear as real opponents of socialism who have fled Cuba for their own selfish reasons — a perspective which soon begins to unravel.

As the plot unfolds, we see the inhuman acts perpetrated by the Miami opposition, the actual arguments among the pro-capitalist side, and the just cause for which the protagonists are really fighting.

The format is more or less what we would expect of any Hollywood movie, and is tailored for the general public. It isn’t especially demanding of the viewer — it doesn’t require any prior historical knowledge, though some at least will be surprised to find themselves watching a rare film which shows the real face of Cuban exile politics in Miami.

It doesn’t show US authorities’ full responsibility in financing, shielding, and supporting the terrorist activity against Cuba (for instance, the movie does feature Luis Posada Carriles, who in 1976 murdered seventy-three people by planting a bomb on a Cuban plane, but it is not made clear that he was a CIA agent).

Yet, Wasp Network does have the great merit of highlighting the destabilization and terrorism which the Cuban revolution has faced since the outset. This is a vision of history diametrically opposed to the one presented in hegemonic media for decades, where the exiles are all just victims persecuted by a “bloody dictatorship.”

From the outset, it is clear that Wasp Network is no defense of Cuban communism. The text opening the film refers to the “brutal” US embargo but also to the “Communist regime,” Cubans “fleeing an authoritarian state” and the fight to “free Cuba” — a choice of words hardly suggesting communist sympathies.

But the movie does open up an unusual perspective on the country, for it portrays the Cuban agents as sometimes heroic figures, convinced of the truth and honorability of their cause and ready to sacrifice their own personal lives in defense of a collective project.

Even to show that much — that things outside of the ordinary do, indeed, exist — is subversive under a capitalist system that celebrates individualism and denies that the citizens of socialist countries could in any way identify with “the regime.” Though it is by no means Marxist, the film rather troubles the story we are usually told about the Cuban people’s lack of support for the revolution.

Cultural products like cinema often communicate the notion that, even if some things go wrong under capitalism, fundamentally it’s the best system so long as people “act like they should.” Wasp Network turns this argument on its head.

Here, we see that in socialist Cuba there are conflicts and unresolved problems, just like in other countries. Hence it helps banish the clichés and stigma often used to demonize Cuba (much like Venezuela) en bloc, instead presenting the country as both “peculiar” and in many ways rather normal. Here, people both express contradictory feelings over the revolutionary process and are happy to live in Cuba.

This provides the general public a much more realistic picture of the Cuban revolution than they would usually be able to see in Western media, portraying a country characterized by much greater plurality — and even democracy — than the outside world is usually told.

And frankly, the fact that it’s a movie on Netflix saying this, not some activist group, makes it all the more effective in dismantling the prejudices of viewers who are normally subject to all kinds of disinformation.

Real People

To show the agents of the Cuban intelligence services not as cartoonish baddies, but as figures ready to risk their lives for their cause, certainly troubles the usual hierarchy of heroes and villains. Not least given that the opposition militants they are fighting are presented — almost for the first time on the big screen — as right-wing terrorists with ties to narco-trafficking, rather than as saintly victims of oppression battling for democracy.

At some points in the film, we also see the revolutionary leaders themselves being relatively “normalized.” Hence, the appearance of the foreign minister and Fidel Castro himself, with an extract from an interview where he insists on Cuba’s right to defend itself from attacks.

Similarly, army officers appear as human beings interacting with other human beings, rather than as treating people as mere pawns. For instance, they end up confessing to Olga Salanueva, wife of agent René González, the real reasons why he fled the country — contravening the compartmentalization necessary for this type of operation — and allowing the couple to go back to living together in Miami.

In fact, after the five agents were ultimately arrested in the United States, the Cuban leadership was dogged in its commitment to trying to liberate the so-called “Cuban Five” (known in Cuba as the “Five Heroes”). During their years in prison in Miami, there was a mass of mobilization efforts and public declarations to secure their release — pressure coming from not just Castro, but a broad-based popular movement and international solidarity efforts.

And it is on this last point — a collective, David-against-Goliath victory against US imperialism — that the most important part of this film is rooted. It portrays the real lives of five Cuban heroes who sacrificed their own freedom for the cause of saving the lives of others.

Released between 2011 and 2014, the five are now finally free, after over a decade of unjust imprisonment. Their example of generosity and commitment are an inspiration for those who dream of living in a socialist society — for only in such a society do we know that a sacrifice made in the name of collective well-being will have its reward.

The “Five Heroes” are living proof of the kind of “new man” of which Che Guevara once spoke — not only a windy theory, but a seed that took root in the Cuban Revolution, which is still bearing fruit.