With store-bought equipment, a woeful budget, cheap cars and cheaper apartments, the undercover lives of the Cuban Five could not have been further from the gadgetry and jet-setting high life of James Bond. Putting faces to the names of Olivier Assayas’ based-on-a-true-story Wasp Network, Castro’s Spies provides a detailed account of men fighting for the future of their nation.
And all are more than happy to talk at great length about their remarkable collective story. Affable and at ease in front of camera, Irish directorial duo of Ollie Aslin and Garry Lennon benefit from a wealth of testimony from the group in question: Rene Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez, Gerardo Hernandez, and Ramon Labanino. All of a similar age, born in the early 1960s, events that presaged their covert actions went back many hundreds of years.
Aslin and Lennon open Castro’s Spies with a flyby historical contextualisation to the driving beat of 1980s synth. Encompassing 400 years of Spanish occupation, the 1898 war of independence, and the following fifty years, during which America (essentially the mafia) continued to pull the strings; the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. And the people of Cuba were never truly free. A 1953 failed attack on the Moncada Garrison may not have lit the touch paper that would overthrow a corrupt government, but it did announce the arrival of a rebel with a worthy cause: Fidel Castro.
The 1960 US trade embargo, Cuba’s alignment with the Soviet Union, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis made for a fraught entry to the world: “We were a country under siege,” says one of the men. It’s an informative, well-constructed prologue that takes us to the point where the young ideologues were recruited during the Angolan fight for independence for which they had volunteered. The filmmakers’ clever use of footage from a Cuban TV show of the era in which an agent infiltrates the CIA, showing the comparable scenes of training, secrets kept from concerned wives and eventual “defections” to Miami, reinforce the Five’s statements.
Interviews with other family members demonstrate the long-lasting effects that tough choices had on those left behind, especially when – after the fall of Communism in 1991 – the ironically named ‘Special Period’ further devastated an already wrecked Cuban economy. However, “It’s not a game to protect Cuba. That’s our mission.” It’s striking how little inspection of Castro’s failures as the nation’s leader there is here, when considering the – justifiable – critiquing of the US government “turning a blind eye” to the exile militia being trained on Floridian soil.
However, sticking to principle, and the firm belief that they would prevail, pilot Rene Gonzalez begins flying with CIA-trained anti-Castro campaigner, and ‘Brothers to the Rescue’ founder, José Basulto. Spotting the ‘Cuban rafters’ fleeing their country, making the perilous journey across the Straits of Florida to Miami, the saintly Basulto would radio the Coast Guard, but also use his flights to invade Cuban airspace to leaflet Havana with anti-Castro material. His is the most prickly testimony of a film which sits fairly firmly on the side of its main subjects. Proceeding with a linear chronology to the present day, Castro’s Spies does justice to the long trials and many tribulations of its engaging subjects without ever flying too far off the expected route.
The 2021 Glasgow Film Festival takes place between the 24 February to 7 March. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63