Cuba Through The Prism Of Years
An Exile's Journey Of Heart and Mind
By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Silvia Morini's youth in Havana was one of elegance, privilege and money.
Her family lived in a wedding-cake Italianate mansion in the posh Miramar
district. When she turned 16, she was presented to society at the exclusive
Havana Yacht Club, which admitted only the wealthy and the white. A
special exception was made for one tan-skinned mulatto: the dictator
Like so many other monied Cuban families, the Morinis fled the island
shortly after Fidel Castro's revolution. She spent nearly 40 years in the
United States nurturing a deep resentment of Castro and all that he had
wrought. But prodded by her photographer son and her own curiosity, she
decided to return to Havana to see what had become of her family's
house--and revisit her fading memories of an island paradise.
Morini's visit is chronicled in "Our House in Havana," a documentary by
filmmaker Stephen Olsson that airs tonight at 11 on Channel 26 as part of
public television's "P.O.V." (Point of View) series.
"Our House," all things considered, is an impressive achievement. Within
the limited space of one hour, and with his attention tightly focused on one
68-year-old woman and the disconnect between her nostalgia and the
reality she encounters, Olsson manages to produce a remarkably complete
sketch of life in Cuba today.
Morini recalls meeting Castro shortly after the revolution and telling
would be a patriotic Cuban and support his government. But a few days
later he gave a speech deriding wealthy Cuban women as canasta-playing
idlers who, whenever the "help" so much as broke a glass, would make
them work extra to pay off the "debt." For Morini, that was when Castro
became not a reformer but an ogre.
The Morinis were a family of sugar barons, and the riches of the cane fields
went into a rococo pile known as "La Casa Italiana." After arriving in
Havana, Morini goes straight to the house. "It's no longer a home," she
grumbles, but unlike so many other old buildings in Havana it has been
beautifully maintained. It now serves as the headquarters of a government
foreign-exchange bank. The security guard at the front gate won't even let
her into the garden.
But she does manage to get into the "guest house" next door, itself a
near-mansion. The woman who now owns the place is happy to receive
her but bemused that Cuban exiles are "all completely obsessed" with
coming back to see their former properties.
Some of Morini's fondest memories are of the Havana Yacht Club, where
she remembers the parties as the height of elegance and the beach as an
expanse of pristine white sand. Olsson appropriately intersperses film clips
of social events at the club in the 1950s, an era when, as an old man who
worked at the club says, "everything was based on race and money."
Nowadays the club is open to the public, and there are as many black
bodies as white ones sprawled on the less-than-pristine beach.
Olsson manages to touch on one of the central features of modern Cuban
society, the generation gap. An elderly couple tell of their continuing
support for Castro's government and describe how the revolution has
improved their lives. Young men on the beach complain that today's Cuba
offers nothing for them. "If you want to go to the disco you need nice
clothes," one says. "That can cost $50." In a country where state salaries
are as low as $20 a month, a $50 outfit is as inaccessible as the lost Morini
The real subject of the film is Morini's personal transformation. By the
she returns to the United States, her view of U.S.-Cuban relations has
radically changed. Formerly a staunch supporter of the U.S. trade
embargo, she begins to lobby the White House and key senators such as
Jesse Helms to end the embargo altogether--not because of any sudden
love for Castro or his revolution but because she believes more contact
and exchange will only be good for both societies.
Given the current moves in Congress to weaken the embargo, Olsson's
film is a welcome, if idiosyncratic, contribution to the debate.