A Painful Train Ride in the Heart of Cuba

by Lynn Cruz                                                                                 

From the documentary “Tren de la linea norte”

HAVANA TIMES — The following text silently fades in over black: “Cuba is a socialist Latin American island nation where the State controls most of the means of production to guarantee the wellbeing of its citizens.” Thus begins Marcelo Martin’s documentary, El tren de la linea norte (“The North Line Train”).

The film documents a journey that begins at the station in Moron and ends at Punta Alegre in the central Cuban province of Ciego de Avila. Since its creation, the train has been virtually the only means of transportation connecting these two destinations. It makes a stop at Falla, a town the filmmaker has intimate ties to, located in the municipality of Chambas.

Alcohol, cock fights, sugar, rum, dead cattle and ruined buildings – these are the images of an impressionist montage intercut with the story. The filmmaker undertakes a journey in search of a lost paradise, visiting different places around the town, now unfamiliar to him, but still alive in his childhood memories.

This obsession may well be his worst enemy, for, in his efforts to report on the town’s ills, he fears being misunderstood and begins to explain with words what the images are already revealing on their own. The camera penetrates the town, makes its way into its different spaces and approaches its different actors, the inhabitants of Falla.

The townspeople are picking up and sweeping away the last remnants of the carnival. Martin gradually pulls away the masks of joy and festivity. Now, he is a stranger in search of answers from these people, from the ones who stayed. It is a trip back home, undertaken from the distance the lens affords.

The documentary conveys the urgent need to rescue Falla’s collective memory. Different generations reveal their specific ways of enduring the same problem: forgetfulness. What has happened? Why have the town’s old buildings disappeared? Why is there no longer a theater in town? Why has the baseball stadium been turned into a stable? Why does no one take the time to repair the movie theater, the only place devoted to cultural activities that’s still standing?

We are presented with lives trapped in neglect and indolence. Rodolfo, one of the townspeople, says: “The house was abandoned and people started taking away the bricks.” He’s referring to the home of the former sugar refinery owner. “Before, the town was very lively,” Juan Antonio, a young computer programmer, says with regret. “There used to be a hotel there, in that park,” Chayo, an 80-year-old woman recalls. “The library was once a visual arts and theater venue, but later, I don’t know how, we lost all that,” Milagros, the library woman, remembers.

The director breaks with this and takes his critique further. He ceases to rummage through the past to focus on the harsh living conditions of the townspeople at the margins of society, particularly the Afro-Cuban population, the most underprivileged. Through this, he also captures the town’s moral decline and lack of opportunities. “Falla’s lost all its men. They’re all in prison for killing cows,” says “El Pichon,” a young ex-convict.

Who is responsible for social work in town? What happened to the social workers who led the “energy revolution” throughout the country? Many questions remain as we hear the testimonies of the townspeople. Martin conducts a kind of survey and gradually approaches not only the town’s problems, but also their causes and culprits.

Falla’s main sources of income are “sugar, alcohol, rum and cattle.” In a parallel montage, we are shown the scant employment options available to the townspeople, intercut with what those interviewed tell us. The montage gives viewers the feeling of being trapped. The conditions these people live in stem from the existing companies’ inability to generate jobs and satisfy the real needs of the population.

A storm breaks: the carnival. This way, we are shown the dilapidated houses and cultural venues, worn down by time, neglect and hurricanes – the individual versus the system, a common motif since Memories of Underdevelopment. Little by little, the filmmaker arrives at a higher truth, that true corruption is not to be found at street level but among higher-ups, in the municipal Party council and in the management of State companies.

A seemingly isolated phenomenon prompts new questions. Why is there no transparency at State companies? If socialism places human beings at the center of everything, how have the inhabitants of Falla arrived at such a dehumanizing state of affairs, become lives caught between today and the promises of a tomorrow that never seems to arrive? Humans are finite beings, “the time is now.”

“The problem you see over there is the same problem the refinery at Varona has, because of the cattle, more than a thousand hectares.” “When you go see a government official, they don’t solve your problem. They lower their heads like cats and look the other way.” So says a farmer working the land under Cuba’s usufruct decree 259.

As Martin delves more deeply into and discovers more about the town, he begins to mingle more with the locals and to become involved in its history. At first, he only does so with Chayo. People’s despair, their loss of faith in the government, becomes overwhelming. This is evident in those who work for the State and those who don’t. Discredited because of people’s lack of rights and irregularities in terms of duties, this State produces discontent and bitterness.

This is a road movie with a soundtrack reminiscent of old Westerns, a score that gives the film an ironic tone. Pollution and unsanitary conditions characterize the town’s daily life, as those with power are implicated in increasingly shadier episodes. Martin’s investigation, recalling those of Michael Moore at times, continues, as the filmmaker demands that the pertinent authorities offer a response and goes after these when they do not.

At the beginning of the film, Chayo turns on a radio. We see this again near the end of the film, as we revisit the same, unresolved issues. The radio connects us with what lies beyond the town’s limits and borders. It is a symbol of freedom. Thus, the train says goodbye to the town, its people and the spaces they inhabit. It would seem to be the end.

The filmmaker wanted to be true to the train’s itinerary, so he boards it again and heads to its last destination, Punta Alegre. We are presented with a desolate landscape before the sea. We have put the sullen Falla behind us and what we find ahead isn’t better. No words are needed.

The artful cinematography, the spontaneity of the characters, are other positive aspects of the film. This is an uncomfortable social testimony, leaving spectators feeling impotent and disconcerted. The train of the north line has shown us a side of Cuba we don’t often see.


13 thoughts on “A Painful Train Ride in the Heart of Cuba

  • Think John, think. If the Cuban people overwhelmingly rejected Capitalism the government wouldn’t need to enforce it’s brand of communism using force. If there was such a rejection of capitalism the Cuban people wouldn’t be clamoring for more loosening of restrictions on owning business’. If the Cuban people supported the government there would not be thus mass exodus of the population, which has occurred throughout the time the Castro dictatorship has been in power.

    Additionally John you fail to acknowledge, or refuse to accept, the fact that the Cuban revolution was fought to depose Batista not to end Capitalism. We know this because Castro said so. And although those in the know were not fooled, enough people were fooled that the revolution was supported by the middle class and the wealthy. The revolution which most Cubans supported at the time betrayed our trust.

  • Kennedy-Don’t waste your valid arguments on Moses.
    He has no morality.
    He wishes to deepen the economic embargo on every man. woman and child in Cuba.
    He pushes a policy to immiserate the entire island and then blames the victims for their poverty.
    John Milton wrote something that fits his (Moses) hypocrisy
    “They who have put out the people’s eyes, reproach them of their blindness. “

  • Yes indeed.
    Bring back the free enterprise capitalism you so love and which the Cuban people overwhelmingly still reject.
    You make the common mistake of thinking wishfully that once no Castro is at the head of Cuba’s government that all will revert to what was before the revolution.
    Give it up .
    You lost the revolution and you are both losing now and will lose the attempted counter-revolution.

  • You cannot produce any past posts in which anyone has said that there are no poor people in Cuba.
    No one has said that there is no racism in Cuba .
    You set up straw men because you have no real arguments for what you believe.
    You can prove me wrong by producing any such posts.

  • Perhaps you should read bjmack’s comment above.

  • You are deflecting again. Dilapidated buildings on 135th Street in Harlem or in the shanty towns in Soweto didn’t have anything to do with the building that fell down two days ago on Aguila and San Lazaro in Havana.

  • You are missing the point. You continue to deflect. What happens in the US has no bearing on the depressing situation in Cuba.

  • Moses, To you, it sounds depressing; to me, it is full of hope,because they are still better off than those homeless people on the streets of America in the dead of winter. Why don’t you go down on the streets of America tomorrow and live like them for the experience and then return and write about your experience? Do that brother Moses. You would have gained first hand knowledge about what it is to be poor and oppressed, downtrodden and unwanted!

  • Wait, …we have been repeatedly informed by our local Castro bootlickers that there are no poor people in Cuba anymore, no barefoot peasants living in dirt floor shacks, and certainly no racism. So what’s with this documentary film showing all that stuff for?

  • Moses, you and I could visit Harlem and take photos of the dilapidated buildings and the inhumane standard of living in the so-called richest country in the world. Cuba is a Third world Country which, like the majority of islands all over the world, was raped, was exploited, its people oppressed under the capitalist system. There is an embargo forced on it by the world’s greatest bully. This embargo is against the Charter of the United Nations; but who can fight the bully. If America after so many years of Independence still has places and areas called slums and ghettos, what say you to Cuba whose Revolution is just 56 years old? What hypocrisy you are displaying? They do not condemn America for the imposition of the embargo, they criticize Cuba who is reeling under the effects of the embargo. What about all those homeless people on the streets, who are hungry, ill-clothed for the weather, and have no access to medical attention in America? Why are you always beating up on Cuba all the time? Give the country a break man! Go and clean up America before you can come and condemn Cuba! South Africa has minerals in abundance yet its black people, under a capitalist system live in shanty towns. Why not visit and take pictures there and come and show the world? Stop beating up on Cuba. Go and tell the Republican Congress to lift the illegal embargo on the Island!!

  • In two weeks I will be interviewing the homeless population in Tucson, AZ. The task and long term goal is housing. I see the homeless daily and can tell you without hesitation, they live better than the people in this video. To all the great Cuban posters and readers, those who stayed and live in Cuba, my belief is the internet will change the masses in realizing that there is a great need for a shift in running a nation. You’re not alone, as we in the USA also must accept the need to realign in certain ways as well Very sad documentary I just saw! It is up to you to make this happen, not outside sources. That’s my take. Great info video!

  • “Alcohol, cock fights, sugar, rum, dead cattle and ruined buildings” this is the reality of rural Cuba that tourists never see. And Havana? …..exposed wiring, hauling buckets of water up to your home, and trash that never gets picked up. Obviously Cuba is much more than that. The people are wonderful, the city, or at least the parts the tourists see, is stunning. If Cuba was removed from the yoke of the Castros there is no telling what the People could acomplish !

  • …..sounds depressing.

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