Carlos Bosch and Josep Maria Domenech are Spanish television journalists who were assigned by Barcelona’s public television to cover the 1994 exodus of Cubans to the U.S. The film that resulted, Balseros, Spanish for “rafters,” has won major awards at both the Miami and Havana film festivals.

The movie provides filmgoers with an insight into the reasons why some people left Cuba during that difficult period. The number of those who left Cuba is estimated to be between 20,000 to 50,000; how many of those made it to the U.S., returned to Cuba or died at sea is not known. Five years later the film crew visits them again, to see how they fared.

In a National Public Radio interview, Bosch revealed his approach to his television documentary. The interviewer suggested that the exodus, which was eventually made legal by the Cuban government, was evidence of the failure of the Cuban system. Bosch was quick to disagree. He said that his observation was that they left for economic reasons, i.e., because of the collapse of the world socialist economic system and the U.S. blockade.

Not fully explored in the film was the turnaround of Cuba’s economic system. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba was an active partner in the political economy of the socialist world. It was an international socialist economic system that, with its flaws, helped in the construction of socialism around the world.

The film contributes to a better understanding of this important historical period by focusing on the dramatic story of real people in this 40-year history of struggle against U.S. imperialism. Bosch, the senior filmmaker, clearly understands this crisis and in the objectivity of the film, the reality of what precipitated the crisis is clear.

Without the film being openly pro-Cuba, by just describing the people’s economically harsh conditions and where they came from, Bosch and Domenech draw a creative parallel to the lives they encountered in the U.S.

In the mid-1990s, an emigration agreement was reached by Cuba and the United States. But, while the Cuban government upheld its end of the bargain, U.S. anti-Cuban right-wingers were able to scuttle most of the U.S. side of the deal. Under the agreement, the U.S. was to provide visas for up to 20,000 Cubans each year. For the first half of 2003, however, the U.S. has issued only 2,200 visas.

The filmmakers gained the confidence of the émigrés and carefully and sensitively followed some key characters. They were able to portray their harsh everyday existence in Hartford, Conn., San Antonio, Texas, the Bronx, New York, and New Mexico. The filmmakers intersperse clips of the families in Cuba watching films of their loved ones in the U.S.

There is so much to this film that writing a review that gives it justice is next to impossible. The film ran for less than a week in New York City. Bosch has reported that HBO has shown interest in showing it this fall. Film enthusiasts in all parts of the U.S. should contact their public television stations and request that it be aired.

We can only hope that Bosch and Domenech return in a few years to catch up with the cast of characters they followed in the U.S. and Havana. This kind of honest, open depiction of real life in socialist Cuba and the U.S. are a valuable tool.

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