April 16, 1997
Images of Exile
By Elise Ackerman
A Cuban rafter sits on a bed in a darkened room, legs
tightly crossed and arms folded together in a position that
is almost fetal. He is leaving the next day. "When
dreams can't go forward, they fall into the past forever,"
he explains to an unseen video journalist. "And if you
settle for less, you'll never achieve what you desire. That
has been my philosophy my whole life. You risk your life,
but if you make it, you have the opportunity to start all
over again. It's crazy, but sometimes craziness is the only
The unnamed rafter, who is sublimely calm, appears in a
documentary by local filmmakers Joe Cardona and Alex Antón
called ¿Adiós Patria? The film, which will be
screened this week at the annual meeting of the United
Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland,
explores the reasons more than one million Cubans have left
their homeland since the 1959 triumph of the revolution. It
mixes poignant footage from the island with personal
testimony from exiles and commentary by historians,
politicians, and anti-Castro activists. Later this month the
film will also be featured at the New York International
Independent Film and Video Festival.
The title ¿Adiós Patria? (Goodbye
Homeland?) poses the question so many exiles have asked
themselves. Will they ever go back? Could they go back? "We
didn't want to make that decision for others, or even for
ourselves," Cardona explains. In the case of the
anonymous rafter, and for many others who have attempted a
sea crossing, going back isn't an option. Cardona says the
rafter in ¿Adiós Patria? never made it to this
side of the Florida Straits. He disappeared during the
crossing and is presumed drowned.
"Think of the surrealism of that interview,"
Joe Cardona exclaims. "Here he's brave enough to go out
to sea in shark-infested waters, but he asks to be
interviewed in the dark. There is obviously something he's
afraid of that prevents him from talking openly. Maybe
repression? I don't know. I wonder what he's afraid of. That
shows you the mindset of the people in that country. We
wanted to get to the root of what drives you to do something
Cardona's and Antón's project itself has been a
little crazy. The two young men, both born of Cuban parents
and reared in Hialeah, came to filmmaking by chance and
without formal training. The only other documentary they've
attempted left them deeply in debt, and ¿Adiós
Patria? is unlikely to break even, much less turn a profit.
Though Cardona and Antón have been friends since
junior high school, it wasn't until they'd both graduated
from college that a newly developed preoccupation with their
heritage led them to pool their meager resources to produce
a video documentary about the dissident movement in Cuba.
The result, a 1993 film called Rompiendo el Silencio
(Breaking the Silence), was shown on Spanish-language
television and widely screened by international human rights
groups. But the productions costs far outstripped any income
Saddled with debts, Cardona and Antón
nevertheless undertook ¿Adiós Patria? as their
second project. This time, however, heavyweights from
Miami's Cuban business community such as Sedano's
supermarkets, Bacardi-Martini U.S.A., and Zubi Advertising
Services agreed to help underwrite the film's production. "We
saw them as being very young and clean, with lots of ideals,"
says Tito Argamasilla Bacardi, vice president of public
relations for Bacardi-Martini U.S.A. "They were doing
this for Cuba, not for monetary reasons." Dozens of
other members of the Cuban exile community also signed on,
their enthusiasm fueled in part by a sense of gratification
that, after years of being tuned out by their Cuban-American
offspring, Cardona and Antón were sincerely
interested in listening and learning.
With financial backing they were able to hire
professional cameramen and film editors and to pursue
interviews with national figures such as former secretary of
state Alexander Haig, former U.S. ambassador to the United
Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick, and civil rights leader Jesse
Jackson. Says Stuart Alson, executive director of the New
York International Independent Film and Video Festival: "Not
only is the film very powerful and very moving, but there is
a great story about how the film was made."
Cardona and Antón grew up as typical children of
Cuban exiles in South Florida - playing high school sports,
hanging out, speaking English, not giving a lot of thought
to being Cuban. It wasn't until they left town for Tampa's
University of South Florida that they began to rediscover
their cultural roots. Cardona became fascinated with the
exile community in Ybor City, a Cuban settlement dating back
to the 1860s. "I met some old people at the Unión
Martí-Maceo who time seemed to have forgotten,"
he recalls. "They took me in. I was a young kid and
homesick for all the things I never thought I would be
homesick for. It's funny - you do so much to get out of
here, but once I got Miami into focus, all of a sudden I
wanted to come back."
Idealistic students, Cardona and Antón were
sympathetic to the anti-apartheid struggle and participated
in the campus movement urging the university administration
to divest its holdings in South African companies. One day,
while Cardona was sitting in the makeshift shanty town
students had erected, the conversation drifted to Cuba. When
Cardona criticized Castro's record on human rights, no one
seemed to care. "We had some very heated discussions,"
he recalls. "It was very uncomfortable. I was made to
feel like I was right wing because I was anti-Castro, and I
was like, 'What do you mean I'm right wing? I'm sitting here
"More so than other ethnic groups, we Cubans
haven't done a good job of telling our story to a mass
audience," Cardona continues. An inveterate documentary
watcher, he had learned about Jewish history from Shoah,
Claude Lanzmann's nine-and-a-half-hour documentary about the
Holocaust; and about U.S. history from Ken Burns's The Civil
War. There was no comparable work about Cuba, though a few
filmmakers had documented human rights abuses.
Amiable and levelheaded, more apt to dampen conflict
than ignite it, Cardona moved back to Miami in 1987,
enrolled at FIU, and embarked upon a project of
self-education. While teaching English as an adjunct
professor at Miami-Dade Community College, he sought out
Ricardo Bofill, founder of the human rights group Comité
Cubano Pro Derechos Humanos, the first exile group to
espouse a nonviolent struggle against Castro. "I was
intrigued by him," Cardona explains, "because he
was the antithesis of what the macho Cuban man was all
Meanwhile, Antón was reading Armando
Valladares's memoir about the 22 years he spent in Cuba
prisons and watching Nadie Escuchaba (Nobody Listened), a
documentary about human rights abuses in Cuba made by Jorge
Ulla and Oscar-winning cinematographer Nestor Almendros. "Those
works had a big effect on my life," Antón says.
More impetuous and obsessive than his friend Cardona, Antón
quickly embraced the issue of human rights with a passion
that soon dominated his life.
As a candidate for a master's degree in political
science at the University of New Orleans, Antón grew
disillusioned with the faculty. "My professors had no
idea who Gustavo Arcos or Elizardo Sánchez
[well-known dissidents in Cuba] were, but they all knew
Andrei Sakharov and Lech Walesa," he recalls. Antón
resolved to write his thesis about the origins and
development of Cuba's internal dissident movement.
On Cardona's suggestion, Antón went to see
Bofill. Their first meeting lasted five and a half hours. "I
said to myself, 'God, this is such a fascinating story,'"
Antón remembers. Because there was very little
written material about the dissident movement, he based his
thesis on interviews with exiles like Bofill and phone
conversations with human rights activists in Cuba. His
thesis, which was completed in 1993, won an award from his
department as the best of the year.
Antón, however, wasn't content with educating a
handful of academics in Louisiana. "I met people who
were in prison," he exclaims. "That's a serious
moral responsibility. You're like, damn, these [dissidents]
are risking their lives. What happens is, you talk to
someone on the phone, and the next you hear they are in
prison. Before you know it, you are on a serious moral
crusade to inform the international community what is
Inspired by Almendros and Ulla, Antón had
videotaped some of his thesis interviews. He had also
persuaded Beltrand de la Grange, a French journalist, to let
him use 26 hours of interviews de la Grange had filmed of
dissidents on the island. He asked Cardona to help him shape
the material into a documentary.
The aspiring filmmakers received support from Eduardo
Palmer, a Cuban exile who had once owned a film company in
Cuba. Ricardo Bofill put the three together. "I was
surprised and touched by their interest," Palmer
recalls. "It was nice to know that young people were
willing to carry the flag, to bring democracy back to Cuba."
A former journalist, Palmer had filmed Fidel Castro's
triumphant entry into Havana. In exile he owned production
companies in Miami and the Dominican Republic, and possessed
one of the most extensive collections of film footage from
revolutionary Cuba. Palmer offered Cardona and Antón
full use of his equipment, from video cameras to editing
machines to film library. He also invested $20,000 in the
Cardona remembers discussing Palmer with Antón: "I
said, 'First off, this guy isn't for real, he's a crackpot.'
But it turned out to be true. He gave us everything - and he
didn't charge us a cent." Neophytes at filmmaking,
Cardona and Antón spent 400 hours editing the
44-minute documentary at studios Palmer owned near the
Palmetto Expressway in Miami. Cardona says he would need
less than a quarter of the editing time today, but Palmer
was patient. More than that, Palmer was willing to pay an
editor, who gave the duo a crash course in filmmaking and
offered subtle tips to his protégés. Cardona
and Antón say Palmer did not meddle in editorial
decisions. "What I taught them is about the process of
making the documentary," Palmer notes. "About the
contents, yes, I made some suggestions, but fundamentally it
was their baby."
Rompiendo el Silencio was finished in the fall of 1993.
Technically rough, it is essentially a compilation of
interviews with dissidents such as Gustavo Arcos, Elizardo Sánchez,
Oswaldo Payá, Ynadmiro Restano, and Luis Pita Santos.
The filmmakers also included comments from Latin American
political leaders Violeta Chamorro, César Gaviria,
and Mario Vargas Llosa, as well as from exile figures such
as Jorge Mas Canosa, Huber Matos, and Mario Chanes de Armas.
Ricardo Bofill says the documentary represented the
first time serious attention had been paid to the nonviolent
opposition. "This film went a long way toward helping
the Cuban exile community understand our activities and
realize that there existed an opposition that believed in
different tactics than that of the traditional armed
struggle," he says. "[Cardona and Antón]
had access to a whole segment of the community that we had
not been able to reach."
According to Bofill, the documentary, which was
produced in Spanish with English subtitles, also opened
doors for the nonviolent Cuban opposition around the world.
Rompiendo el Silencio was shown at numerous international
human rights forums and by student organizations from Russia
to Uruguay. Eventually it was translated into German,
Polish, French, and Portuguese. Copies were smuggled into
Cuba, and in October 1994 the documentary was broadcast on
Channel 23, the local affiliate of the Spanish-language
Univisión television network.
Aside from Palmer's investment and contributions from a
few other private individuals, Cardona and Antón had
financed Rompiendo el Silencio with money from student loans
and on their credit cards. Emotionally and financially
drained at the film's completion, they were hardly in a
position to undertake another project. But the summer of
1994 brought the balsero crisis, and Antón and
Cardona felt a moral responsibility to act.
Cardona recalls his frustration: "I didn't know
whether to cry, pee in my pants, or scream - because it's
like the world isn't listening. Whatever your opinion is,
get involved, learn, don't just sit back and smoke a cigar.
There's some serious shit going on in Cuba. It's not about
music and cigars and fun in the sun. It's about a human
Appalled by the superficial treatment the rafter exodus
received in the media, they decided to make a second film
that would analyze the political, social, and economic
forces driving the crisis and would put it in historical
perspective. "The decision to leave the country was as
difficult in 1950 as it was in 1960 or in 1994,"
Cardona says. "Just talking to people who are going out
to sea on a raft doesn't provide the full picture. You have
to understand what has gone on for 36 years in that country.
We didn't get to the balseros overnight."
Impressed by Rompiendo el Silencio, various
high-profile civic leaders such as Leslie Pantín,
past president and founder of the Kiwanis Club of Little
Havana and current president of the Orange Bowl Committee;
Roberto Suarez, then-publisher of El Nuevo Herald; and
Eduardo Padrón of Miami-Dade Community College
volunteered to help raise funds for the new project. "We
saw the quality of the other film they had produced and we
liked their historical approach," explains Cristina
Mateo, interim dean of administration for Miami-Dade's
Wolfson campus. "We felt there was a need for us to be
involved in educating the community."
Cardona and Antón successfully solicited
financial support from businesses and private individuals,
but they eschewed political groups such as the Cuban
American National Foundation, and warned potential donors
that they would not be shown a script or have any editorial
input. With a total budget of $180,000, the filmmakers
launched an intensive research effort in November 1994,
reading everything they could find on Cuban history,
searching through old photographs, and reviewing hundreds of
hours of historic footage.
They revisited Palmer's film library and delved into
archives at the Wolfson Media History Center. They also
journeyed to the United Nations in search of footage of
Castro's speeches before that world body, and they pored
over old news clips. Some of the most moving material in the
documentary, like the interview with the rafter who drowned,
came from journalists, photographers, and video buffs who
had clandestinely filmed street protests or somehow obtained
film from Cuban government archives.
Cardona and Antón spent hours in front of their
VCRs, searching for scenes that would best convey the
passion and the pathos of key historical moments. One night
Cardona happened upon images recorded outside the Peruvian
embassy in Havana in 1980, when thousands of Cubans mobbed
the building hoping for political asylum and precipitating
the Mariel boatlift. "When you find something at 4:00
a.m., and it is exactly what you are looking for, you are
like, 'Aw man, yes!'"
Another find was the documentary that showed a young
boy arriving alone in the United States with a battered
suitcase. He was part of the Pedro Pan airlift, which began
in 1960. Thousands of Cuban parents sent their children
ahead of them to the United States, unsure of what they
would encounter there but convinced it would be better than
keeping them in Cuba. The scene, which is included in ¿Adiós
Patria?, shows a social worker questioning eight-year-old
Eduardo Roberto González Dorta. His father is a
bricklayer, he reports proudly. His mother is a laundress.
"And do your parents have their papers ready so
they can come?" the social worker asks.
Eduardo smiles and shrugs. "I think so."
"Do you want to see them?"
Eduardo nods yes.
"I cry every time I see that, and I have seen it
six or seven times," confides Alejandro Ríos,
who wrote film criticism in Cuba for eleven years and now
works as a spokesman for Miami-Dade Community College. "At
that age I didn't know what my father did or how old my
mother was. They taught him everything because they didn't
know when they were going to see him again."
Ríos says ¿Adiós Patria?'s strength
lies in its revealing historical material, including
statements by Gen. Vernon Walters, former U.S. ambassador to
the United Nations, that he met with Fidel Castro during the
Reagan administration in an aborted attempt to initiate a
Walters is one of the national figures Cardona and Antón
persuaded to cooperate. After months of coaxing, they also
convinced Jesse Jackson to speak with them. At the last
minute, Jackson wanted to cancel, but Cardona and Antón
had already set up their equipment in his Washington office.
The interview with Jackson provides one of the few
anti-embargo voices in the film.
¿Adiós Patria? has been criticized for
being too one-sided. At a screening on the campus of Oxford
University, for example, students denounced it as
propaganda. In response, Cardona and Antón say their
goal was to tell the stories of the million Cubans who left,
not to analyze the reasons why the majority of islanders
Exile stories are often heart-wrenching, and Cardona
and Antón consciously toned down some of their
material so it would be more accessible to audiences outside
Miami. "There's a stigma to being Hispanic in the
United States," Cardona asserts. "Everyone is
looking for melodrama. I'm not ashamed of my passion, but I
know how I am being perceived."
Cardona also severely cut the story of Rita Le Sante, a
Miami seamstress whose husband William was executed in 1961
for causing a power outage in Havana. The Le Santes were a
middle-class couple with two small boys. William worked for
the municipal power company in Havana. In ¿Adiós
Patria?, Rita Le Sante recalls the day her husband was put
on trial for sabotage. The proceedings began at 4:00 p.m.
and lasted nine hours. Thinking that the trial would
continue the next day, Le Sante returned to her home. Not
long after she arrived, in the early morning hours, she
received a call from her husband's lawyer: William was dead.
"They didn't let him say goodbye or see his
children," Le Sante recalls in the documentary,
speaking calmly, almost without emotion. "They said,
'Leave a note,' and that's what he did. It said, 'Now that
death summons me, I want you to know that I am not afraid.
The only thing I am worried about is the situation in which
I am leaving you and the children. But at the same time, I
die peacefully, because I know that you know how to be both
mother and father. Take good care of them. Don't raise them
with hatred or bitterness, and if you can, raise them in a
Not included in the film is Le Sante's fight to view
her husband's dead body before burial, and her own
subsequent imprisonment. The filmmakers decided to
concentrate exclusively on the lack of civil procedure. "How
do you take 30-odd years of history and pick out the
highlights?" Cardona asks. "What is important? You
can vehemently disagree with ¿Adiós Patria?, but
it is as honest a piece as we could put together."
The film had its first screening this past October at
the Gusman Center in downtown Miami. The theater, which
seats 1700, was packed, and the filmmakers received a
prolonged standing ovation. "I felt like the entire
audience was in tears," says Oscar Rivero, a
Cuban-American attorney who took his mother to the
screening. "I was in tears. It was very emotional. It
hit me - boom - right in the face."
"The documentary deals with a history that is
heartbreaking," observes Pepe Horta, former director of
the Havana Film Festival who now owns Café Nostalgia
on SW Eighth Street. "It has defects - it is a little
too long, and I think the truth within Cuban history is much
more complicated and has more elements. But this is the
vision of these filmmakers."
The 86-minute film is primarily in Spanish with English
subtitles, though some of the interviews, particularly with
U.S. politicians or academics, were conducted in English.
The Spanish narration is done by salsa star Willy Chirino; a
shorter, 56-minute version is narrated by Andy Garcia in
English. Both Chirino and Garcia donated their time.
Cardona and Antón hope the Public Broadcasting
System and foreign television stations will air the shorter
version. In an effort to generate a buzz, Antón and
his wife Betty embarked on a whirlwind bus tour of Europe
this past January. It was Antón's version of a
honeymoon. In order to save money, the couple signed up for
a package tour. They prearranged screenings before human
rights organizations and student groups in cities along the
"It was funny as hell," Antón
remembers. "Everyone was a tourist, and here we were
carrying all this material on the human rights situation in
Cuba." They showed the film before small audiences in
Spain, France, Germany, and England. Wherever they went, the
Antóns made sure they carried copies of Amnesty
International's 1996 report on the human rights conditions
in Cuba, which documented arrests of dissidents and
allegations of mistreatment in jail.
Antón believes the tour was essential in raising
consciousness about Cuban human rights violations. Still,
the personal and financial costs for him and his wife have
been high. They have spent tens of thousands of dollars in
phone bills alone. "Here is one bill," Antón
grimaces, displaying a BellSouth monthly statement with more
than $4000 in long distance charges. "This is not a
hoax," he groans. In order to pay the bills, Betty has
taken out a loan on their home, which she owns. "We're
gambling a lot," Antón continues. "But
otherwise the film would have just died.... Joe and I in
that sense are risk takers, because you don't do this film
without taking humongous risks. This is not for the
Purchase of the film by PBS and international
broadcasters would help defray some of the mounting costs of
distributing the film, as would sales of videotapes. The two
men say they have already spent the $180,000 they raised.
Cardona estimates he invested $20,000 of his own money, much
of it from a second mortgage he and his wife took on their
home, and he is also carrying more than $10,000 in debt
related to the film on his credit cards. Antón puts
his involvement at $20,000 minimum.
This is the downside to documentary filmmaking, Cardona
points out. He said he'd like to visit college filmmaking
classes and warn students about the less glamorous side of
the industry - the busted credit ratings and frayed
But neither Cardona or Antón have serious
regrets. "This is a choice we made," Cardona says.
"I'm not a martyr or anything." Antón
exuberantly reports that the Nicaraguan ambassador to the
United Nations Human Rights Commission will host a screening
of the film this week during the commission's annual meeting
in Geneva. ¿Adiós Patria? was broadcast two
weeks ago on Channel 23, and though the time slot wasn't
ideal - it showed at 11:30 on a Saturday night - it drew a
large audience. The station, which paid $35,000 for
broadcast rights, plans to air it again late this year or
early next year. It is also slated to be shown on television
in Puerto Rico.
While Antón continues to push ¿Adiós
Patria?, Cardona and his wife Amy Serrano have embarked on
another documentary. They are calling the project Our
Generación! Voices of Exile's Children. "It's
about growing up Cuban American and what that means to
different people," Cardona explains.
As part of the film, Cardona recently invited fourteen
Cuban Americans for a Sunday lunch at Yuca restaurant on
Lincoln Road. The second floor nightclub was temporarily
transformed into a dining room and film studio. Cardona gave
simple instructions: The guests, between 21 and 35 years
old, were to gather around a table, eat, and chat. He
prompted the conversation by calling out various subjects,
from frivolous quince birthday celebrations to weighty
matters like racism and human rights. He instructed them to
speak in English, Spanish, Spanglish - whatever they felt
comfortable doing. After amplifying the voices of
dissidents on the island and of those who went into exile,
Cardona needs to hear from his Miami peers. He wants to
capture the contradictions of their fractured identity and
to fit the pieces together into something coherent. Unlike
his other documentaries, which were motivated by a sense of
moral urgency, he is making this movie for himself. And
although he has calculated a budget of $80,000, he is
realistic about the film's narrow market appeal.
He and Serrano plan on holding fundraisers, and they
have already persuaded some businesses to act as sponsors
(Yuca, which hosted the lunch without charge, is among
them). But Cardona is determined to make the movie
regardless of backing. His experience has yielded a simple
moviemaking axiom: "You start making the film, you go
into debt, and then you hope and pray that money comes in.
If it doesn't, you're screwed, but you have a film. That's
the important thing."
"It's funny - you do so much to get out of here,
but once I got Miami into focus, all of a sudden I wanted to