Anthony Bourdain in Cuba: No reservations, no provocations

I have watched and enjoyed Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations for years now, and I have to say I felt a little trepidation when I heard he would be doing an episode in Cuba. Bourdain is kind of a jerk — which to me makes his show entertaining — and I wondered if his jerkiness would get the best of him while exploring Fidel Castro’s Caribbean slave plantation. Considering the fact that Bourdain’s somewhat narcissistic demeanor is part of his charm, I wondered if an insensitive and callous portrayal of Cuba on his part would leave me outraged and indignant.

Well, after finally watching the show last night I was left feeling neither outraged nor indignant. Instead, I was left with an odd combination of emotions: relief and disappointment.

I felt relief for the fact that Bourdain did not ignore the reality of life in Cuba, and the injustice of living in a totalitarian society where residents are treated as second-class citizens. Unlike Food Channel host Andrew Zimmern, who in 2009 filmed a show in Cuba where he ate barbecued tree rats without ever mentioning why Cubans are reduced to eating rats, Bourdain posed some difficult questions to the regime’s handlers that accompanied him everywhere. While enjoying gourmet meals in regime-owned restaurants, he asked them to reconcile how the regular Cuban could never afford to eat in such a place. He mentioned the scarcity of food , the scarcity of freedom, and the constant surveillance the average Cuban has to endure. The questions and comments made his handlers visibly nervous, and you can tell they were not on the list of discussion topics approved by the State.

My disappointment came when he never pushed it further than a question or comment. I understand Bourdain is not a democracy or human rights activist, and he is under no obligation to take on the cause for a free Cuba. I did not expect him to have a conversation with Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, or invite Antúnez to a meal of lobster and steak at a State-owned restaurant. But after coming so close to pushing it over the top, it would have been nice to see him surprise us, and the regime as well.

In the end, Anthony Bourdain’s Cuba episode managed to avoid egregious provocation of either side of the debate. He did say some things that the Castro regime is certainly not happy about, and on the other side he made some ignorant statements on Fidel and Cuba’s healthcare and education. But none of them in my opinion rose to the level of outrageous or callous.

So I remain both relieved and disappointed: relieved that Bourdain did not allow his show to become another propaganda piece for the regime, and disappointed that he did not take full advantage of this opportunity to fully expose the injustice and misery suffered by the Cuban people.

Bourdain had no reservations in Cuba, and no provocations either.

7 thoughts on “Anthony Bourdain in Cuba: No reservations, no provocations”

  1. Alberto,

    With all due respect, I for one was outraged by the program. While Bourdain did ask the Cuban apparatchiks one or two uncomfortable questions, and he may have made another little half-hearted anti-castro quip here and there, the overall program was overwhelmingly favorable to the regime.

    Alberto, you and I are looking at the program from the perspective of Cuban-Americans. In other words, we know more about Cuba than most Americans. We are not brainwashed by 51 years of the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC, Hollywood, Barbara Walters, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, Michael Moore, etc, etc., etc. ad nauseam. Most Americans are. To them, Cuba was and is still a Third world country [heck, they think that Miami is a Banana Republic!]. To them, the fact that Cubans can’t eat at a fancy Basque Restaurant in Old Havana is inconsequential. They will tell you that they’ve been to Guatemala, and Honduras [as if Cuba was ever comparable to those countries] and that its worst there. Brainwashed by years of reading the editorials and opinion pieces of the “Cuba Experts,” they will likely nonchalantly say that at least those Cubans that can’t eat at those restaurants have access to a free education and health care that’s better than ours. [Thank you Bourdain for hammering in that myth!].

    Also, remember, whereas, we see squalor, Americans see a typical LAATEENO LIVING ENVIRONMENT. They can’t conceive of Cuba as what it was, a progressive country with a European standard of living. So, the squalor that we see, goes over their heads.

    In other words, I don’t believe that those scraps that Bourdain threw under the table for us, are enough to make up for the harm that he did.

    Americans will again see Cuba as a forbidden fruit with charming crumbling architecture, old classic cars and populated by emotional baseball crazed [warm-hearted] natives.

  2. Rayarena:

    I understand your point, and if Bourdain were Cuban, we would all be outraged. But he isn’t, he’s a New York liberal. As a NY liberal, he did much better than his compatriots have ever done.

    To stay in the food motif, I look at it from this point of view: if someone serves you a hamburger, you don’t complain because it doesn’t taste like filet mignon. Filet mignons can be ground into hamburgers, but hamburgers can never be filet mignons. When it comes to Cuba, Bourdain is simply a hamburger, and if you expected filet mignon you would be sorely disappointed. Sure, we would all rather have filet mignon, but hamburger was the only thing on the menu last night.

    I judged a hamburger for what it is, a hamburger.

  3. The thing is, if he didn’t hammer home the truth or ask important questions while he was there, I can understand that. But now that he is home and in a free country and can see the difference, it is obscene that he doesn’t correct the impression of enjoyment of his time in Cuba and give a more objective description of life there for Cubans.
    He won’t though because liberals see only what they want to see and cannot find communist countries horrendous; it would be too damaging to their whole world view. It is much easier to pull wool over their eyes.

  4. Yes, Ray, perspective, knowledge and context make a huge difference, as does whether the issue is really YOUR issue or other people’s. This show was certainly not aimed at a Cuban audience. Non-Cubans, except for rare exceptions, cannot possibly see it or understand it or read between the lines as we can, and they’ve been taught or conditioned to question what we may tell them or try to explain to them. The game is clearly rigged against the truth and those who want it known, and in favor of entrenched lies, half-truths, distortions, misconceptions and prejudices. For instance, nobody should EVER talk about Cuba’s “free education” without making it VERY clear that it is a totally politicized means of INDOCTRINATION since the very beginning, and therefore a tool for mind control as well as information control–not unlike a religious cult that provides free education as a means to develop new cult members. If Bourdain is unaware of something so basic and blatantly evident, he’s too ignorant to be addressing the Cuban situation in the first place, even as a travel “expert.” But as I keep saying, ignorance stopped being a plausible excuse LONG ago. Indifference, opportunism and ideological affinity are, however, still very much with us, or rather, against us.

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