The Memoir of a Great Figure of the Cuban Exile

Elena Gross and Carmelo Mesa-Lago during the filming of the documentary ‘Statistics and Chance’. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 24 September 2019 — Carmelo Mesa-Lago is a known but enigmatic figure. An economist cited by both Tyrians and Trojans, with a father born in Guanabacoa and a mother from Regla, for decades we have seen him explain Cuba through his data and figures. Few know his informal, almost domestic side, in which he talks about his childhood, his daughters, his wife Elena or the moment he left the Island. The documentary Statistics and Chance  is an opportunity to approach the two facets of the man, public and private.

Mesa-Lago was one of those forbidden authors read by the sociologist Elaine Acosta while studying at La Colina Universitaria in Havana before emigrating, in the 90s on a journey that took her to Chile, Spain and finally Miami. Married to the audiovisual director Carlos Díaz Montero, a few years ago both decided to collect in a film of an hour and a half of the vital journey of the professor, 85, whom she had admired and read for decades.

The material, in which testimonies of other economists appear, such as Omar Everleny Pérez and Pavel Vidal, together with activist Dagoberto Valdés and academic Jorge Duany, has its greatest value in showing the vital journey of a man who graduated in 1956 from Law school, but who ended up falling in love with economics, in one of those surprising and random turns that have been so defining in his existence. The expert has been more determined by this eventuality and contingency than one might think.

This sequence of coincidences that gave shape to Meso-Lago’s professional and personal path is very well documented in the film through the testimony of the economist himself, but his stories are also drawn by others speaking about the moment they met him, how it influenced them and how decisive some reflection or publication from his hands was for the study of the Cuban economy.

The idea of ​​the documentary arose from Acosta and Díaz when she worked on research on care policies in Latin America and interviewed Mesa-Lago as an expert. «That interview ended up being a kind of methodology,» she says, and immediately proposed to collaborate to make a biographical documentary.

«We had it listed as an indispensable reference,» Diaz recalls. When they made the proposal to make the film «with the humility that characterizes him, he replied that it would be an honor.» During the first interview, the filmmakers realized that «chance plays a fundamental role in his life, hence the title of the documentary.»

But good intentions are not enough, nor is taking a camera in your hands to produce material of this nature and expanse. «Incredibly, despite Carmelo’s greatness as an academic and being one of the most recognized personalities of the Cuban exile, getting funds to carry out the project was not easy,» acknowledges the director.

«We were helped by the fact that we are a small team and received the support of Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, who sponsored the project. Olguita and Carlos Saladrigas together with the National Association of Cuban-American Educators and the University of Pittsburgh contributed in various ways to make it happen,» he says.

The solidarity of family and friends helped shape the initial idea. But the main contribution was, without a doubt, the testimonies of the interviewee himself and his infinite patience. «Carmelo and his wife Elena were very hospitable and attentive to us from the beginning. They, despite the years of exile, keep their Cubanness very close to their skin, they are straightforward and very authentic.»

Part of the motivation of the academic to relate his life in front of the lens was «the debt he feels to Elena. The presence of her in his life goes beyond support, is an essential part of his career, a vital piece in the gear of the life they have led together. Elena is not my support but rather my complement,» Diaz says.

«The documentary was derived in the vision of Carmelo the person and not the personality, something very difficult to demarcate. The man who suffers from exile, concern for his family, the relationship with Elena and their daughters, professional achievements and the always present Island.» The connection and trust between the filmmakers and the protagonist went so far that Mesa-Lago did not influence the post-production and «came to the premiere of the documentary without knowing what the final result was.»

In the presentations of the film, the reactions of the public have been diverse. «Those who make up the historical exile have shown empathy, nostalgia, have felt part of the history and have commented on the need to include passages of time omitted or little touched,» explains Díaz. The younger generations, for their part, have been grateful to have access to events «that were unknown to them and to hear from the protagonists the story they have learned from books or heard about.»

«What has been unanimous is the opinion that Elena steals the show. Her participation shows — in a diaphanous, sympathetic and perhaps less academic way — what it has meant to be Carmelo’s complement, the price of objectivity, the fears of exile, the pain of being torn from the homeland, the new dreams, the satisfaction for the path chosen by their daughters and the affable summary of their life in common,» recognizes Carlos Díaz.

On her side, for Elaine Acosta the value of the documentary transcends the figure of the professor. «The current Cuban and Cuban-American community in the United States is undergoing major changes. Rescuing their stories is urgent for several reasons,» says the sociologist. «First, because the generation of Cubans who arrived in the United States as adults, immediately after the triumph of the Revolution, is disappearing for obvious reasons. This may represent the last opportunity to register the memories of the pioneers of the community.»

«On the other hand, Cuban immigration is primarily responsible for the formation of the third largest concentration of Latinos in the United States and its contribution has been undeniable. With the latest waves, quantitatively more numerous, there is a generational and cultural change in the Cuban-American community.» Acosta believes that for the new generations «it is very important to have that previous story, with that road paved by several thousand Cuban men and women who preceded them.»

Among these emigrants «there have been different narrative and film experiences, in which a fundamentally political perspective predominates, centered on the opposition of the exiles to the Fidel Castro regime. Sometimes, film proposals do not always connect with the new generations.» That is why «oral history has the potential to provide a point of reference for social contact between different generations of Cuban exiles and their culture of origin and the society that receives them, as well as a means to show and preserve, for generations to come, the wealth of the Cuban heritage.»

For Acosta and Díaz, a dream that is still difficult to fulfill is that the film Statistics and Chance reaches theaters on the Island. But the director believe that is still missing because the “much-vaunted continuity is nothing more than trying to revive the belligerence of the 70s. The man designated to be the main face of the Cuban Government [Miguel Diaz-Canel] has proven himself to be a faithful heir of intolerance and the most radical dogmas.»

«I do not believe that they will allow a tribute to a person who does not agree with the political system imposed on the Island since 1959. Personally, I am not interested in official distribution, I am totally indifferent to it. I prefer it to be disseminated hand-to-hand. I think in this way it would be more worthy of Carmelo, that his history flies in the small democratic breezes that cool the totalitarian vapors,» adds Diaz.

«What I do expect is that, in the future, I don’t care if it is immediate or distant, when Cuban citizens enjoy essential freedoms, the Faculty of Economics of the University of Havana will the name of Carmelo Mesa-Lago,” she says.

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