“I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.
The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”
- Carl Sagan
Set against the backdrop of 17th-century colonial Cuba, the dark and riveting film Una pelea cubana contra los demonios or “A Cuban Fight Against Demons” (1972), tells the story of the inhabitants of San Juan de Los Remedios, one of the original Spanish settlements established on the island. The film, which is directed by one of Cuba’s most revered filmmakers, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, deals with one of the most interesting and schizophrenic events in Cuba’s history. Plagued by pirate attacks and a local priest who is convinced that the town of Remedios is possessed by demons, a number of families pack up and abandon the seaside town for less favorable and isolated location in the interior of the island.
The events portrayed in the film take place in the village of San Juan del Cayo de los Remedios, located on the coast of Cuba’s north central region. Due to its location, the town of Remedios was a center for illegal trade with foreigners. At the time, the Spanish crown had a restrictive and backward mercantilist policy forbidding its colonies from trading with non-Catholic Europeans. French Huguenots and Englishmen were considered heretics by the Roman Catholic Church and engaging in commerce with them was considered a sin. But ignoring the directives of the Spanish crown and the Catholic Church, the inhabitants of the town disregarded the prohibitions on trade with foreigners and carried on anyways. Although the illicit and clandestine trade was an affront to the doctrine of the Church, the inhabitants of Remedios didn’t seem to mind – they were growing rich. Occasionally, due to the illicit nature of the commercial activity and the inability of resorting to local courts, disputes often escalated to violence and the town was repeatedly attacked by pirates when differences arose between local smugglers centered in the town and their illicit French and English business partners.
It was in this context that Catholic priest and Commissioner of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, José González de la Cruz (portrayed as Father Manuel in the film) arrived in Remedios from Havana sometime around 1657. Fearful of the spread of heretical ideas from exposure to outsiders, Father González almost immediately began a spirited and messianic campaign against locals suspected of dealing with heretics and even advocated for the relocation of the town and its inhabitants to another location closer to the interior of the island. In a report to the Spanish authorities in Havana, Father González even claimed that he had exorcised 800,000 demons in the small town of 613 inhabitants between 1657 and 1659. Father González was convinced that contact with heretics was slowly degrading the moral and spiritual fiber of the inhabitants of Remedios.
In the film, the town leaders are skeptical of abandoning the seaside location of the town with its access to the sea in exchange for the isolated and barren inland location suggested by Father González. But ultimately, through a mixture of fear-mongering and messianic determination, Father González was successful in convincing the inhabitants of Remedios of their impending existential and spiritual doom if they did not immediately abandon the demon-haunted town and the illicit trade with heretics that had made them so prosperous. Gripped by religious hysteria and trapped in an atmosphere of guilt and religious ignorance, a large contingent of the town’s inhabitants finally decided to abandon the demon-haunted town for another location in the interior of the island and began an exodus in 1689.
They would go on to found the village of Santa Clara, today Cuba’s fifth largest city.
Although the film was intended to tell the true story of the events that led to the abandonment of the town of Remedios in 1689, it also serves as a wider metaphor for the demons that have haunted Cuban society since the founding of the first colonial settlements by Europeans in the 16th century. Similar in nature to the craze that gripped the town of Salem in New England – the story of what occurred in the town of Remedios in late 17th century serves as a metaphor for the demons that plague modern Cuba – messianic ideology, totalitarianism, isolationist economic policies and an atmosphere of fear.
Although Cuba gained its independence from Spain in 1898 and experience a long and prosperous revival from 1902 to 1952 during the years of its democracy, the island is once again under the grip of a religious-totalitarian ideology, a mercantilist-Stalinist economic policy, and a culture of fear that has served to isolate Cuba from the world. Where Cuba had Catholicism in the 17th century to inspire guilt and feelings of spiritual doom, today it has Communism and a state-directed war against individuals who seek individual personal achievement and the creation of wealth. Where illicit trade with foreigners in the 17th century was prohibited by mercantilist Spanish policies, today it is curtailed by a Stalinist-style centralized economy and its prohibitions against almost all forms of independent and private commercial activity. Where 17th century Cuba had a Catholic doctrine that created an all-encompassing everyday reality that revolved around the theme of God against Satan, today it has Communism – with its all-encompassing ideology that frames everything around the duality of Communism versus Capitalism, of Rich versus Poor, America (Satan) against Cuba (Good).
Cuba remains an island gripped by fear of demons. It remains an island gripped by an obsession with the memory of its paranoid and fearful past. In the end, we have replaced one set of demons for another. One type of religious fundamentalism and ignorance with another. One false savior for another.