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Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate)

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Cuban films are rarely made in Cuba. Or at least, the majority of films about Cuba are not made in Cuba. It is one of the many unfortunate ironies caused by the frigid relations between the United States and socialist Caribbean nation. Considering the volume of Cuban films stamped 'Made in the USA', those actually made in Cuba, like the memorable Fresa y Chocolate, are all the more important.

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While such places as the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Uruguay and others famously double as the island nation in such films as The Godfather: Part II, Before Night Falls and most recently Miami Vice, for more the discerning viewer, or those familiar with Cuba, the absence of a note or two of 'Cubanness' is obvious. Not Fresa y Chocolate.

Or, as the old Duke Ellington jazz standard reminds us, 'It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)'. If the adage is to be believed, then Fresa y Chocolate swings with more than just its fair share of meaning.

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In fact, the Oscar-nominated movie is a fascinating look at Cuba between two key moments in its history. 1979, twenty years after Fidel Castro and his barbudos emerged from the jungles to seize control of the island, and ten years before the collapse of its principal ally, the Soviet Union.

It's Cuba with the training wheels of the early years of the revolution off, asserting itself and redefining its identity before the events of 1991 seriously tested the resolve of nation and its people during a difficult time known as the Special Period.

Fresa y Chocolate, a tale of tolerance and the friendship between two men, one heterosexual and the other homosexual, takes place entirely in Havana. And in certain parts, the film can certainly be considered an ode to the majestic city, as well as a critique of its state of disrepair. Diego, one of the main characters, remarks, 'We live in one of the world's most beautiful cities. You're just in time to see it before it collapses in shit.'

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The film's cinematography echoes Diego's words, observing the poetry of Havana's renowned architecture. Lovely examples of Spanish Colonial, Baroque and Neo-Classical buildings dominate the city's central neighborhoods, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet, sadly, many are literally falling apart, crumbling facades and fading beauties that have seen far better times.

Havana boomed for centuries as one of the key cities in Spain's American colonies. The meeting point of all cargo ships before their armada return to Spain, Havana grew wealthy and developed into the jewel of the Caribbean, and was for some time in the 18th century larger than Boston and New York City.

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The 19th and 20th centuries saw Havana flourish and become fashionable, causing Ernest Hemingway to remark, 'in terms of beauty, only Venice and Paris surpassed Havana.' After increased development under US influence, at the time of the Cuban Revolution Havana was one of Latin America's most well-off cities.

In the eyes of the Fidel Castro and company, all this was achieved at the expense of Cuba's other cities and provinces. A key strategic goal of the new regime was to distribute the country's resources throughout the island, rather than concentrate them in the capital. Under the socialist system, Havana began its decline.

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The city's alluring charm, however, stands today as strong as ever, despite the its lack of architectural maintenance. Fresa y Chocolate allows viewers to experience it, visiting some of its most famous locales, including the famous 8 km oceanfront promenade known as El Malecón, and Coppelia. Havana's iconic ice cream store on 23rd Street. Coppelia is where the film's main characters first meet when sharing a table while enjoying – that's right – Diego's strawberry and David's chocolate ice cream.

Diego's bohemian apartment, a cornucopia of artistic inspiration and expression, its walls filled with icons of the Cuba's revolution juxtaposed with Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe and a Beatles poster, is now a paladar named La Guarida, a commercial restaurant usually run out of a private residence.

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What the future holds for the great city is obviously uncertain. But most forecast for that Havana to return to its former opulence, significant changes are necessary. Changes that will most likely require an opening of the Cuban economy, and will be marked by a substantial increase in foreign investment. This would represent a drastic shift in strategy from a Cuban government that is notoriously protectionist and stubborn when it comes to such proposals.

This in combination with the potential easing of restrictions on US residents traveling to Cuba that US president Barack Obama hinted at during the electoral race could also mean a serious increase of US tourism to the island. Round trip flights between Florida and Havana could potentially be as inexpensive as between the former and the Bahamas.

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Naturally, the tourism industry is well aware of this, and is lining up to sign deals with Cuba when, and if, any of this were to happen. With its thousands of kilometers of coastline, festive culture, remarkable citizens and a natural beauty that inspired Christopher Columbus – one of the first tourists to visit Cuba – to describe it in his writings as 'the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen', Cuba easily could return to being the Caribbean destination.

Whether that happens, and what will happen to Cuba, and Havana, after the Castro brothers fade into history is the million-dollar question followed by an endless stream of one-dollar answers. Nobody knows. Change will eventually occur. What kind of change will only be decided by the resolute Cubans themselves. And when it does, Fresa y Chocolate will remain as testament to that unique time in Cuba's, and Havana's history. – Alvaro Eduardo Rojas

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