Did Andrew Zimmern Gloss Over ‘Bizarre World’ of Cuba?

Your humble correspondent is a huge fan of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods hosted by Andrew Zimmern. Some episodes I have even watched several times over in repeats. However, I was a bit concerned when I heard that Zimmern would be visiting Cuba in the first episode of his new Bizarre World show. Would he show the brutal truth of the harsh life led by the people on that island or would he gloss over the facts and present a happy face view of reality there such as happened when Lucia Newman was relaying propaganda for the Castro dictatorship for CNN when she was reporting from Havana?

My friends over at the Babalu Blog seem to have concluded that Zimmern presented a way too rosy picture of life for the average Cuban:

Travel Channel host Andrew Zimmerman [note: the name is Zimmern] made a name for himself by traveling the world and eating bull penises and drinking donkey milk (among other assorted repulsive items) on his show Bizarre Foods. Now he has a new show titled “Bizarre World,” where he travels the world looking for the most bizarre places to entertain an audience that prefers to stay home and watch his shenanigans.

His destination on last night’s show happened to be Cuba and when you think about it, the island holds plenty of potential for strangeness since it is hard to get more bizarre than the upside-down world Cubans must survive in where every day is a challenge to find food and shelter while avoiding arrest by the totalitarian regime’s enforcers. But Zimmerman apparently missed this fine opportunity to chronicle the daily struggle of Cubans in this surreal 21st century slave plantation and instead decided to take the official island tour provided by the slave masters, complete with salsa music, antique cars, and Santeria rituals.

One thing that makes this episode truly bizarre, however, is when the New York Times television critic, Mike Hale, takes Zimmerman to task for his obvious avoidance of the reality of life in Cuba.

What’s truly bizarre about Mr. Zimmern’s presentation of Cuba — which is, it should be said, quite nicely shot and nearly always interesting to look at — is its failure, or refusal, to connect any dots between politics and the life he sees around him. Why is Cuba one of the few places where the tree rat is hunted for food? Why don’t you see anyone using cellphones? Why are the streets full of ancient American automobiles?

A one-hour cable travelogue doesn’t need to get into an analysis of whether Cuban poverty is a result of the American trade embargo or the policies of the Castro regime (both of which Mr. Zimmern acknowledges). But the show ought to be able to say that the citizens are poor and that they lack freedom, rather than saying that the Cubans are “a people who’ve learned to enjoy life’s simple pleasures without the frills.”

This don’t-offend-the-host approach reaches a surreal pitch when Mr. Zimmern maintains that boating and fishing in Cuba are “unspoiled” because “with rare exceptions, Cubans are not allowed on boats” — without indicating why that might be so. A British expat chimes in, “It’s part of the pleasure of sailing around Cuba.”

It might seem churlish to pick on Mr. Zimmern, who’s enthusiastic and friendly and full of praise and good feeling for the places he visits. But there’s also a residue of condescension; it shows up in the arched brow and the pat on the head (the Cubans are, in the final analysis, “friendly, inventive and engaging”), and it’s encoded in the whole notion of “bizarre.” It’s only bizarre if you’ve never left your couch.

Okay, I can understand why the Babablu Blog’s Alberto de la Cruz is upset with this show. There were a lot of elements that bothered me as well, especially the scene of an “average” (read “government-controlled”) Cuban singing a ballad paying homage to Che Guevara. However, allow me to present certain facts in defense of Andrew Zimmern. In this video clip from the show you will hear that Zimmern refers to the Castro government as a “regime.” Not the type of terminology that a useful fool liberal would use. Also note that Zimmern said that Che Guevara is “still honored by the Castro government.” Yeah, I could have done without Zimmern’s comment about Guevara being a “national hero” but I take the qualification about the Castro government as a subtle dig by Zimmern who, along with the Travel Channel, was obviously operating under certain restrictions. The same clip also showed how people can wait hours for transportation since the taxis are not allowed to leave until every seat is filled. Hardly an idyllic presentation of life there.

Overall the show managed, within restrictions, to show how life down there for the average person is pretty miserable. Yeah, there was no outright commentary by Zimmern about why people in Cuba need to eat tree rats in order to consume meat but that scene pretty much speaks for itself. Finally, there is Andrew Zimmern’s blog in which he is critical of the government handlers in Cuba:

What you didn’t see was the hassles we went through trying to get into the country, the sweaty nervousness of bringing all our gear through Cuban customs on the way in. The bliss we felt at May Day, the thrill of sneaking some of our Cuban crew out on our boat ride to Cayo Macho, the fun we had watching all the tin pot dictators and their posses who were in Havana for the Non Aligned Nations Conference, throwing baseballs with kids in the streets each day in between takes, making fun of our bus driver who doubled as our government minder and was constantly writing down the names of everyone we talked to in his little book, lobster lunch with our fixer Toby at his house in Miramar and the list goes on and on. But here’s the point. I doubt that when it airs, if there will be a more politicized show we have ever done. Cuba is a tough subject to tackle, part paradise, part paradise prison. And the expat community here in the States is very vocal and adamant in their chilling condemnation of all things currently Cuban, and I get it. But the thaw is here, and the palm curtain will fall very soon, and we found an amazing world in Cuba.

These are hardly the words of someone who has blinded himself to the current realities of Cuba. However, to be fair and balanced, I will present suggestions for the Travel Channel made by Carrie in her Bilingual in the Boonies blog about what should have been presented as bizarre on that show:

  • Tourists can rent yachts and catamarans to cruise Cuba’s many beautiful uninhabited islands. Cubans aren’t allowed on boats that far out to sea. Bizarre.
  • Tourists can scuba and catch big, fat lobsters in Cuba’s unspoiled coral reefs. Cubans get arrested if they trap, or sell, lobster. Bizarre.
  • American, want to take the family on vacation to Europe, to the Caribbean, to anywhere? Save your pennies and go. The majority of Cubans aren’t allowed to leave the island. Ever. Bizarre.
  • Untold number of souls risk everything each year — and have for decades — by jumping on rickety rafts and heading to the United States. Too many have been lost. Those caught and returned: Jailed. Bizarre.
  • A million plus Cubans marched in the May Day Parade. That’s because if they don’t, they get reported to the local Communist Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Mucho problema. Bizarre.
  • Cubans hunt and eat the tree rat, hutia. That’s because most of them go months, or years, without access to meat. Bizarre.
  • And more about meat: It is illegal for a Cuban to sell or purchase beef on the black market. Doing so risks jail time. The beef is for the big, fat tourist. Bizarre.
  • The government tells Cubans to marinate banana peels as if they were beef and pretend. Bon appetit! Bizarre.
  • Tourists can rent the room in the Hotel Nacional in Havana where Frank Sinatra and Eva Gardner spent their honeymoon. The cost for one night runs from $142 to $211 USD. The average Cuban earns about the equivalent of $12 a month. Bizarre.
  • Speaking of hotels, up until two years ago, it was illegal for a Cuban to even walk into a hotel. Bizarre.
  • Americans can go to the hardware store and buy whatever they need for their home. A Cuban can be arrested for “illegally purchasing” construction materials. Bizarre.
  • Want a little sexo on your fabulous Cuban vacation? Hey, turista, for the cost of a cheap lipstick or a bottle of shampoo, some hot cubanita — or cubanito, depending on your preference — will rock your salsa-loving world. Bizarre.
  • Hey, you think the American president is a sucky one and want to post all over the internet or put up a sign in your yard or yell from a street corner. Go for it, Free Man! Do it in Cuba? Jail. Bizarre.
  • American, you hate your local newspaper? At least you have a free press. In the a country that owns its press, 22 journalists are jailed for writing the unapproved. Bizarre.
  • Dislike where you live? Sell your house and move. Cubans can’t. They’ve got to find someone willing to trade places. Bizarre.

Could the show have been more accurate? Of course. Is Andrew Zimmern an apologist for the Castro regime, eagerly promoting its proganda? Hardly as you can see for yourself in his blog. As Zimmern himself said, “I get it.”

However, a note to Andrew for his education. Che Guevara is NOT worshipped by the average citizens of Cuba. As Yoani Sanchez of Generation Y who blogs from Cuba stated:

“I am part of the counterculture, and the counterculture is growing, but it is very diverse. Maybe one thing we all have in common is that we don’t wear Che T-shirts, like foreign kids who consider themselves counterculture do,” she says. “In Cuba, Che represents the government. In Cuba, only tourists and members of the Young Communist League wear Che shirts.”

So “I get it” about why a lot of folks are upset with Andrew Zimmern over the Cuba show. However, as demonstrated, he is not even close to being a Castro government apologist. Also anybody with the intestinal fortitude to eat smelly, putrid Morrocan Mystery Meat covered with flies or drink cow urine is someone who deserves to be cut a little slack.

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