An interview with Bill Belleville

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Q: A major part of Deep Cuba is concerned with the politics between Cuba and the U.S. and how that has affected the environment of the region. What do you personally think will happen when Castro dies in terms of the development in Cuba and how that will effect the environment?

A: Castro has survived ten U.S. presidents for a good reason: He is a product of the Cuban people and not an outsider placed there by another country. There are two scenarios: If the U.S. again interferes after Castro’s death by fueling and supporting the anti-Castro insurgents who have set up a “government in exile” in Miami, Cuba may likely be fragmented enough to succumb. If this happens, Cuba will return to the “anything goes” days of Batista. While there are now strong environmental laws, it is unlikely they will stand up in the face of such short-term “prosperity.” There are, however, many Castro supporters still left in the government, including Castro’s brother. There’s no telling as to how they’ll rise to the occasion. Don’t forget, Castro himself encourages tourism investment. It is the U.S. that won’t allow Americans—or those doing business with America—to invest there.

Q: Castro actually visited the boat during the expedition at one point. What was he like?

A: He was very curious about what we had been doing and also very knowledgeable about his country’s marine environment. He asked a lot of informed questions, and although he pontificated, he seemed to have a genuine concern for the condition of the natural resources of Cuba. I wish more American politicians were that interested in our own environment.

Q: It seems that environmental awareness in this country is better than it’s ever been, but we aren’t at a point where our awareness means we are reversing—or even curbing—the damage we do. Things still seem to get worse, to put it in simplistic terms. From what you’ve seen through your work as a nature writer, do you agree with this? Is it hard to keep anger and frustration about the state of the environment from influencing your writing too much?

A: True, we are generally better informed, and knowledge, after all, is power. Yet, there are more of us than ever. Things we could have gotten away with fifty years ago, we can’t afford today—taking too many “mother fish,” polluting a local river with industrial effluent, demolishing the natural coastline to make way for homes and resorts. There are plenty of gloriously wild places still left in the world—indeed, we saw some of them on the southern coast of Cuba. But we have to be forever vigilant about the protection of these places. Laws alone won’t do it. It will require an ethic, a true caring for the earth. We can’t tell people what to do; as writers and artists, we simply have to spin the most engaging tales we can and make the best films we can produce, and hope that, eventually, folks will catch on.

Q: An interesting aspect of the book is your view that Cubans are not necessarily as bad off as they are portrayed in the media here—that because of our government’s agenda against Castro the people of Cuba are portrayed as a suppressed and miserable population. I noticed the same thing in Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club. There is certainly poverty in Cuba—and it’s shown in the film—but that isn’t the whole picture. Can you discuss this a bit?

A: I had suspected Cuba was more complex and multi dimensional than the media had let on, and that was one of the reasons I wanted to go on this expedition. As I observed in Deep Cuba, I found the Cubans to be—above all—conflicted about their country. The Cubans I met there were passionate and real and in love with their place. They were also proud and wanted their country to realize its potential and were clearly frustrated that it has not. But, I didn’t find them to be in despair. I’ve seen people in greater despair in Kingston, Jamaica, or in the Krome section of Miami for that matter.

Q: You seem very attuned to the fine line documentary filmmakers must walk between entertainment and portraying an accurate view of real life. How well do you think the Discovery Channel did in resolving this issue?

A: Jim Lipscomb and Al Giddings are real pros and superb at what they do. The documentary that resulted from this expedition gave viewers at home a lot of new and valuable information about oceanography and the natural history of the Antilles and a bit about Cuba. But Cuba is still considered a bad place to be—vis-a-vis the way pack journalists report it as such. And the Discovery Channel in-house producers demanded a show about Cuba without Cubans. And that’s what they got. In other words, they badly compromised the reality with their concern for offending or startling viewers who were comfortable with the mass portrayal of Cuba.

Q: The images that come to the minds of most Americans when they think of Florida are those of spring break, Disney World, retirees from New York and New Jersey, and, perhaps now, colorful elections. But there are some great artists who have been inspired by Florida and set their work there. Harry Crews’s fiction; Errol Morris’s documentary Vernon, Florida; some of Hemingway’s work; John Sayles’s Sunshine State; and I think your two books about Florida show a much more interesting and less-homogenized Florida. Are there any writers or artists from Florida who you particularly admire? How about more generally—any writers you who have inspired you?

A: Yes, Florida’s an intriguing place, far more exotic and dark and bizarre than the chamber of commerce would have you believe. I think Elmore Leonard sets some of his fictional crime stories here for that reason. And look what Carl Hiaasen has done with his own black humor takes on the underbelly of Florida! The era that Hemingway wrote about in Key West back in the 1930s is harder to come by; so too is the untamed Florida that naturalist Archie Carr wrote about. But it’s still out there, if you know where to look, and how. When I start feeling overwhelmed, I go back and re-read some of the poetry Elizabeth Bishop wrote when she was living in the Keys and look for how it relates to my life. And once in a while someone who doesn’t live here—like Susan Orlean who wrote The Orchid Thief—comes down here from New York and stumbles across this wonderful tropical Faulknerian surreality, and that makes me feel good, too.

Q: Going on an expedition like this sounds like a dream come true, but it wasn’t all fun and sun, right?

A: Science field expeditions are difficult and expensive to pull off and often require a lot of emotional and physical stamina. We were at sea, running ashore frequently in small boats, diving by day and night—and it was over a major American holiday, and we were away from families. The scientists who do this all the time deserve a great deal of credit. They are true heroes in that they do this not for the adventure but to reveal important and often new information about the nature of our world. I made a lot of dives myself, and one night near an offshore seamount in 1,000 feet of water, I got hopelessly lost. It was frightening. The good news is I found my way back.