Cuba: Es Complicado

I returned recently from a one week trip to Havana. It was a photography trip organized under the State Department People to People program. We met with students, dancers, artists and musicians as well as photographing Havana’s rich visual landscape. These comments are based on my own observations and information I gleaned from guides, trip organizers, fellow travelers and Cubans we met. I have not fact checked the details. You can see photographs from my visit at TransFiniteImages.com/Cuba.

We landed at Jose Marti airport after the short charter flight from Miami, deplaned without jetways and entered a small, older terminal building. At the time, I expected more for a country’s main international airport (I learned later that this was not the main terminal building). Getting through immigration went smoothly and we then entered a large dimly lit room to retrieve bags. Unexpectedly, we were waived through customs without a question.

When we stepped outside, the most striking difference was the parking lot. I wasn’t expecting 100’s of acres or massive parking structures for 10,000 cars, but was surprised to see a small lot with a few hundred places, most of which were empty.

Almost as soon as we entered our bus, the skies opened with about five inches of rain in about an hour. Roads became rivers and vehicles were stranded. When we arrived at the Hotel Telegrafo, it was still pouring and all we could do is photograph the people getting soaked from the covered veranda. Bici-taxi’s had their rain curtains down, but they didn’t keep people any drier.

The hotel was well located on the Prado at Parc Centrale, where Habana Vieja bordered Habana Centro. Many important buildings nearby and one of the pedestrian destinations. We step outside with more to photograph than we can take in.

We met our local guide Maria (all names have been changed) who traveled with us all week and answered our various questions about life in Cuba. She was very forthcoming and proud of her country. Driving in to downtown Havana was notable for the near absence of any signage, either commercial or political. Unlike North Korea and the Soviet Union, there are no personality cults for living leaders. Virtually no images of either Fidel or Raul Castro. There are images of dead revolutionaries, including a large sculptural image of Che Guevara on a government building and, of course, the monument to Jose Marti in la Plaza de la Revolucion.

I didn’t know much about Jose Marti prior to the trip. He is referred to as “Jose Marti, Our National Hero” in the same fashion that we (ie Americans) refer to George Washington as “The Father of our Country.” He was instrumental in organizing resistance to the Spanish, but was only in Cuba for a short time during the Revolution. His place in Cuban history is unclear to me as he was clearly pro-democracy while being anti-American. One has to wonder what he would think of the lack of democracy in Castro’s Cuba, even though Castro embraces Marti’s revolutionary history.

The decay of the buildings was striking. While there are some new buildings and others that have been maintained, the result of lack of maintenance was obvious. It was most striking in the the Centro district adjacent to our hotel. Others have observed that Havana seems like it is frozen in time with the deteriorating buildings and the plethora of 50’s era American cars, kept on the road by force of will and ingenuity. The people have managed to make the most of the situation with their creativity to keep their homes habitable and vehicles operable. The decay of the buildings combined with the improvised ways they have been repaired had its own sense of beauty with its haunting visual richness. I walked the streets of Centro, fascinated by what I saw and the people’s sense of continuing their lives in spite of any hardship. The street art was creative and vibrant.

In a strange way it reminded me of Prague. When I visited there in 2008, many people told me how beautiful it was. I was prepared to be underwhelmed. But what I found was amazing. The view down every street was impactful and beautiful. Prague was very well preserved since it survived WWII with minimal damage. To the contrary, much Havana is crumbling. Yet, every street I passed, had some strong visual attraction that overcame the deterioration. The improvisation to fix what was broken with whatever materials were at hand, in whatever way that worked added to visual complexity and was testament to the Cuban people desire and ability to overcome the economic conditions of contemporary Cuba.

We learned from Maria that there is a job for any person who wants one, since the government the the main employer (yet there is a 4% reported unemployment rate). Most people earn 20-30 CUC a month (CUC is about 1US$). But they do not pay rent and have a ration card for an allotment of food provided by the government. Medical care and education are free and high quality. It is hard to judge their economic status by our own standards. Cuba reported 4% unemployment. We saw several people in what appeared to be “make work” jobs. These were people with brooms, a dust pan and a garbage can on wheels, slowly cleaning up here and there.

The socialist system has been relaxing slowly over the years. Private restaurants operating of people’s homes give the people the opportunity to earn more. The tourism industry has grown considerably and has created interesting dislocations of the relationship of education to income potential. The most desirable jobs are in the tourism industry. Anyone who directly interacts with visitors has the opportunity for tips that far exceed standard salaries. Physician and surgeons make make about 60 CUC a month in a government hospital while hotel maids make make 100’s in tips a month. We met a cab driver who graduated with a degree in economics and worked for the government as an accountant for the standard 25 CUC a month for 10 years. When his father stopped driving the family cab, he took over and now earns 150-200 CUC a day!!! What does this do to the educational system? Despite socialism, Cubans are as motivated by money as anyone else. Why go to university (even if it is free) when it doesn’t lead to adequately compensated careers?

Some of the people on the trip had been there in 2013 and noted several differences. First was the increased number of tour buses. Both the ones chartered by groups and hop-on, hop-off buses that tour through the city. Our chartered bus was from China and quite comfortable. The public tour buses were both double decker London type buses and open air train types. The second was the much more frequent for people in the street to ask for money to be photographed. I don’t intend to imply that this was the general reaction. Most people were very friendly and wanted to know where we were from and how we liked Havana. But the few who did seem to indicate the increasing number of visitors is changing Cuban’s attitudes. One has to hope that when US-Cuban relations are completely normalized that the people will benefit in general and are happy to see the increasing number of visitors.

While still a poor country (2011 GDP was US$5050) Cuba supposedly has far fewer seriously poor people due to government provided housing, basic food and health care than its Caribbean neighbors. Knowing this, I was surprised by the number of people asking for money in the street. I was also surprised by how few older people I saw. Where were they? Cuba has roughly the same life expectancy as the US. Are they too infirm to go out or what?

Mike, the trip organizer, had been taking photographers to Havana for over 15 years. He knows many people there and arranged many fascinating trips and events for us. Some outdoor events were rained out, including an outdoor boxing gym. Mike organized many events for us. Some were extra cost (eg Tropicana night club). Although Mike did not discuss the subject, I assume part of of trip fee went to the educational and cultural groups we visited.

The first morning we headed over to an elementary school, grades 1 and 2. Mike knew the principal from previous visits. Mike suggested we bring school supplies to give to the school, which we did. They were very much appreciated. The school was in either in Habana Viejo or Centro (I don’t remember). These are urban neighborhoods, where the residential streets looked far from prosperous. There were about 10 classrooms, each with 25 to 30 students. The students all looked healthy, well fed and enthusiastic. I do not know how often the school has visitors like our group. The students were eager to clown around for us and pose for photographs. I hope we did not disrupt their day too much. We brought school supplies that we left with the principal.

On the morning of May 1, we went to attend the May Day parade. Normally, 100,000 people attend this event. But when we got to the starting point, no one was there. Due to the recent rains and questionable weather forecast, the parade had been canceled, but the ceremonies were held at the Plaza De La Revolucion. So we slowly made our way up the Paseo to the Plaza, exploring the area. All along the Paseo, were banks of loudspeakers, presumably for the people to hear the speeches. As we went along, groups of workers were removing the speakers and crowd control barriers. The area Vedado was a more middle class residential area. Far better than what we saw of Centro, but still in need maintenance. We met international visitors from many countries who were there for the parade. As we neared the the Plaza, hordes of military personnel that had been at the Plaza for the ceremonies were streaming their way back to their homes or military installations. There are government buildings surrounding the Plaza with large banners promoting socialism: “Revolution is a sense of history” “Revolution is changing everything that must be changed“ “United in the construction of socialism”. There were very few propaganda signs in other areas. I don’t know if they were put up for the May Day celebration not. At the center of the plaza is the Marti memorial, about 350 feet high (by comparison the Washington monument is 555 feet).

On May 2, we went to a cultural community center that had reopened after many years. The building had deteriorated badly. A group of local artists and dancers go together and contracted with the government to reopen the center and establish new art and dancing programs. They rehabilitated the building (without government help), decorated it beautifully and now run programs for the area. My understanding is that all programs are free to students and the teachers and artists are government employees at the standard salary rates. They put on a dancing demonstration for our group. First, mostly the children and then the teachers.

After lunch we saw a dance presentation by a dance troupe of four women and four men in an abandoned theater. All the seats were gone and there was only a partial roof. It appeared someone was using the former projection booth as a residence. The theater itself gave us many photo opportunities. The dance started on casual note with showy dance moves and then transformed to a story of conflict and violence. A group of musicians provided intense drum accompaniment. There was a slit in the roof that let in a bar of sunlight that progressed across the floor and wall as the dance progressed. When the dancers moved into the light, we had excellent opportunities for dramatic lighting.

That night we went to the Tropicana night club, the prototype for Las Vegas and other lavish night clubs around the world. The performance started at 10. We were told it is the only event in Cuba that starts on time. The show was intense and lavish. One has to wonder what it was like the “anything goes” pre Castro days. Mike knows his way around Havana and we had tables right up next to the stage, giving is great photo op’s if we could move the camera fast enough and keep things in focus. This type show may not be for everyone, but considering its historical roots and how its influence has spread, I would recommend it (even though I would not go to a similar show in LV). The costumes and lighting were incredible and the dancers had the great athleticism. There was a well defined body type for both women and men. Their physical characteristics differed very little from performer to performer. They recently added a large video display at the back of the stage that was just a distraction. Big, but lo-res with graphics reminisceint of the 70’s. When Castro closed down the casinos and nightclubs in the late 50’s, they moved to Las Vegas. They reopened in the push for tourism in the “Special Period.”

On the morning of May 3, we visited three artists. Initially I was going to explore on my own, but was advised that the mosaic artist Fuster was a must see. First we went to a painter, who had converted his garage to a studio. Very colorful, minimal compositions. He exhibits in the US occasionally. It was quite obvious how successful we was. His home was up to contemporary middle class American standards, with an espresso maker, standard appliances etc. I tried to ask how free artists were to create works that criticize the government or communist party. He seemed uncomfortable trying to answer. The best I was able to infer was that artists need to be very, very subtle. I expected that answer, but I was interested how he would respond. I do not intend to suggest that he lacked courage in his stepping very lightly. After all, Cubans do not even have the right of free public assembly.

Fuster was the second artist. He is called the Gaudi of Cuba. Niki St. Phalle of France is another similar mosaic artist who creates large sculptures. It s a must see. He has what might be called a villa, with several buildings and lots of space. He has created a magnificent, multi-level wonderland to explore. After he filled up his own property, he extended out to neighbors in all directions, adding sculptures to their homes.

The third artist was a silversmith. He does beautiful work, both in wearable jewelry and in small flat sculptures in silver that are framed. He had an apartment that was under 1000 square feet. His triplet teenage sons, who are award winning ballet students, share a bedroom, barely big enough for three single beds and a single dresser. Cuban artists who find a market for their work, can rise far above average Cubans economically. Ones does not need to sell much to earn more than the 25 CUC a month.

That afternoon, we had a rooftop party on the agenda, ending with an opportunity to photograph the sunset from a great vantage point. On our way to the party, Mike had a surprise for us (at least those who were not repeat travelers). He had hired five vintage convertibles for a top down tour of Havana! That was fun. The rooftop party is a standard part of Mike’s tours. He knows musicians, dancers, and models. He invites all the people in the building and other neighbors. We go up a dark stairwell to the fourth floor (ie no electricity on the stairs). They all know we are photographers and glad to be there for the music and drinks and be in our photographs. We have a great urbanscape to the west, hoping for the clouds to cooperate for the sunset. One of the building residents raises pigeons. He lets loose as the sun goes down. The photographic challenge is to get the birds in focus while they are close, while the background stays in focus. The dancers were great, music was great. Mike and the people who come back get to know the people and see their children grow up. Return visitors bring prints of photos from previous trips (for this and the other places we visited).

May 4, I’m up early again for the sunrise. Again, lots of clouds, but still can explore streets I haven’t been down before. After breakfast we go to a former “palace,” home of a wealthy family, built in the early 20th century. Magnificent architecture internally. After the Castro revolution, it was split up into apartments for many families. On the top floor is “La Guarida,” one of the top restaurants in Havana. I didn’t quite understand how it got to open in what was essentially an apartment building. At some point, the government let people open private restaurants in their homes. They are called paladars. Originally, the paladars were small scale affairs, while La Guarida would be considered at top tier restaurant most anywhere. Then at some point, Cubans were given the opportunity to own their homes. I assume, someone with money bought up the top level apartments and opened La Guarida as a paladar. We would come back here for dinner that evening.

Later that day we visited a ballet academy and got to see the students (teenagers) practicing. It was a large building with several big practice rooms. Young men in one room and young women in the other. We got to blend into the walls as the did their running leaps in the air. With the light streaming directly at us through the windows, it was a photographic challenge. After lunch I passed up an opportunity to see a performance by a children’s circus school. I felt I need more time to just explore on my own.

We returned to La Guarida that evening for an excellent dinner, which was quite reasonable for the quality and service. We had a little time to wander before our bus left for our private concert by some of Cuba’s most noted musicians. Local children found us asking for money. While most Cuban’s just get by, they did not look like they were poor: healthy, clean and decently dressed. We guessed their parents sent them out. For our private concert, Mike brought great musicians from other Cuban cities. It was held in a great venue, outdoors, right next to the water. An unexpected failure of the sound system turned out to enhance the experience. The musicians and singers all came down off the stage and we all pulled our chairs up close for a very intimate musical experience. It all came together wonderfully.

Around 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed ending Soviet aid and sugar prices collapsed world wide, the Cuban economy contracted by about 30%. Cuba loosened state control of the economy and welcomed tourism. This is called the “Special Period.” Apparently, there was increased crime at that time.

We were told that crime is almost non-existent in Cuba. Not hard to believe in a police state. There were policemen (and women) on many street corners, watching that life flowed along without problems. I never felt unsafe wandering around, even late at night. Yet, many residences had high fences surrounded them. Maria told us that the fences go back to the Special Period.

The whole time we were there, we discussed how the change in relations between Cuba and the USA will change life for the average citizen. While there has been investment from other countries in recent years, the proximity to the US will create a completely new dynamic. All foreign investments must give the government 51% ownership, and all (except, I suppose top management) were government employees. If American countries open factories in Cuba, will they be able to pay more normal wages? How will this change the economic balance? Of course, the well connected will reap an economic windfall, despite Communist principles. When the government has more money, will it rehabilitate crumbling areas like Centro? How will it affect the existing communities if people are displaced during reconstruction?

Cuba is a complex place. Their life expectancy is the same as the US and infant mortality is lower, yet the economy suffers. Cubans have learned to rely on each other and their spirits are high. Many times when we we asked Maria about the complexities, she told us “In Cuba we say ‘Es Complicado’”.

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