Category Archives: Cuba

Cuba 2013, Part 3: A Return to Havana

This is the last of my posts from a May 2013 trip to Cuba.  The first was here.  The ten posts (with tons more pictures) from my 2012 trip started here, and ended here.  Most of what you see below are just typical sights on the streets of Havana.  They are not odd, atypical spots.  The rooftop shots are Parc Central,  but regular street scenes you see are what virtually all the streets look like.

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After my 2012 trip to Cuba, I had separate posts highlighting the classic cars that roam the streets, the glamorous Tropicana, Cuban “patriotism” and education, a rooftop ritual, Cuban athletics and just everyday life in Havana.   Returning to Havana just a year later, I necessarily saw many of the same sights, as the pictures above reflect.

The most important “new” feature of the trip this time was the opportunity to see some of it through the eyes of a Cuban-American woman– “Didi” — whose family was very involved in the turmoil of the Revolutionary period, and who was visiting Cuba for the first time.

Didi’s parents left Cuba in the early 1970s – escaping first to Spain and then to the United States.  She had an uncle who was a political prisoner of Castro for more than a decade – apparently because he worked for a telephone company.  Her father faced a regime firing squad but was somehow spared at the last minute and sent back to work.  A close family member escaped to Florida on a raft.  An aunt was evacuated by the American CIA and the Catholic Church in the “Peter Pan” project – where parents gave up their children and sent them to the U.S. because they believed (rightly or wrongly) the kids would otherwise be forcibly interned by the Cuban Revolutionary government.  The family friend who was to have been the organist at her parents’ wedding was shot – apparently by government forces — on the church steps a day before the ceremony.

Americans who think all Revolutions are hip and who flippantly don “Che” Guevara T-shirts ought to spend a few minutes with a family like that.

Didi had never been to Cuba, and was on a personal mission to visit her family’s old apartment, her parents’ church, and her father’s school.  Mostly she wanted to see the country that her parents lived in and left – the world that she’d have grown up in had her family not been brave and determined enough to find a way out.  We saw in Havana the three-room concrete-floor apartment where she would likely have grown up.  We saw the kids in the street and the people on the balconies — living the life she most likely would have had to live.  She cried a lot; I tried not to cry along.  I know it was a profound experience for her, because it was deeply moving even for an Oklahoma boy who had no stake or connection to Cuba (except for his new friend Didi).

Didi is now a 30-something pediatric ICU physician, married to a pediatric oncologist.  Her brother is a successful lawyer in a Washington DC firm.  If she’d lived in Cuba, she would have grown up going to a school where she had to stand up every day and pledge allegiance to the Communist regime.  And she’d probably be making about $25 a month, working in whichever government job the regime instructed her to work.

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The first shot just above is Didi’s family’s apartment; my ultra-wide-angle lens makes it look bigger than it really was.  The second shot is during the May Day parade (about which I did a prior post).  I was not yet aware of her family’s history when I yelled “come with me” and led her into the midst of a few thousand Cuban military — I can only imagine how crazy that must have felt.  The dark shot at the Tropicana has Didi on the right, with our mutual friend Patricia, who — like me — was privileged to share some of Didi’s quest, on the left.  The other shots are just a couple of strangers she met and embraced (literally) along the way.

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A year ago, I wrote a post about the American embargo against Cuba.  The embargo (“El Bloqueo”) continues to be an enormous focus of attention.  My thoughts a year later are, hopefully, clearer and deeper, but ultimately the same:  You can legitimately debate the embargo’s ongoing rationale and effectiveness, but its roots and goals are noble.  More critically, it is not to blame for Cuba’s pitiful situation.  It is not America’s fault that a chaotically organized socialist economy that is based on governmental control and oppression operates very poorly and impoverishes its people.  Policy change is definitely needed – but it will have to start in Havana.

Cuba 2013 Part 2: Viñales

I don’t smoke.  Won’t smoke.  And even the smell of cigar smoke makes me nauseous.*  But when a very, very nice Cuban farmer in the middle of a field pulls tobacco leaves from his pocket, rolls you a cigar on his pants leg as a welcome gesture and lights it up for you with matches he pulls out of his hat, you should bite your lip a little, accept it graciously, and try not to hurl.

 

This was my second trip to Vinales – a small town west of Havana in the tobacco-growing region of Cuba.  This time I wandered the outskirts of the small town with a new friend, Didi, a member of my photo group who is Cuban-American (more on her story later).  As we wander down a tiny lane and started taking some pictures of the fields and mountains, we see a farmer coming toward us, planting melangas (potato-like root vegetables common in Cuba) one by one.

His clothes are tattered and caked in dirt (an occupational hazard for one hand-planting root vegetables).  His hands were so covered with mud he offers only a fist when I try to shake hands.  My pitiful Spanish-speaking skill let me engage in some superficial “Olas” and “mucho gustos” and very basic introductions.  Didi, on the other hand, is a fluent native Spanish speaker who engages — deeply and sincerely — with everyone we run across.  This farmer (“Marcello”) was no exception; he seemed to love her, despite the generation gap between them.  We take lots of pictures, of course.

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After a few minutes, he pulls from his pocket something I soon recognize as a wad of tobacco leaves, and starts to tear and organize them.  He looks up at me a couple of times during this process, and I realize he is rolling ME a cigar.  Yikes.  The fact that his hands were too dirty to shake my hand does not deter him from using those same hands to make something I’m supposed to put in my mouth.  He’s using his mud-caked pants leg as a rolling table; a neighbor walks up and offers his relatively-clean pants leg, but Marcello declines the assistance.  Sure enough, he finishes up and presents it to me.  My hope that I could graciously accept it and carry it off unlit was dashed immediately:  Marcello produced a box of matches (stored on top of his head inside his straw hat) and struck the first match as he instructed me to bite the end off the cigar.

I thought of Bill Clinton – trying to do what’s expected without actually inhaling.  This was only modestly successful.  It won’t really stay lit without actual puffing, so Marcello takes it and puts it in his mouth and puffs it to a gentle smolder.  Then he gives it back.  I keep faking it.  Thankfully, the cheap, dry tobacco leaves he had (probably scavenged from the edge of a neighbor’s field) were of such poor quality they’re practically odorless and tasteless.  I may as well be smoking elm leaves.  It just smelled like a campfire – smoky and unpleasant, but not nauseating – and tasted like nothing.

We thank him; he hugs Didi; he hugs Didi again.  He goes back to work and we head on down the lane.  I let the cigar go out and then stuck it in my camera bag after we left Marcello.  Then I forgot about it.  So I actually (accidentally!) carried one illegal Cuban cigar (such as it was) through U.S. customs (without declaring it).  Oops.

 

As we continued wandering through the Vinales countryside, we got multiple invitations to come inside the modest homes along the dirt roads and paths.  We were offered seats, food, coffee, and (most importantly) directions back to town.  One thatch-roofed wooden hut was oozing smoke; inside we found three ladies roasting coffee in a small pan over an indoor fire.  The women said they took turns inside the hut because it was so miserable.  It wasn’t clear to me why this had to be done indoors.  It looked like a lot of trouble for a few cups of coffee.

 

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*Honestly, I’d rather smell a fart than cigar smoke.  At least farts are usually unintentional, so they’re obnoxious only on the olfactory level.  Curiously, Cigar smokers seem to think they look very sophisticated with a six-inch-long cylinder in their mouth.  Be warned that if you’re blowing cigar smoke anywhere near me, I’ll be doing all I can to send a retaliatory “fart in your general direction.”

Cuba 2013: May Day! (Primero de Mayo!)

Ordinarily, photographing the Cuban military is prohibited, and just might land you and/or your camera in a Cuban military hoosegow.  But Primero de Mayo (May 1) is Cuba’s version of Labor Day, and there’s a huge parade/march through Revolution Square in Havana with lots of military groups.  Apparently, all bets were off on that no-photography rule during the parade. 

 

Last week, I made my second trip to Cuba.  A happy coincidence of timing put me right in the middle – literally — of the May Day parade.  The whole thing is fully orchestrated, with (according to press reports) about 400 thousand marchers and with Castro’s government handing out the various flags and banners each group of workers will carry.   It is a spectacle.  The crowd paraded right through Revolution Square, past El Presidente Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as leader of Cuba in 2008.

We arrived at dawn – jumping out of our cabs near the back of the parade staging area.  I wandered right into the middle of the crowd of flag-bearing young people, then headed off to see if I could photograph the uniformed military personnel.  Soon the throng started to move while I was in the middle taking some pictures, so  I moved with it.  I wasn’t completely sure if it was still “staging” or if the march had officially begun, because there were almost no spectators.  Then I saw we were approaching Revolution Square, the site of the big Jose Marti Monument (Cuba’s ugly, creepy version of the Washington Monument).  At that point it was clear that I was “in” the parade.  Physically within, at least.  I was in the fat middle of the military marchers as they chanted their way past the Monument, with President Castro looking on from the viewing stand.

Thousands of Cuban soldiers participated.  Cuba has a mandatory military service requirement, so there are lots of 19ish-year-olds (male and female) in some form of “military” service.  You do not get the feeling they are fierce warriors (though surely Cuba has some somewhere).  I got no sense that they were unhappy about being “forced” to be there; nor did I get any sense of deep fervor or passionate ideological support of the regime.  You just got the feeling they were a bunch of strangely-dressed teenagers looking to hook up on a Spring Break in Havana, chanting prescribed political slogans with about the level of intensity and sincerity a casual fan might show for his local college football team.

At one point I was walking backward, taking pictures of a group of 100 or so young soldiers walking along behind me.  They got so preoccupied with following and “posing” for me (lots of flag-waving and thumbs-upping), they failed to hear (or to comply with) their commander’s instruction ordering them to stop.  Happily, he was a good sport — especially when I rushed over to take several shots of him, to make sure he was in on the fun.

Cuba’s economy is very dependent on Venezuela, with whom Cuba has a doctors-for-oil exchange program that supplies Venezuela with semi-indentured Cuban healthcare workers, and supplies Cuba with at least a faint economic heartbeat.  Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez died recently and Cubans seem worried that their support from Venezuela may be in jeopardy.  Thus a major theme of the parade was solidarity with Venezuela.  Signs, large and small, pictured Chavez and labeled him “Our Best Friend” (that’s Communist for “BFF”), which seemed a little odd since he’s dead and all.

Last year when I went to Revolution Square, the military guards barely let me walk around and take pictures at all, so being “allowed” in the middle of the parade as it went past Castro was unexpected to say the least.  I carried two very professional-looking cameras, so they all seemed to assume I was a press photographer (which is ironic, because I spoke to an actual press photographer, and he did not have the same degree of freedom to move through the parade).  At one point, I was asked (in very good English) what newspaper I was with.  I blurted out (truthfully but nonsensically), “Soy de Houston!  Tejas!” — as if I could fluently speak neither English nor Spanish.  I gave a goofy thumbs-up and headed off to get lost in the crowd again.

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I’m one of the last people on earth you’d ever expect to find at – much less “in” — a Communist-organized march extolling the virtues of socialist labor.   But put a camera in my hand and a documentary mission in my head, and I’ll go almost anywhere.  This was one of the craziest experiences of my life – and that’s saying something.

Posts from my spring 2012 trip to Cuba started here and ended here.

Cuba (Part 10) One Last Look

Here’s the last installment of pictures from my March trip to Cuba.  The series started here.  The trip offered lots of photographic variety — including dancing showgirls, boxers in training, school kids, cigar moguls, classic cars, Havana street life and more — so take a look at all the posts.  The trip was also fascinating and educational for me personally; I hope my eagerness to share what I learned didn’t get too long-winded.  Thanks for looking.

As I mentioned earlier, Havana has plenty of sights to see.   A prior post had my attempts at decent pictures from Revolution Square, the current center of federal government buildings.   The Capitolio (pictured in three shots below) is the former center of government.  It looks just like the U.S. Capitol building in Washington.  Built in the 1920s, it was originally the home of the Cuban legislature.  When Castro took over, he disbanded both their houses of Congress and did away with representative government — thus freeing the Capitolio up for other purposes!

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Our group had some nice opportunities to get on rooftops and other high places just at sunrise or sunset, which is a simple recipe for good pictures.  A few of the pictures you see are from a hotel on Park Central; one is from the tower of the original Bacardi building; a handful are from the lighthouse at “Morro Castle,” which is actually a 400-year-old fortress that guards the entrance to the port of Havana.

On the last night of my trip, we went to a rooftop party.  The event included the opportunity to watch a drums-and-dancing Santeria ritual.  Santeria is a form of religion that mixes Catholicism with African “animist” beliefs.  I cannot pretend to understand or explain it, but these dancing performances are fairly common and open to the public.  The dancers and the folks wearing white are part of that.  The finale of that evening was those pigeons.  (See the picture at the top of this post).  There was a pigeon coop (and a pigeon-keeper) on the roof, and just at sun set he let 30 or so of them out for their evening exercise.  They kept returning to the roof; he kept shooing them away to fly around some more, giving me several chances to try to get the “perfect” picture.  It was a nice, peaceful wind-down of a sometimes-overwhelming couple of weeks in Cuba.

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Finally, here (below) is one of the last pictures I took in Cuba.  I know it doesn’t look like much.  I took it with a tiny pocket camera in the cab on the way to the airport.  Normally, I had always tried to use one of the privately-owned taxis rather than the government-owned taxis, but in the scramble to get out of my hotel and out to the airport, I didn’t seem to have a choice.  My reflex was to be unhappy and uncomfortable in the government-run cab, but of course it wasn’t Castro at the wheel; it was just an ordinary Cuban guy doing his job.  The driver was a nice guy who found out I was headed for Miami and quickly told me he had family that had moved to America long ago.  He seemed to envy their fate, but Cubans are generally not allowed to travel freely, so he said that he’d never been allowed to go visit.  At about that point, I noticed his personal keychain — the stars and stripes of an American flag on a heart-shaped medallion.  That’s a “sneaked” picture of his keychain (and his knee and steering wheel) in the picture below, taken from my backseat vantage point.  Seeing his keychain — attached to the keys of his Communist-government taxicab — was a fitting finale to my Cuba experience and another reminder that I’m lucky to live where I do.

If you happen to get a chance to go to Cuba in the next few years, go.  You’ll need a sense of adventure and an open mind.  You’ll stumble into things you never expected and things you’d never encounter at home — some good; some bad.  The overlay of a Communist, socialist system in what’s otherwise a peaceful tropical world is fascinating and eye-opening.  Parts of it you’ll love, and the other parts will make you appreciate your own country.  As the Castros age, Cuba is changing fast.  Maybe I’ll get to go again and see some of that change take place.  Hasta la proxima!

Cuba (Part 9) El Bloqueo

A brief, mostly-nonphotographic post before I finish the Cuba photography series.  It’s impossible to spend a couple of weeks thinking about Cuba in the year 2012 without some focus on the 50-year-old American trade and travel embargo.

The most popular and controversial topic in American-Cuban relations is of course the U.S. “embargo.”  American laws put in place mostly by President Kennedy still bar much trade and travel with Cuba.  The Cubans call it “El Bloqueo” (“the blockade”).  Castro complains about it regularly, using it to demonize the U.S.A. and to justify his own harsh policies.  As you leave the Havana Airport, the Cuban government has a big billboard that says, “Bloqueo.  El genocidio mas largo de la historia,” which means “The longest genocide in history.”  The second “o” in Bloqueo is a noose.  Though this is obviously ridiculous hyperbole, a lot of the world has taken Castro’s side – criticizing America for keeping the embargo in place.  Even the Pope recently popped off about it, feeding Castro’s Communist propaganda machine by criticizing the American laws as “unfairly burdening” Cubans.

The U.S. (including our current President) has consistently said the embargo will remain in place until the Castro regime yields to a democratic system.  There is much legitimate debate about its effectiveness, its rationale, its continued relevance and its potential counter-productive effects, but at this point we are at least standing behind our word on this.

Importantly, whatever you think about the continuing rationale for a 50-year-old embargo, it is not to blame for Cuba’s economic woes.  In the 21st century, it should be painfully obvious that the sources of Cuba’s problems are its socialist economic policies and its un-democratic political system.  As The Economist recently reported, “The American embargo is an irritant, but the economy’s central failing is that Fidel’s paternalistic state did away with any incentive to work, or any sanction for not doing so.”  (Let this be a lesson to us here, too.)

Remember:  Cuba can and does trade freely with every other country on earth, and the U.S. actually does provide much-needed food to Cuba (we’re already its biggest source of food).  So scapegoating America for Cuba’s situation is mostly a Castro-regime P.R. strategy (for which many America-bashers and socialism sympathizers have gladly fallen).  It’s not as though Cuba has lots of surplus goods to sell the U.S. – or lots of money with which to buy American goods.  The reason Cuban people do without lots of basic items is because their government jobs pay them almost nothing, and their government-run stores won’t sell many foreign goods anyway.  Otherwise, Cubans would be buying Chinese-made goods just like we do.  Cuba already has a tourist industry servicing Canadians and Germans and Brits.  If American tourists were allowed to go, they’d soon learn that the Cuban-government-operated hotel facilities did not compare favorably against the many other options in the Caribbean.  It’s Cuba’s own Communist/socialist policies that prevent, e.g., Spanish-based Iberostar Hotels or Canada-based Four Seasons Group from opening hotels and resorts there.  Unless Cuba changes its own policies – including allowing foreign investors to own and develop resorts, factories, stores and commercial farms — removing “El Bloqueo” wouldn’t make much difference.

The best argument for lifting the blockade may be simply that its continuation gives Castro and other eager America-bashers a convenient, misleading scapegoat for Cuba’s socialism-induced economic quagmire.  But compromising one’s plans and principles because one’s foes have condemned them seems to be a ludicrous foundation for foreign policy.  Of course Cuba is no longer the security threat it was in the 1960s, but the leadership and the political and economic systems in place there haven’t really changed.  Lifting the embargo might help make Cuba’s Communist Socialist system a bit more palatable to its citizens, but that may actually prolong the regime’s existence.  Changing Cuba is going to be Cuba’s responsibility; we just need to make it very clear that we’ll gladly change our policy when they change theirs.