- Cuba 2013 Part 2: Viñales
- Cuba 2013: May Day! (Primero de Mayo!)
- Thoroughly Modern Miller (Outdoor Theatre, Houston TX)
- Patagonia 2013: Autumn in April
- Patagonia 2013: Local flavors of Chile
- Patagonia 2013: Trekking the “W” at Torres del Paine
- Patagonia 2013: Argentina’s Mt. Fitz Roy (“El Chalten”)
- On the road again! Patagonia 2013
- “State Champion Grace Parker” and the Fort Gibson Lady Tigers
- Hiatus: I’ll be back.
- Paris 2012: A History Lesson
- Paris 2012: Endless Louvre
- Paris 2012: Eiffel Tower
- Party Barn Christmas 2010: The (Blog) Post of Christmas Past
Category Archives: Cuba
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.
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.
*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.”
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
Part of a series from my recent trip to Cuba. Part 1 is here.
One quick stop on our Tour de Cuba was at a Havana boxing arena where some of Cuba’s Olympic boxers train. Despite its tiny size, Cuba has won more boxing medals in the Olympics than any country other than ours. The folks in these pictures, though, are just boxers-in-training, not Olympic champions. Like so many places we saw in Cuba, the facilities were tattered, rusting, flaking and crumbling, but that didn’t seem to slow these guys down. The guy seated ringside (below) was the coach. I declined the suggestion to join them for some sparring practice.
No. 7 in a series that started here.
Basic education in Cuba is pretty good (at least by developing-world standards). The school buildings aren’t great, but since labor is cheap and other opportunities are limited, there are plenty of teachers.
In some senses, education – specifically medical education – is now one of Cuba’s biggest exports. A deal with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez has sent about 30,000 Cuban doctors and healthcare workers to oil-rich Venezuela; in exchange, Cuba gets $3-4 billion worth of oil every year. Cuba pays those doctors around $300 per year and Venezuela pays Cuba $100,000 or more each for their services. It’s a big part of what’s keeping the Cuban government and economy afloat. Unfortunately, Cubans can make more money peddling cokes or souvenirs to tourists in the streets than they can by becoming doctors, so it’s hard to imagine how this setup will survive.
I got lots of pictures of school kids. The big green doors are a Havana school. The two boys sitting in a schoolhouse doorway are in Trinidad (notice the all-too-typical gaping hole in the building right at the entrance). That little girl with no uniform is a preschooler, standing in front of a two-room rural schoolhouse (you can see the edge of it on the right side of the frame). The close-up shots with pale blue backgrounds are on the porch of that school.
The uniforms are in fact “uniform” across the entire country. Those “neckerchiefs” seemed to be a nice touch, but my inquiries about the significance of the different colors revealed that the scarves signified the kids’ enrollment and participation in the “Pioneers” group. Their slogan (which the school kids have to chant as their “pledge of allegiance”) begins: “Pioneers for Communism.” Suddenly the neckerchiefs weren’t nearly as endearing.
Actually, the long form of that slogan is “Pioneers for Communism; we will be like Che.” “Che” is Che Guevara, who was a key leader in the 1950s revolution that put the Castros and Communists in power. Lots of propaganda and patriotic discourse in Cuba focus on “La Revolucion,” which seems to frame Cubans’ political thinking as “Are you better off now than you were fifty-four years ago?” Contrasting the Castro regime to the 1950s Cuba with an even-worse previous leader/dictator (Batista) yields far more favorable comparison than comparing the current regime against all the progress and possibilities of 21st-century capitalism and democracy. That focus is reinforced with the ever-present iconic image of Che Guevara. That picture is everywhere. Everywhere.
Other government slogans and billboards (often painted on the sides of buildings — even residential buildings) refer to “Defendiendo Socialismo” (defending socialism), or to the evils of capitalism. The Castros apparently don’t see the irony in the fact that those signs mostly stand amid dilapidation and squalor brought about by 50 years in a system that saps all signs of initiative, effort, ambition or personal responsibility.
There are also a lot of signs about the neighborhood “CDRs” – Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, which serve the happy purpose of monitoring every person on every block to ferret out any potential “counter-revolutionary” activity.
Another pervasive “patriotic” theme is the slogan: “Patria o Muerte.” See, for example, the billboard in the picture below. “O Muerte” means “or death.” Literally, “Patria” means “homeland” or “motherland,” but the term seems synonymous with patriotic loyalty. Someone remarked that the phrase arguably paralleled American slogans like “Live free or die,” or “Give me liberty or give me death.” But the Cuban version says nothing about freedom or liberty, and when the phrase is paired with images of a military-clad leader who ruled the country under a one-party Communist regime for 50 years, the message seems completely the opposite.
(Yes, that’s me in front of the Patria o Muerte billboard, so No, I didn’t take that picture. That last image — with Che Guevara’s face on the side of the building — is at Revolution Square, which is the area that’s the center of the federal government. You’re not supposed to take pictures of government buildings, but this one is an exception. In the process of trying to get some basic, touristy pictures of the big monument in the Square and of the big Che and Fidel portraits, though, I had three different police officers blow their whistles at me. Apparently the rule (that day) was that I had to be standing across a street from whatever I was taking a picture of. I wound up with only crappy pictures, but at least I’m not sleeping in a Cuban hoosegow.)
We spent a few days on the south coast of Cuba, near a town called Trinidad (not to be confused with the Caribbean island-country by the same name). The town was founded just about 20 years after Christopher Columbus first visited the area, so it’s just shy of 500 years old, and one of the oldest colonial towns in the hemisphere. Much of the town has cobblestone streets and, as with much of Cuba, there are classic cars and colorful buildings all over the place.
A handful of these pictures have birdcages. Having little birds like that is apparently a big tradition in this town. I suspect these are the cheapest pets you can have. Every street is full of pleasant chirping.
Below, you can see a couple of shots of small restaurants (each with a performing live band). These are surprisingly-nice privately-owned restaurants, called “paladares” in Cuba. It was a long-time (though illegal) tradition during the Soviet era that families would operate tiny restaurants in their homes. More recently, the government started allowing and licensing them (and thus heavily taxing) them. The outdoor courtyard restaurant had about four “hosts,” five waiters and waitresses, a five-piece band, four dancers and who-knows-how-many kitchen staff, all to enteratin about ten patrons. The music group pictured up close later invited us to an after-hours “party,” in a nearby home. It turned out to be a sort of mini-concert, with musicians from various places around town taking turns with their guitars entertaining one another (and us). That’s what you see in the last picture with mostly-silhouetted musicians. Quite an experience.
Finally, here’s a picture of our hotel (near Trinidad) at sunset. All hotels are owned by the government, and the Cuban government took away our original Trinidad hotel reservations because the Pope was in the country and there were apparently more-important folks who needed a place to stay. So we wound up a few miles outside of town at a beach resort. The place was full of German tourists. Cuban resorts are “segregated,” in that Cubans are not allowed to go. Because Americans are permitted in Cuba only for cultural missions (or to visit their own close family) and thus never for “tourist” purposes, staying at beach resorts is normally not allowed. But since we were kicked out of our intended hotel and had no choice, we actually got the chance to visit the beach for a bit.
I called the place ”Communism’s Last Resort.” It looks okay pictured from a distance, but a close inspection would reveal stains on the towels and sheets, empty flower beds and fountains, broken windows, intermittent hot water, and cafeteria food that reminds you your chefs were Soviet-trained. But the sunset was pretty.