Cuba is, in one word… Complicated. And Havana, its capital city is complexity distilled. This post may reflect that as I still have not completely organized my thoughts around the time we spent there, but I’ll give it a try.
Havana, Cuba is like no other place I’ve been to in my life. The currency, the ways of doing things, the Internet, sociocultural aspects, political, economic and individual cocktails of gordian complexity make everything in Cuba harder than it has to be. Frustratingly, while there is always a way of navigating things, the logic is often unclear. For a US citizen, just getting to Cuba is more difficult than it has to be because of travel and trade prohibitions between the United States and Cuba. And once on the ground in Havana, you are suddenly faced with two separate and definitely not equal currencies that drive other complexities of life in Cuba. The currency is only the first thing that you run into in that Cubans are paid in Cuban Pesos… a currency that is 1/25th what the Cuban Convertible Currency (CUC) or Kook is worth. Tourists and foreigners exchange their currencies for CUCs. If you keep that in mind, some of what goes on in Cuba, particularly Havana with respect to new businesses and potential risks to Cuba’s society starts to make sense.
Our introduction to Havana came after flying into José Martí International airport and transiting into downtown Havana, the first thing that I noticed was the acrid smell of uncatalyzed diesel engine exhaust which permeates the streets in Central Havana. Diesel exhaust was *everywhere* and since almost all of the older automobiles in Cuba have had their gasoline engines replaced with diesel engines, there was no escaping. That said, the scenes on the street are incredible and well worth having to breathe in a haze of diesel exhaust while walking. Its a combination of post-apocalyptic 1950’s America and Latin America. 1950s American cars everywhere mixed in with 80’s and 90’s Russian automobiles on crumbling streets surrounded by buildings in various states of decay.
Though the Cuban government is doing quite a bit of renovation in Old Havana as they realize that after the pullout of Russia and the potential complication of Cuba’s relationship with a post-Chavez Venezuela. This renovation is centered on historic old Havana including the hotels and storefronts there giving some hint of the commerce that is starting to gain a foothold in Cuba. The traditional Capitol building is being renovated and turned into a museum. Unfortunately, it was still under construction when we were there and we did not get a chance to visit. But standing in front of the Capitol building, I had this sense, again… that we could have been standing on a street at any point in the last 50 years. The sense of timelessness that permeates everything is going to disappear at some point in the not too distant future as change is very much in the air.
Havana has this… well used sense to it. Everything is old and run down. Maintained with what resources the extraordinarily resourceful Cuban people have been able to muster, but eventually… Things fall apart. Fixing things requires resources and with a devalued currency co-existing along with a higher worth currency, people start to look to that higher value currency to support them, buy things, repair buildings and cars and more. In many ways, Cuba is frozen in time as the rest of the Western world moved forward. This is both part of Cuba’s charm and its relegated future barring careful management.
While we were there for person to person exchanges, ostensibly to benefit both Cuba and America, it did leave one wondering if our presence helped or harmed the Cuban people. So, one concern I had while we wandered through the streets of Havana was that some of this coverage we were doing might encourage a slum tourism of sorts which has very real possibilities with implications. For example, in addition to a boxing gym and ballet school, we visited one retirement home that was in a rather surprising state of repair. Paint peeled off the walls and braces holding up other walls were right in the middle of a group of men playing dominoes. Did our visiting help these folks and the people in the homes surrounding this retirement home? Certainly our presence helped the hotels we were staying in and in the restaurants we ate at, but how much of that trickles down to the average person on the street? One would hope that as Cuba moves forward, economic pyramids, as they are built, are relatively flat and not the steep pyramids that are being built in many other parts of the world.
The people of Cuba really are doing so much with so little and this awareness becomes obvious at times, particularly when walking into some stores only to find out there is nothing to buy. Speaking of which… Stores are another throwback to older times. One does not simply pull what one wants off of a shelf. You have to ask the store attendant to get the object of your desire from behind the counter. And it is not uncommon to have to walk from store to store looking for even the simplest items.
It became searingly and uncomfortably obvious that the camera gear Duncan and I were carrying, honestly would be inconceivable for the average Cuban to ever afford. One interaction with a young woman in particular stuck with me. This woman worked in the hotel carting around expensive cigars and liquor and we’d run into her several times during the week. She was born and raised in the countryside, but moved to Havana to try and make money to travel, hoping that the restrictions by the Cuban government on the average Cuban would soon be lifted. We were talking about travel and she asked where we had been in the world, which… between Duncan and myself covers a substantial portion of the globe. This struck the young woman as inconceivable and she said that it was simply not possible to have travelled that much.
We also visited another woman who lived in one of the finer homes in Havana. She told me that her home was the “Falling Down Castle”. Even though this home was in one of the nicer areas of Havana, it was crumbling as she could not even find the materials to repair the home. Basic construction materials are very expensive and hard to come by because of years of embargo as well as the overall depressed economy. Many of the finer homes were built at a time when Cuba was a jewel in the Caribbean, with money and resources flowing in from visiting Americans. This all dramatically ceased after the Cuban Revolution and the homes that you were allowed to call your own was the home you occupied at the time of the Revolution. This has led to many generations living under the same roof and other arrangements that often high density living. That said, homes are clean. Far cleaner than one might expect for a country that does with so little.
One of our side trips was to Revolution Square and the memorial to Jose Marti, perhaps the most revered of Cuban historical figures right in the middle of the government offices. The memorial to Jose Marti is a very large tower in the middle of it all, at the highest point in Havana. Interestingly, were were charged 1 Kook per camera that we brought to the tower which, I am not sure was official or not, but welcome to Communism, however long that it might be around here. This was another example of cracks in the system showing. Everyone has a hustle going and people are starting to extract what money they can from the increasing numbers of tourists that are visiting Cuba. Many of the jobs we saw in Cuba were reflective of Communism where everyone has a job. For instance, going in the tower of the Jose Marti memorial, there was an elevator with… an elevator operator. The first elevator operator I’d seen since… China.
Full size image of the panorama above can be had here.
That said, the Cuban people are shockingly friendly… Perhaps not that shocking to someone like me from Texas, but crazy friendly to someone from say… the upper East Coast of the US. People have no fear here. Adults and children alike will walk up to you and talk, ask questions or just say hello. It was helpful though to be walking through old Havana with Mark Heaps. Mark’s tats (by Adrian Lee at Analog Tattoo) were our passport into a number of interactions with Cubans in the street who were blown away by his work and were comparing their own tattoos to his.
Havana, Cuba is a mix between the young and the old, those looking for change and those striving to keep things the way they were. That said, the young folks in particular seem to be eagerly looking to the future with a mix of excitation and trepidation. These changes will be substantial and will be just as dramatic as the Cuban Revolution, though with less red blood and more green cash. It seems that everyone is starting to develop an angle and people are beginning to take steps towards a more modern future. Furthermore, just about everyone we talked to in Havana is looking forward to and expecting change. Some of this change they have already experienced with the permission to buy and sell their homes and cars arriving in 2011. Other changes have been the subtle and slow encouragement of Cubans to open restaurants, even out of their own homes.
On one abandoned lot we walked past, a bunch of little kids pulled us into a game of pickup basketball which is new to Cuba apparently. Kids are kids the world around and like just about any place on the planet, will engage in an opportunity to play with anyone willing to engage them.
Mark was the first one to put his camera down and jump right in. Even though his Spanish is essentially non-existent, Mark was teaching them how to fade away and by the time we left, the kids were all running around doing fadeaways and layups while mouthing those same English descriptives. It was tremendously good fun.
This one is for Mark. Next time we get together, a game of HORSE is gonna have to be part of the mix.
Cats and dogs were not as prevalent as I might have thought, though at least one tiny little kitten really made me want nothing more than to scoop her up and bring her home. The Cubans seem to have a fair number of feral dogs and a few cats around, but they live hard lives for the most part as pets do not have the same luxuries in Cuba as they have in the United States. In some parts of Old Havana, there seem to be colonies of feral cats. The cat above walked up to us at dinner and simply looked at me expecting me to hand her a scrap from the table… She ate well that night which was probably bad of me, but how could you say no to those eyes?
Interestingly, there is a Museum of the Revolution in Havana that claimed to have the engine of a U2 that was shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis, killing Maj. Rudolf Anderson, Jr. which initially I was quite skeptical of. But upon inspecting it, the engine totally turned out to be a Pratt & Whitney J57, a pretty common engine, but notably, there were no markings of any kind attributing the engine to a manufacturer or any stampings other than inspection markings. Most J57’s did not go through this process which was a pretty common practice for aircraft and objects used in clandestine activities for a time and really does lend credence or validation to this provenance of this engine. Other exhibits at the museum were claimed to be destroyed American hardware from botched CIA ops and then some stuff that was just totally contrived. Duncan and I were discretely observing how some of the metal had been deliberately cut out from *both* sides of the wing to make it *look* like battle damage. Armed conflict was a reality with lots of bullets and anti-aircraft operations, but exhibiting contrived displays kind of detracts from the museum.
Across the street from the military hardware is the former Presidential Palace of Cuban Presidents that currently houses the formal story of the Revolution. The building itself is gorgeous and has elements designed by Tiffany & Co. that the museum was in was pre-Revolutionary and very beautiful. The building, housing historical artifacts of the Revolution is, after years of neglect apparently getting some attention.
We did get to see some historical sites in Havana by tour bus like the Hotel Nacional De Cuba, but the best way to get a feel for a place is by foot, especially on a national holiday. When getting out on our feet, we were able to find people in the streets celebrating, singing, watching little kids play box, play soccer and play baseball in the streets with sticks and plastic bottle caps.
Speaking photographically, Havana is an absolute treat in the way the light plays off of everything there. It could be that on this trip, I was primarily looking at light in an atypical way… But I don’t think so. The light in Havana combined with the decay makes for amazing scenes where the everyday images become bathed in otherwordly light. Light in the mornings and in the evenings plays off of water, sky, cars, skin and clothes and is just absolutely beautiful. Just walking through town or picking a spot and waiting for something to happen seems to reward you with something beautiful.
One of the classic places to photograph in Havana is down on the Malecón, or street with seawall that stretches along the harbor in Havana for 4 or 5 miles. Lots of gentrification is occurring along the Malecón, but its also where Cubans choose to hang out and swim. This is one of the classic places to photograph, and great as there are lots of willing participants jumping into the ocean as models.
The light along the Malecón is some of the most spectacular in all of Havana. The 7 photographs immediately above were all made within an hour or so as David, Duncan and I walked down the Malecón. As I mentioned, the Malecón is one of the areas that the Cuban government is heavily investing in to target tourist dollars. This history of the Malecón is interesting. It was originally built by the US government to protect central Havana from storms and tidal surges, but the reality of it is that it served as an economic center in the early 1900’s. Economics are going to help drive Cuba’s economy forward if the Cuban government embraces them. Its a powerful motivator, but also one with dangers for Havana and Cuba as a whole.
Havana after dark is another side completely that not only promised spectacular photography and color, but it also reflects on some of the risks to Cuba’s economy. Specifically, if Cuba is not careful, their economy might devolve into a vice economy. Granted, there is a long history of Cuba being a playground in the 1920’s and 30’s for those looking to spend money in nightclubs and on Cuban rum and cigars. I am sure prostitution also has a long history, but all of these things really manifested themselves after dark. Duncan and I, looking to get lost in old Havana after dark, made a beeline for the worst part of town for the best in nocturnal photography and in short order ran into a couple of young prostitutes who were most adamant about providing services. We politely declined, but did talk with them for a while. It turns out that in any economy where the most advanced degrees like physicians and engineers are paying the equivalent of $25 US/month, you are going to have certain societal pressures. These women could turn $25 or more for a night with tourists bringing CUCs worth far more than the Cuban Pesos they earn from the Cuban government. I don’t know what official rates of STDs are in Cuba, but a recent study indicates that rates of STDs including AIDS has risen dramatically due to tourism and lack of prevention.
This is where the danger exists for the Cuban people… The opportunity for exploitation is certainly there from people and organizations (particularly organized crime) with large resources. As Cuba opens up its economy, there will be real risks associated with these changes. This of course was the answer to whether our presence benefits or harms the Cuban people. Cubans are an amazingly resourceful people and motivated for change. I just hope that the next time I visit Cuba and Havana in particular, the Cuban people are on the path to prosperity and progress without many of the social ills that befall other emerging economies. Foreign investment can bring spectacular success to Cuba.
There are opportunities for eco-tourism, export of certain products and services and if Cuba plays it smart, could be an emerging market for organic and boutique crops including coffee, tea, chocolate, flowers, vegetables, bananas and pineapple in addition to the sugarcane that has long been a staple. If Cuba manages this transition properly and avoids a potential fall into a vice based economy, profiting on exploitation of people, it could be an emergent economy in the Caribbean. I’ll look forward to watching what happens and hope to return in the very near future.