Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Paladar: La Moneda Cubana

Lessons for Cuban business
January 30, 2012 8:19 am by John Paul Rathbone

President Raúl Castro wants the recent liberalisation of small businesses to bolster Cuba’s sagging economy and absorb the 1m state workers he says will eventually be laid off.

But Cuba’s budding micro-entrepreneurs – over 350,000 had registered as of November 2011 – lack almost everything that start-ups need, from premises and relevant skills to capital. Will they ever really get off the ground?

A bustling restaurant in Havana’s colonial centre – which opened in January 2011, is appropriately called “La Moneda Cubana”, the Cuban coin, and is run by Miguel Ángel, a 37-year old entrepreneur - suggests some answers.

First, the premises. The three-storey restaurant, which once belonged to Ángel’s grandfather, was nationalised in the 1960s. But the family has lived continuously at the premises since then – indeed, ever since 1924. As a result, Ángel was able to set up operations immediately.

And what a location it enjoys: La Moneda Cubana lies just a few steps from the cathedral, has a sweeping view of the Havana bay from its roof terrace, and enjoys a regular stream of tourists. Few are so fortunate. Indeed, the process of leasing state properties remains incipient.

Second, necessary skills. Ángel worked for several years in the state tourist sector, first at the Floridita, where Ernest Hemmingway once drank daiquiris; then in the kitchens of the nearby Hotel Sevilla. “I learnt there everything I needed to run my kitchen,” Ángel told beyondbrics.

However, similar backward linkages are rarer elsewhere. “A good restaurant also needs a manager and an accountant,” he adds. Such skills are hard to come by in Cuba’s Soviet-style economy – hence the business skills training program the Catholic church set up last year.

Third, funds. The usual supposition is that Cubans turn to their émigré relatives for start-up capital. This is entirely legal under Castro’s new rules – indeed, it is tacitly encouraged.

Be that as it may, the cagey habits of under-the-table informality that Cubans developed over decades socialism remain deeply engrained.

Ángel, for example, insists he restored the three-story building “all with my own resources”.

Be that as it may, Ángel says his operation is now self-financing. La Moneda Cubana’s intense footfall suggests this may indeed be so. That is just as well, as the notion of Cuba’s creaking banking system offering credit is entirely novel – although there is government talk it will do so.

Fourth, inputs. Cubans can now buy construction materials directly from the state. As for food, Ángel still buys from the state rather than private farmers. “They can’t ensure a steady and reliable supply,” he says.

That is changing fast, however. According to state media, 71 contracts have been executed between private farmers and state-run hotels – a huge change that will strip out the inefficient state-distribution system.

Cuba’s small business sector is still fragile and Ángel’s success will not be replicated everywhere. Business generally remains very small scale. Most entrepreneurs sell out of their homes, or from makeshift street stalls. Havana is far from becoming a neon-wrapped landscape.

But the popularity of the reforms and Castro’s mantra that they will be implemented “slowly, but without pause” also means they are irreversible. Ahead of the Communist Party’s conference over the weekend, even state newspaper Granma talked of the need “to leave behind prejudices against the non-state sector” and to overcome the “psychological barrier” of “obsolete dogmas”.

One of these is work habits. Ángel, for one, has already turned on its head the old socialist rubric of “everyone pretends to work and the state pretends to pay.” Compared to state wages worth around $20 a month but paid in Cuban pesos, his staff get a percentage of profits in hard currency. “They like that, very much,” he says.

As for his own workday: “I get here early in the morning and usually leave around 3am.” Does he mind? “One has to do what one has to or wants to do – and I do. This is as much an emotional adventure as a financial one,” he says, with a smile.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Arts and Culture Program Sponsored by Baruch

Baruch launches Cuban Arts and Cultures Program

News Editor
Published: Monday, February 27, 2012
Updated: Monday, February 27, 2012 13:02
Graphic by Jaina Teeluck I The Ticker
Baruch, along with CUNY, recently implemented a study abroad program to Cuba.
The City University of New York (CUNY) along with Baruch College recently spearheaded an effort in order to allow students to participate in a study abroad program in Cuba.
Dr. Richard Mitten, the director of Baruch's study abroad program, Katrin Hansing, a professor of Black and Hispanic Studies at Baruch, who, as an anthropologist, has studied Cuba for more than 15 years, and Dean and Vice Provost for Global Strategies Jeffrey Peck made this program possible.
From this program, students were able to gain three credits and also knowledge about Cuba's lifestyle and culture.
"I think Americans in particular are fascinated by Cuba because it is the only country in the world they are legally not allowed to travel to," said Hansing in an article on Baruch College's website.
However, the U.S. government recently lifted these restrictions, and now students enrolled in a formal course will be able to travel to Cuba.
A senior at Baruch, Maisha Hall, who participated in the study abroad program said, "The program provided for us a unique and intense immersion into Cuban culture. Everyday we attended a topical lecture, which was then complemented by a cultural activity that included everything from visits to houses of worship to observing youth culture through nightlife."
In order to facilitate the best experience possible, they were given the opportunity to live with Cuban families in private homes.
Hall added that, since our account of Cuban history is virtually one-sided, the trip was a great way to actually experience the lifestyle in Cuba.
"We developed strong bonds with the Cuban students at the Ludwig Foundation – a vibrant group of educated and ambitious people who both humbled and humanized our experience," said Hall. "I think we all faced an altered sense of reality while there."
Hansing was very pleased with the outcome of the trip even though it was the first time that they were testing out this new program.
"Personally, I have to say that it was truly a joy to see the students explore and learn about this very different culture and reality and watch them develop and grow as human beings," said Hansing. "This was a pilot program and so much could have gone wrong…but no, it was a real success on all levels: academic, social, cultural and human."
Hall was very pleased with her experience and maintains that it taught her a lot.
"It gave us an opportunity to become acquainted with a country that has such a complex history with the United States and has put issues like race, poverty, immigration and politics at the forefront of our experiences," she said.
Hansing hopes that this program will continue on in the future so more students will be able to participate in it.
"This is why studying abroad is so important; it not only helps students broaden their horizons and sharpen their critical thinking skills but also opens their hearts to new peoples and places," she said.
Hall is grateful to have been a part of this program, which changed her perspective on Cuba.
"This program caused me to think critically about my role and duties as an American citizen and as a human being."
 Dr. Mitten did not respond in time for the publication of this article.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Irish and Celtic Heritage Program, April 14-21, 2013

The spirit of the visit is captured by a plaque on Old Havana's O'Reilly Street:

 "Two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope: Cuba and Ireland"

and by this from the Irish Times:

Irish visitors to Cuba often remark on the identification they feel with the warmth and sense of fun of ordinary Cubans. While caution is wise with such generalizations, it is a similarity that others have noticed too. There is something Celtic about the Cuban that commands the affection of those fortunate foreigners who really know them.

Revealing discussions will be held with Cuban experts on the four century role of the Irish in their country’s history and culture (see below).  Visits made to related historical locations in the UNESCO world heritage city of Old Havana offer opportunities to engage in discussion of pas and present.

The Irish and Celtic influence outside of Havana will be the focus of field trips to the provinces of Pinar del Rio and Artemisis to the west and Mayabeque and Matanzas to the east.

Coincident with the Irish Heritage program is Cuba’s fourth annual Celtic Festival.  It offers direct involvement with Cuba's well-established emigrant societies from Spain's Celtic provinces of Asturia and Galicia that play a role in Cuba similar to Irish county societies in the US.  With limited resources they foster a lively expression of traditional music, instruments, dance and costumes.

Participants are welcomed by evening concerts  into the Asturian and Galician  culture.  Workshops and sesiuns provide opportunities for spontaneous interaction with Cuban counterparts.

For the first time Irish American musicians, singers, dancers, academic specialists and fans can  participate informally in a rich people to people experience, enjoying the craic while learning in the most direct and personal way possible about life in Cuba today. 

For background, video from past festivals and the latest updated program, go to


CeltFest receives the support of Culture Ireland, the Historian’s Office in Havana, Na Piobairi Uilleann (Uilleann Pipers Club of Ireland), the Irish Arts Council, and the embassy of Ireland for Mexico and Cuba.  It features workshops in uilleann piping, fiddle, singing and dance, pipe and reed-making classes, informal seisiúns and concerts with performers from Ireland and Canada.  

Last year featured pipers Paddy Keenan, Gay McKeon and Donnacha Dwyer; from Canada the Tam O'Shanter Dancers of South Surrey/White Rock, Prince Edward Island fiddler Roy Johnstone and Cape Breton fiddlers Chrissy Crowley and Rosie MacKenzie. 

Among the Cuban performers have been Artistica Gallega Pipe Band, Asturian Pipe Band, Aires Galegos De La Habana, Asturian Folk Group "Resurrectio" of Pinar Del Rio, Band and Dancers of Monterroso y Antas de Ulla, Havana's Galician Dancers "Grupo de baile de la Sociedad Agrupación Artística Gallega de La Habana", and the symphonic prog rock band Anima Mundi with Galician bagpipes, the Celtic flute and the tin whistle.  

There will also be opportunities to meet Cubans active in other aspects of the country’s music and dance, including conversation with students and professors at the International School of the Arts, speaking with the performers of Opera de la Calle (Opera of the Street), and evening encounters with salsa and jazz musicians.

The Irish Heritage Program is a people to people trip sponsored by the Fund for Reconciliation and Development.  It is coordinated by John McAuliff, formerly President of the Philadelphia Ceili Group and Assistant Editor of the Irish Edition.  He has traveled frequently to Cuba since 1997. 

For further information about the program and cost, and to obtain a registration form, contact or call 914-231-6270.


An abbreviated and selective history of the Irish in Cuba

The first report of Irish in Cuba dates to 1609 and speculates they were employed as sailors. 

Manuel A.Tellechea, a Cuban American from New Jersey, summarized the important role of Irish who came to Cuba via Spain in a blog post on St. Patrick’s Day, 2005:  [ ]

“The largest Irish migration prior to the Great Potato Famine of 1848 was to Spain in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Irish, who were awarded Spanish citizenship on arriving in Spain as persecuted Catholics, joined the Spanish army's Hibernian regiments and became Spain's best soldiers and most famous generals. Many of these were posted in Cuba and married into the island's aristocracy, establishing our own great Irish-Cuban families (the O'Farrills, the O'Reillys, the Kindelans, the Madans, the Duanys, the O'Gabans, the Coppingers and the O'Naughtens).  Four Captains General of Cuba were of Irish origin (Nicolás Mahy; Sebastián Kindelán; Leopoldo O'Donnell and Luís Prendergast).”

Irish people served at high levels in government and in senior military positions.  The lighthouse at El Morro, the fort that guarded Havana Bay, had been known as "O'Donnell's Lighthouse", after the Spanish governor, a relative of Red Hugh O'Donnell.

The O'Farrill family came from Longford via Montserrat.  They rose to prominence as slave traders, importers and sugar plantation owners.  The family mansion has been restored as a beautiful boutique hotel.  O’Reilly Street was named after General Count Alejandro O’Reilly, a native of Baltrasna, County Meath.  He organized the black and mulatto militias and the defenses of Havana in 1763. 

The second wave of Irish came to Cuba via the US in the 19th century, as described in a comprehensive summary by Rafael Fernández Moya that was translated and published by the Society for Irish Latin American Studies.  Moya currently works with the internationally famed Historian’s Office of Old Havana and its tour company Habaguanex and teaches a new generation of university students.              [ ]

He tells contrasting stories of the Irish experience in the first half of the century:

Juan O’Bourke, who was born in Trinidad around 1826 and twenty-five years later took part in the armed uprising of July 1826 organised by Isidoro Armenteros, collaborator of the expansionist general Narciso López, lived in this city [Cienfuegos] from 1839. The young revolutionary Juan O’Bourke was arrested and later condemned to ten years in prison in Ceuta from whence he escaped and headed to the United States….

In June 1855 a boy named Juan Byrnes, whose father was Gregorio and his godmother Margarita Byrnes, was baptised in Havana. This surname became part of the heart of the intellectual community of Matanzas. Firstly, this happened through the educational work of Juana Byrnes de Clayton, the first headmistress of the school for poor girls. This school would later become the Casa de Beneficencia, founded in 1846

He writes that the Irish who came to build Cuba’s first railroad in the 1830s did not have an easy experience:

“The Junta de Fomento brought the technicians, foremen, superintendents and a group of workers made up of 273 men and 8 women from the United States under contract, among whom were English, Irish, Scottish, North American, Dutch and German labourers. However, they were all identified as Irish, perhaps due to the greater numbers of those of that nationality.

While the work was being carried out, the so-called Irish workers and Canary Islanders were subjected to hard labour beyond their physical endurance, receiving insufficient food in return. Nor were they assured the pay and treatment previously agreed upon. After some weeks putting up with mistreatment and hunger the “Irish” workers and Canary Islanders decided to demand their rights from the administration of the railway works and when these were not adequately met, they launched the first workers’ strike recorded in the history of the island. The repression was bloody; the Spanish governors ordered the troops to act against the disgruntled workers, resulting in injury and death.”

Other Irish coming via the US to Cuba found a smoother path.

“It has been said that the introduction of the steam engine and other improvements in the sugar industry, Cuba’s main economic activity in that period, was mainly the work of North American growers who had settled on the island, particularly in the areas surrounding Matanzas and Cárdenas, north coast districts which, according to the opinion of the Irish writer Richard R. Madden, had more characteristics in common with North American towns than those of Spain.

One of the growers who had come from the United States named Juan D. Duggan was, according to the Cuban chemist and agronomist Alvaro Reynoso, one of the first farmers in the country to plant sugar cane over great distances…. The introduction of the steam engine on the sugar plantations resulted in the necessity to hire operators or machinists in the main from the United States and England. After the administrator, the most important job in a sugar plantation was without a doubt that of machinist, who had to work like an engineer because, besides being responsible for all repairs, sometimes they had to come up with real innovations in the machinery.”

The democratic instincts of the American Irish confronted the colonial attitudes of the Spanish Irish in the Cuban aristocracy:

“Some of these foreign technicians living in the Matanzas region became involved in a legal trial, accused of complicity with the enslaved African people’s plans for a revolt, which were abandoned in 1844. Six of them were originally from England, Ireland and Scotland: Enrique Elkins, Daniel Downing, Fernando Klever, Robert Hiton, Samuel Hurrit and Thomas Betlin.

The number of people arrested later grew and all were treated violently during interrogation. In November 1844 the English consul Mr. Joseph Crawford informed the Governor and Captain General of the island, Leopoldo O’Donnell, that the British subjects Joseph Leaning and Pat O’Rourke had died after being released. The doctors who treated them indicated that the physical and moral suffering they had endured in the prison was the cause of death. One of the streets in Cienfuegos was given the name of the infamous Governor of the Island, Leopoldo O’Donnell, who embarked on a bloody campaign of repression against the Afro-Cuban population and against the white people who supported their cause.”

Moya recounts the Irish role in Cuba’s ten year unsuccessful War of Independence against Spain (1868-1878):

“From the beginning, the Cuban Liberation Army had the support of patriots who had emigrated to or organized outside of Cuba, mainly in the United States where they raised funds, bought arms and munitions and recruited volunteers who enlisted to fight for the liberation of Cuba from the Spanish yoke. Among the foreign volunteers was the Canadian William O’Ryan.…Upon the US American general Thomas Jordan’s arrival, who was named Chief of the High Command and later Head of the Liberation Army in the Camagüey region, W. O’Ryan was named inspector and chief of cavalry, before attaining the rank of general. He was sent on a mission to the United States, from where he set out to return to Cuba at the end of October 1873. He sailed aboard the American steamship Virginius…. The Virginius was captured by the Spanish warship Tornado off Cuban waters and was towed into the bay of Santiago de Cuba on 1 December. Five days later, by order of the Spanish authorities, all the leaders of the revolutionary expedition were executed, O’Ryan among them. On 7 December the ship’s captain, Joseph Fry, and 36 members of the crew, were executed, causing a diplomatic and political conflict between Spain and the United States. In honour of the independence fighter O’Ryan a street of the Sagarra subdivision in Santiago de Cuba was given his name.”

The Ireland-Cuba Piano Project “Una Corda” noted these links:

One of the more colorful characters who fought for Cuban independence in the late 19th century was Captain John Dynamite O’Brien, who successfully ran guns and ammunition from the US to the independent Cuban forces. Revolutionary journalist and poet Bonifacio Byrne and writer Richard Madden were very much involved in espousing the cause of Cuban independence.  One of the founders of the Cuban Communist Party was Julio Mella, whose mother was an Irishwoman, Cecilia McPartland

While documentation is not conclusive, the grandfather of Ireland’s independence leader and President is said to have been Cuban, active in the sugar trade in Matanzas Province.  Juan Manuel de Valera reportedly sent his son Vivion Juan, an aspiring sculptor and music teacher, to New York to avoid the Spanish draft.  He married Catherine Coll from Bruree, County Limerick.  Their son Eamon de Valera was born in 1882 and sent to Ireland to live with his mother’s family after his father’s death from illness in 1885.  

Cuba's iconic revolutionary Che Guevara was from Argentina but his grandmother Anna Lynch hailed from County Galway

Among contemporary Irish links in Cuba are monuments in public parks to the ten deceased hunger strikers and John Lennon of the Beatles.


Potential Irish connections suggested by Rafael Fernández Moya that will constitute the basis for our educational program

For the Irish Connection and People to People we have the following subjects for the talks:

1) Irish presence in Cuban culture;
2) Priests and nuns in Catholic institutions of several orders (Jesuits, Ursulines
      from New Orleans, Carmelites, Saint Augustin from Florida);
3) Dynamite John and the struggle for independence;
4) Irish struggle for independence in José Matrti's chronicles in New York;
5) San Patricio farm in Limonar owned by George and Mary Gowen from Boston.

There are several places of interest  to show such as:

*  Cuban telephone company  Museum. Vesey T. Butler was the manager of the
      first network of the city
*  Central Railroad Station. Robert Orr from Glasgow was manager of The
       Havana United Rail Road
*  Alameda de Paula.   A part of it is known as O'Donnel Hall.
*  Plaza Vieja Brewery, formerly the home of Pedro Pablo O'Reilly
*  Carlos Finlay's statue. Father's family from Scotland and mother's from Ireland
*  Cecilia McParland's home in Obispo street. Mother of Julio Antonio Mella
*  The Bank of Nova Scotia in O'Reilly St
*  Captain General's Palace, in Plaza de Armas. Four of them had Irish origin
       (Mahy, Kindelan, O'Donnell, Prendergast)
*  Picture of piano player Ignacio Cervantes Kawanagh in Mercaderes Street
*  Cathedral Church. Built by the Jesuits. One of them was Thomas Ignatius Butler
      from Ireland
*  Archbishop's building. former property of José Ricardo O'Farrill y Herrera
*  O'Farrill Hotel, former property of José Ricardo O'Farrill y O'Farrill
*  Cristina Railroad Station museum. Irish workers in the history of the first line
      from Havana to Bejucal-Guines
*  Sevilla-Biltmore Hotel. Initial managers were Bowman and Flynn
*  Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje. Church and school under the rule of  Saint
      Augustin of Florida missionaries
*  Casa Simón Bolívar. Former residence of James C. Burhnham, businessman 
      from Boston, whose three children owned the house till the end of the 19th 
      century. Their mother was Pamela Blakeley,  from Charleston, S.C.daughter of 
      Robert Blakeley,  from Savannah, Georgia and half sister of  the mulatto
      Charles Blakeley, also from Charleston
*  Calle Cárcel (Jail St.)  Remains of the prison built under Captain General
      Tacón, where Charles Blakeley was kept for several months.  He was
      involved in the freedom movement of the people in 1844, known as the
      Conspiración de la Escalera (Ladder Conspiracy).  He was the first non-white
      surgeon dentist with an official licence in Cuba. 
*  El Cotorro (The Parrot)  On the old road to Guines, now Central Road, at  
      kilometer number 20 at Loma de Tierra, Dr, Arturo O'Farrill, Chico
      O'Farrill's father, had a estate named "Finca Casañas" close to the lands of the
      Irish pioneer Richard O'Farrill O'Daly
*  Tapaste (x), (San José de las Lajas, Havana Province)  Town built on
      O'Farrill's lands. Its church was also built with the aid of this family.

Pinar del Río 
*  There is a museum Äntonio Guiters, born in Philadelphia and  son of Mary 
      Therese Holmes y Walsh, member of a revolutionary Irish family.

*  Casa de la Cultura "Bonifacio Byrne", a Cuban poet of Irish origin whose
      family is connected by marriage to another family of surname Daly
*  Streets named Tirry, O'Reilly, Byrne and Madan denoting the Irish presence
*  Casa de Beneficencia directed several years by Juana Byrne de Clayton
*  City jail built in 1840 at Fernando VII or Saint Francis Square
*  El Morrillo Castle where Amntonio Guiteras was executed
*  Limonar. South of Cárdenas. (x) Two coffee estates named San Patricio (St.
      Patrick) owned by Daniel O'Leary and George C. Gowen and his sister Mary
      Brooks Gowen, from Boston.  Another one named "Pamela", property of
      Robert Blakeley, from Savannah, Georgia.
*  San Antonio de Cabezas (x)  Among the founders of this town were the Valera
      family, headed by José María Valera, owner of a sugar estate named San 
      Antonio, known as San Antonio de Valera. He had several children, one of
      them named Juan Manuel, and a grandson named Juan Luís Valera Acosta. It is
      probably Irish President Eamon de Valera's family's home town

(x) Circled in the attached map

A Very Different Cuba

Michael Dweck

Welcome to Cuba, Asshole

Posted: 02/27/2012

In preparing for my first trip to photograph in Cuba, I prepared myself for a country for which my country had already prepared me.
The "unhappy island" Kennedy cursed. A place Bush, the younger, warned was devoid of pleasure, "a tropical gulag," a slum where it was "against the law for three Cubans to meet without permission," (something I imagined him researching when drafting the Patriot Act).
I scrambled before my flight to get my hands on the best anti-depressants, anti-perspirants, anti-freedom necessities (film, lenses, the name of a good lawyer). I told my family and friends where they could reach me -- not that they'd be able to. Reagan told of a Cuba that lacked basic material possessions, much less freedom. Horsecarts were apparently the norm, so phones and mail, it could be assumed, were out of the question.

I arrived to a March heat I can't describe without breaking a sweat. This was the mattress-thick humidity of which I'd been warned. It hung over coastline palms and Havana's worn charms with a stubborn omnipresence. Bush's voice rang its caveats in my ear: "this is the first invisible gunman guarding the prison that is Cuba" and I felt a palpable sense of dread in my stomach lined with the scarcest trace of hope.
That was 6 p.m.
By 11 p.m. the next night, I was soaked in sweat and picking my jaw up from the ground like a cartoon duck recovering from an anvil-whacking. Just twenty-seven hours into my stay in poor, sad, hellhole Havana, I walked into a seaside party that could refute six decades of American rhetoric; a tropical shindig that could wow Caesar, Cleopatra, Bond, Warhol, the Rat Pack, the cast of Jersey Shore... you get the point.
Waves crashed over the seawall on a 1950s-style oceanfront as 200 beautiful Cubans danced poolside in a 90-degree mist to the music of Kelvis Ochoa and his band. This wasn't an assembly of fat, disgruntled women rolling cigars and cursing Gringos while their grandchildren begged in rags. This was paradise -- for a tourist, for an American photographer, for anyone. And the best part? It happened every night.
My own voice rang in my ear:
"Welcome to Cuba, asshole."
What I was lucky enough to have stumbled into (with the help of a friend I made at my hotel) was a farandula -- a clique of well-connected, influential Cubans. In this case, they were artists (painters, photographers, actors, film directors, dancers, musicians, models, etc.) and they represented a side of Cuba that our well-informed presidents either missed, dismissed or intentionally ignored. These folks were glamorous, obstensibly well-off and, above all else, free. Watching them dance and mingle around the pool, I stopped worrying about my impressions and started worrying about theirs; their dark-eyed glances both sexy and suspicious. Did they see a wild-haired photographer cut from their cloth or some dumbass capitalist American with a pricey camera around his neck? Thankfully, after a few introductions, a few drinks and some enjoyable mingling, the group seemed to accept me as another artist in the fold. And like that, I became their pale tagalong; an honorary part of a farandula.
On a typical night on that trip (and on my seven return trips) I'd catch up on the group's whereabouts via text message (yes, they have phones, mostly smartphones, though reception is spotty and Words With Friends has yet to catch on) and we'd meet at an artist's or musician's studio somewhere in Havana. Things would start out like they must have in the Parisian salon of the 1930s and then, as we drank more, chatted and migrated about the city, they'd evolve into scenes from Studio 54 of the 1970s.
The artists (people like Rene Francisco, Rachel Valdez, Roberto Fabelo, et al.) danced, painted, drank, screened films on giant stucco walls in their courtyards, collaborated with one another, wrote and chatted while I photographed (and eventually joined them in the dancing, painting, drinking, etc.).

Now -- if it's not yet clear -- my intention was never to use my photographs to prove a social or political point -- no more than it was to use them as an excuse to drink 18-year-old scotch with glowing actresses and smoke Cuban cigars with famed directors like Jorge "Pichi" Perugorria (though I didn't shy away when the latter offers presented themselves). My goal, as I've said before, was to peek into everyday life on the island and pose the question to subject and audience (Cuban and American, respectively) whether the things we've been told about one another are true.
And the answer, it seems, was "yes" and "no."
Yes, Cuba is as poor as America is rich -- maybe poorer -- though neither country is without the notable exceptions they keep under wraps. Cuba's poverty is economic, not social. So, no, Cuba isn't unhappy, isn't a tropical prison, isn't a torrid police state. Cubans carry the burden of their government's restrictions -- and our government's embargo -- but they do so with a sincere hope and visceral joy that even America's well-off seem to lack.
In a way that won't make sense to many Americans, the well-off Cuban artists I met and photographed seemed the embodiment of the hopes of their poorest neighbors. (I know what you're thinking, that'd be like calling the Kardashians "signs on the road to America's recovery.") But this is different.

The existence of this farandula, for me, doesn't paw at the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, but rather provides a vision of what the island can be. Its members serve, in ways, as ambassadors for a country that needs ambassadors more than anything. They travel freely, spend lavishly and live lives of relative luxuriously. (The operative word being "relative." By U.S. standards, the artists -- which include the sons of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara -- would still be considered middle-class). And as for the rest of Havana -- well, take a stroll on the Malceon after dark on any weekend and tell me if the denizens seem to be quaking in cloistered groups; if the teens are faking their smiles and the lovers' their passion. Then go ahead and scan my photos of the all-but-unannounced Peace Without Borders concert in Revolution Square featuring Juanes and Miguel Bose.
Less than three people? Try more than a million.
All porcelain hope and horsecart mobility? Don't fucking bet on it.
I think it's important to note again that Habana Libre wasn't assembled as propaganda or counter-propaganda or anything in between. It doesn't represent it's photographer's point, so much as his point-of-view; my vision of Cuba and no one else's. It represents an island -- or my idea of one -- ripe with seduction, mystery, sensuality and, yes, a little danger. The Cuba depicted in my book isn't an overtly political place, but a thoroughly human one both accepting and defiant as it teeters on the cusp of change. At least that's what I thought when I took the photographs. When I flip through the pages of the book now, or prepare photographs to hang at the Fototeca de Cuba Museum in Havana, there are moments when I'm surprised to find definite points -- political or otherwise -- rising up from my overarching narrative. The images are mine, the impressions mine, but the meaning belongs to the subjects and their country and no one else. And with this dichotomy in mind, its only fitting that these definitions and serendipitous points rise from a place that most Americans -- most Cubans, for that matter -- will never get a chance to see: a talented heart beneath the ribs of a misrepresented society.

A diamond in the rough making the best of its burial.
A pearl polished by political sands.
And, I'm coming to see, that at a certain point the analogies do more harm than good.
Cuba is just Cuba.
And leaving, for me, felt a lot like arriving -- that is, it had me doubting my destination once again.

Despite what our leaders would like us to think, there are parts of Cuba and clusters of its people that bursts with joy, with creativity, with hope -- it all just happens to be filtered through a lens through which some Americans (and some of their leaders) would prefer not to peer.

Are we being lied to? Not exactly...
We're just not being told the truth.


An alternative viewpoint:

Privileges to those who deserve them

Letter to the editor, Granma, March 2, 2012

Translation: Marce Cameron

I’m one of the many youths who is concerned about the future of their country. I feel proud of its gains and advances in various sectors
, thanks to the socialism we’ve defended for 50 years. I consider it to be the most just country and socialism to be the most viable option for saving humanity.

But I’m also the first to acknowledge the mistakes we’ve make in its construction and improvement. With constructive criticism I open the door to the empty minds of those who care only about the good life and who salivate at the American Dream.

I once read a commentary by Commander in Chief Fidel Castro that contained a phrase which made an impression on me. From that time on I’ve carried it with me wherever I may go as a devastating weapon, firing it at point blank range at whoever dares to make a superficial criticism: “Anyone who wants more than what is indispensable in order to live is worth less as a human being.” Most people are speechless at such a magisterial phrase; life shows that this is how it is.

Recently I graduated from law school, and ever since I was a student I’ve read and analysed the letters pages of this newspaper, created so that the people could raise their problems and propose solutions. I’d like to take up an issue, one of many that concerns me and makes me feel uncomfortable: the wholesome recreation of young people, whether students or not, for an affordable and fair price.

For some years there was a scheme organised by the Union of Young Communists in which entry was granted to discos, cabaret tables, swimming pools and camping cabins at a price that, while it was out of reach of most parents, did make them more willing to fork out for it. They could give a treat to their son or daughter, but they’d have to earn it by getting good grades; this is something any honourable family educated by the Revolution should do without hesitation. However, it’s true that it didn’t work well, and neither should granting subsidies be a function of the organisation.

Today, these kinds of activities are organised in some educational institutions, but it’s still insufficient, given that it doesn’t meet the needs of all youth who need this type of entertainment. In addition, while the entry price may be affordable, the prices of drinks and food are unchanged. If you go to a disco, the entry price ranges from 2, 3, 5, 10 and up to 20 Cuban convertible pesos. What son or daughter of a worker or farmer with an average income, what intellectual or official in the armed forces or the police, could pay such a sum of money? The same is true of the products sold in these places.

I’m aware that the world finds itself in a deep economic-financial crisis and that our country is not unaffected by this, so we have to eliminate excessive wastage, superfluous spending and gratuities, among other problems that were addressed in the Sixth Communist Party Congress, but this doesn’t justify these unaffordable prices. Why the difference in prices between the products sold in the chain of convertible currency stores and those in the recreational venues previously referred to? Why double or triple the prices in convertible pesos if wages are static and most of the people who frequent them are young students? Are they higher quality products? We all know this isn’t the case, they say it’s because of the venue and what it offers. It seems to me this justification is for the rich in capitalist societies, and not for a young person of modest means born in a socialist Revolution who burns the midnight oil studying in order to be able to contribute to their country in the future, or he or she who makes sacrifices by working in any state sector that contributes to economic development and they just want to go out with their friends or their girlfriend or boyfriend.

I think that if one of these venues attracted 50, 100 or more people at an entry price of 2 convertible pesos and with reasonable prices for additional purchases, it would be able to cover its costs and contribute to tax revenues.

Despite the high prices y
ou see many youth frequenting the best places and consuming large quantities of the aforementioned products as if they were sold in regular Cuban pesos. There’s no doubt that the great majority of them neither study nor work, they live off the black market which does so much harm to those who really strive to take the country forward. Those who sell their bodies or do all kinds of denigrating acts also abound, as do the kids of the new rich, and I ask myself: is it for them that these recreational venues exist? If so, it’s not in keeping with the truly revolutionary youth in which our top leaders have placed their trust. 

It’s hardly gratifying to arrive at work or school exhausted and see how in the corner of any square you meet a childhood playmate who spends the day lazing about, drinking beer, driving around and of course, entering and leaving nightclubs in the fanciest clothes and believing themselves to be the master of the universe. If you ask them what’s happening in Cuba or in the world, they tell you they couldn’t care less what’s going on, that they just want to leave the country, and other things I’m not going to repeat given their obscene and offensive content.

These and other related issues have been the subject of debate on various occasions by university students, revolutionaries, humble people, those willing to give their lives for the country and in honour of those youths that died throughout our history for the cause that the new generations enjoy today. Despite this, we lack things needed by young people that up to know only exist in dreams given the economic situation. If we oriented the social pyramid the way it should be we’d rescue ethical values and incentivise the importance of study and work, but for this we have to begin privileging those who really deserve it.

J. Martos Yapur