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.
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 you 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.