I fell in love with Cuban photography the moment an elderly street photographer in Havana handed me the still-wet, paper portrait he shot and developed inside a wooden box camera painted bright blue with duct-taped bellows. There was something hopeful about the process – a primitive machine that can only produce a negative and an artist who manages to make a positive from a negative of a negative. That an image so fragile and beautiful could emerge from an outdated chunk of history seems prophetic. That I willingly forked over twenty dollars-worth of Cuban currency for my first piece of Cuban photography even more so.
My print hadn’t even dried before the photographer packed up his box and moved further down the street, closer to a crowd of approaching German tourists fresh off a cruise ship. Remember we Americans are the only ones forced to put ourselves through contortions of travel gymnastics to visit Cuba. According to the New York Times, only 90,000 Americans visited Cuba in all of 2012 and 2013 combined (compared to the 21 MILLION of us who visited Mexico last year alone or the 12 million Americans who traveled to Canada) The rest of the world has a huge head start on exposure to, and appreciation of, Cuban photography.
Which is why the photographer I had planned to visit in Havana was on his way to Germany, via Brazil, when we stopped by the Havana International Photography Gallery. Here’s the video that got my attention –
Brayan conveys the street-savvy sense of a new generation of Cuban photographers, influenced by the iconic images of their revolutionary forerunners but eager to move beyond documentation. But the Internet being what it is in Cuba means his gallery doesn’t have a working website. He has no Facebook page to follow. He has to rely on foreign galleries to get his images in front of American eyes.
A relative of Brayan’s was on duty when we arrived. The rest of the family lived in the upper levels of the gorgeous but dilapidated building. Some images are framed and hang, slightly tilted, along the cool, crumbling plaster walls.
But most are loose eight-by-tens, clumped together in bins or suspended by plastic clothes pins. The humidity inside the non air-conditioned gallery is palpable; the prints tacky to the touch. I shudder to think of the condition of the negatives, wherever they’re stored.
We buy a print for a ridiculously low price. This isn’t about sophisticated tonal qualities or limited editions likely to increase in price.
It’s about sending a signal to young Cuban photographers that yes, Americans will support their work. When we’re free to travel without the encumbrances of “people-to-people” tours or special purpose visits with over-managed itineraries we will wander through the galleries and talk to the artists. We will learn. We will listen to the stories their photographs share. We will be inspired. We will buy. And we will spread the word.
Starting here. Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing about Cuban photography, beginning with a piece on collecting vintage revolutionary photography before it becomes unaffordable. Stay tuned.
Here’s a carrot we should offer to the Castro regime during negotiations to reestablish diplomatic relations: as a gesture of goodwill we’ll tear down the eyesore we used to call the U.S. Embassy.
Technically the 6-story, blocky building on the Malecon, — built by Harrison Abramovitz in 1953 and renovated in 1997 — isn’t an embassy. It’s a “U.S. Interests Section” administered by the Swiss government in a deal brokered by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.
There might be fans of 1950s modernist American corporate office architecture somewhere in the world, but not in Cuba.
The original building was constructed in 1953 – the same year Fidel Castro launched the attack that precipitated the Cuban Revolution. Talk about a visual metaphor: the all-powerful U.S. erecting a bureaucratic, bombastic looking building while peasants risk life and limb to change the status quo.
Ever since then it’s been a symbol of division, literally a photo backdrop for dashed hopes and desperate times. It became a flashpoint for conflict when Cuba later built the adjacent “Anti-Imperialist Plaza,” to host nationalist rallies where Castro railed against Washington. For decades Cuban police have made pedestrians cross the street to use another sidewalk and prohibited parking.
The U.S. one-upped the ugly by constructing an electronic propaganda billboard in front of the building in 2006, so Castro obscured the sign with a forest of poles flying black flags of protest. It’s time to say “basta!” with the machismo posturing and really connect with Cubans.
Instead of re-occupying a symbol of everything that has ever gone wrong between our two countries, I recommend decentralizing the functions of the embassy. There are hundreds of dilapidated, unsafe but architecturally stunning buildings in Havana. Why not work with the Cuban government to renovate culturally significant landmarks and turn them into offices for Consular Services, a Political and Economic Section, a Public Diplomacy Program, and Refugee Processing.
We would be sending a signal that times really have changed, that the old can become modern and that Americans truly appreciate more about Cuba than old cars and cigars. We could find a brilliant Cuban landscape architect and construct a friendship garden on the empty grounds and actually conduct our business throughout the city where customers feel comfortable. We’d be neighbors instead of imperialists, taking one more tool out of Castro’s propaganda kit. With one big wrecking ball we could celebrate a new chapter in a shared history.
Visit Cuba today and you’ll find boys riding on homemade sleds, girls braiding each other’s hair in the plazas, teams playing handball in the cobblestone streets and teenagers thumbing through stall after stall of used books in the Plaza de Armas.
Imagine, instead, a Cuba filled with kids like ours — staring vacantly into devices, faces lit up in garish blue, thumbs flying, vicariously connecting with actual friends snap chatting back from the other side of a dance floor.
It reminds me of a line from one of my favorite Cuban movies, “Juan de los Muertos,” when Juan faces an oncoming horde storming the Malecón.“Those aren’t Americans. They’re zombies!” Which is probably why one headline in the mainstream media’s coverage of this week’s détente negotiations in Havana gave me pause.
“U.S. Goal in Cuba: Open Up Internet.” – Wall Street Journal 1/21/2015
Despite my nostalgia for face-to-face interaction, I understand the power and place of the Internet in the modern world. From the U.S. government standpoint, access will hasten the demise of the secretive Castro regime and young people connected to each other and the larger world via social media might well lead the charge.
But it isn’t that simple. Access isn’t the same thing as affordability. Take the case of the young man I blogged about a few weeks ago. We met Alex in 2012, back when it seemed like U.S. policy involving Cuba would never change. Alex has a degree in English but the only job he can find involves convincing tourists that his uncle owns the Buena Vista Social Club and he can get them a good ticket. He wants to be a tour guide, thinks Raul Castro is awesome for allowing cell phones in Cuba and asks me how to build a website. But it all seems futile. Alex can’t begin to afford the $6 an hour it would take in an Internet café to build the website he hopes will provide a better future for his wife and baby girl.
I couldn’t help thinking of Alex when I spotted that Wall Street Journal Headline. He needs Internet access but who will pay for his screen time, let alone a laptop or smart phone of his own? Even if access is truly free, will it guarantee a decent job for him? Cuba’s free education system hasn’t, not for Alex or any of the dozens of Cubans just like him that we met. Hotel clerks who speak five languages. Janitors with engineering diplomas. Street corner hustlers who can quote Shakespeare. Everyone has access to education in Cuba but not to opportunity.Yet somehow, even in the face of generations of isolation-driven poverty, education still has pull here. I credit Cuban parents for instilling discipline and hope in their kids when the economy can’t even support those with advanced degrees.
Meeting Alex made me wonder, even before President Obama’s executive actions, how much longer Cuban kids will buy into the dream that education will set them free. If we handle the rapprochement with capitalist greed instead of genuine goodwill, the Internet will be just another dangled disappointment.
This is a true story of travel, sanctions and two optimistic Millennials: Amuh is from Mandalay, Myanmar and Alex from Havana, Cuba. One has come of age after Americans began traveling to his country, the other has never known a world without sanctions.
Amuh drives a taxi owned by his mother and chatters freely about politics. Right now he’s pissed that elections in Myanmar have been delayed until late 2015 but thinks Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s party will win a majority and change the constitutional amendments that prevent her taking her rightful role as president. He worked legally in Malaysia and realizes that his philosophy diploma from a Burmese degree mill university system is useless. He plans on starting a business before starting a family.
Alex is also a college graduate. His degree is in English and he spends all day trying to convince tourists that his uncle owns the Buena Vista Social Club and he can get them a good ticket. He feels sorry for Americans because we don’t get free healthcare and education, thinks Raul Castro is awesome for allowing cell phones in Cuba but can’t afford the $6 an hour it would take in an internet café to build the tour guide website he hopes will provide a better future for his wife and baby girl.
Amush and Alex’s stories explain why travel is so important to a free society and why even the most principled tourists have doubts about the effectiveness of sanctions.
As someone who grew up in South Africa during the era of Apartheid, I have complicated feelings and experiences with international sanctions. I applaud the humanitarian ideals behind them. But I’ve seen, first-hand, the economic misery they create when immoral, corrupt governments use sanctions to dig their own hole deeper.
I’ve also seen how inflated Americans perceive our importance to be. And how hypocritical we can be. Myself included. We Americans somehow think that visiting Cuba under the special exemptions of guided photo clubs or university tour groups is okay, but that skirting the rules and arriving on our own via Mexico or Canada is somehow immoral. We’re okay with pilfering baseball players from their $100-a-month island teams but buying Cuban cigars is evil. On a good day we can see across the Florida straights but people are forced to risk their lives to reunite with their families. The original intent of the sanctions might have made sense 54 years ago but the way we dance around modern-day Cuba is nothing short of ethical contortionism.
I’d like to think that the heavy, well-intentioned hand of American sanctions will help, like they eventually did in South Africa. But Alex is still hanging out in Plaza Vieja, gratefully counting his egg and sugar rations and waiting for Raul’s next handout. I don’t know whether to be comforted by his naïve optimism or heartbroken.
But what about Amuh’s more cautious hopes for a better future? Again, I’d like to give credit to sanctions. But for the last twenty years, European and Chinese tourists largely ignored them and visited in well-heeled droves. The surface changes evident in Myanmar today may have had as much to do with Internet access, Chinese and Indian economic investment and the diplomacy and well wishes of ordinary tourists.
I’ve dreamed of visiting Myanmar ever since working/traveling in three of its bordering countries: Thailand, Laos and China. I stood on the banks of the Mekong, my tattered, beloved copy of “The Piano Tuner” in hand, wondering if I could look myself in the mirror if I crossed that river to the land once known as Burma. The beloved daughter of its national hero was under house arrest, the military junta was killing monks and jailing journalists.
I couldn’t do it. I waited until the sanctions were lifted and “The Lady” was free. I waited until my old agency, Ogilvy PR Worldwide opened an office in Yangon. I waited for my conscience to be clear. And guess what? I still have mixed feelings. I’ll be writing about my travels in posts to come but I have no answers. I could buy an Aung Sang Suu Kyi T-shirt, made in China of course, and not have to look over my shoulder or worry that the shopkeeper would be arrested. But I was still not allowed to venture out West, where Rohingya Muslims are still kept in what are essentially concentration camps.
If anything, I feel like I waited too long. Not because Myanmar is already so tourist-savvy and overpriced. But because by staying at home I could not be a witness – to its triumphs or its tragedies.