So the second official round of talks to reestablish diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States wrapped up last week and the tricky bits are beginning to overshadow the initial excitement. Not surprisingly a huge hang-up is money, because banking in Cuba is hamstrung by its designation as a sponsor of terrorism. You can read all the details in this Reuters piece or this New York Times article, or just talk to any Cuban artist or American collector.
Even though it’s been legal to import Cuban art and photography ever since Sandra Levinson and her Center for Cuban Studies won a pioneering lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury Department in 1991, actually paying for pieces is still a hassle.
One amazing contemporary artist we met was willing to take a 10% down payment in Cuban currency, let us walk away with a $10,000 painting and work out the details later through the honor system. We don’t routinely walk around with $1,000 in our pockets and you can’t walk up to an ATM for extra cash in Havana so we couldn’t even consider the generous, trusting offer of an artist.
Turns out we were smart to sweat the small stuff. Art historian Rebekah Jacob, who sells vintage Cuban revolutionary photography prints from her gallery in Charleston, once had an entire shipment of purchased work impounded by U.S. customs and the legal bill to sort it all out would have been costlier than the photographs themselves.
Robin Blackman is another gallerist who fell in love with Cuban photography when she first visited the famous Fototeca De Cuba center in the 80s. She and her photographer husband were so impressed with the work of new generation of Cuban photographers that they opened an LA branch of Fototeca. She says it became the first independent gallery in the US to develop a relationship with the Cuban government and bring an exhibit of emerging photographers to LA. Eventually the Fototeka LA gallery closed but she still has a few vintage prints. Here’s the crazy part. She recently sold a few but can’t pay the photographer because, decades later, the embargo means he can’t accept US dollars and he doesn’t have internet access to keep in touch on a regular basis.
That’s how convoluted the unintended consequences become when Cuba is designated as a sponsor of terrorism. Ordinary people, and extraordinary art, suffer.
In less than 24 hours I feel like a celebrity in Myanmar. I’m drenched in sweat, my hair is haphazardly clamped up off my neck and I’m sporting none-too-sexy cargo pants yet natives keep taking my picture.
I am walking around the docks of Yangon with my photographer husband who is happily capturing the magic hour of golden light when it first happens. Gary always asks permission of the people he approaches. So I’m not surprised when the young man squatting on the prow of a motorized dugout canoe nods a casual yes. Or that Gary instantly offers the camera’s viewfinder up so this man who ferries chickens, bananas and street food vendors across the river all day can see his own portrait.
In most third-world countries where we travel and shoot, the subjects of Gary’s digital street photos grin or giggle when they see themselves in a monitor, possibly for the first time. But this barefoot young man in a traditional longyi cocks his head, checks out his look and casually shrugs his shoulders. Then he whips a cell phone out of top fold of his longyi and snaps a picture of us.
I’m shocked. I thought Myanmar was right down there with North Korea in cell phone penetration. We’re talking about a country of 65 million people who up until a few years ago were suppressed by a military junta. I’m sure on a Burmese Facebook page somewhere there is a shot of two jet-lagged Americans, mouths gaped in astonishment.
The next time I get the paparazzi treatment is as I step out of a boat to check out a 170-year-old monastery on Inle Lake. Again, I’m caught completely off guard. I’m surrounded by an architectural and spiritual beauty revered for centuries and yet cell phones are emerging from longyis and snapping photos of me. I feel like a specimen, a cultural curiosity suddenly on the other side of the camera.
“Is it that I look American?” I ask Gary. We do come from a country that only recently lifted travel embargoes and we’ve yet to meet another American tourist on this trip. Maybe I should enjoy the brief period of novelty before this country begins a predictable love/hate relationship with U.S. tourism.
“And that would distinguish you from German, Swiss, Canadian and Australian women how exactly?” Gary responds.
It isn’t until two policemen guarding our newly built, Chinese hotel in Mandalay take my picture that the truth occurs to me. Spoiler alert – it isn’t about me.
This is simply a country full of people who have just entered the cell phone age. Mobile giants from Norway, Qatar and Japan pounced on government contracts in 2014, getting in on the bleeding edge of connectivity.
Here’s a picture from one of those company’s Facebook site the hot August day they started selling cell phones in Mandalay. The cops taking my picture with their phones right now were probably in that line somewhere.
The number of mobile phone users in Myanmar is expected to reach up to 80 percent of the country’s population during the fiscal year 2015-16, according to Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology. Even if that number is wishful thinking on the part of the military government, the fact that it is wishful is illuminating. The military could have followed Kim Jung-un’s lead and kept the country disconnected, in the communications dark ages. But before I get too impressed with Burmese political altruism I read this in the Financial Times.
For the new rulers of the state still known to many as Burma, a mobile-phone network is precious because it’s a rare way to make a demonstrable change to people’s lives before the polls.
I knew it wasn’t my fashion sense. And my Americanism is not so intriguing that my every step is documented by the natives. My would-be paparazzi are just Burmese people suddenly connecting to the rest of the world. Myanmar is a ten-year-old girl with her first camera phone. She is obsessed with a new toy. Watch out world. Next will surely come the avalanche of Burmese selfies and photobombing.
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.