It’s been over a week since we returned from our trip to Cuba and we are still trying to process all our experiences while in Cuba. Our tour guides (two photographers and the required Cuban government guide) would sometimes answer our questions about the Cuban culture or government with the statement; “It’s complicated.” And that’s how I think of this experience, I can’t find one or two more fitting words that adequately describes the Cuban experience than for these two words. It’s not negative but a realistic view of how Cuba works from my limited, eight day perspective.
In this article I’ll attempt to illustrate with words and photos some those things I found complicated. First, it’s the city itself. The following image of downtown Havana was taken from the El Morro fortress that guards the entrance to the Havana harbor. It looks like a cosmopolitain city found any where in the world.
Contrast with this image taken from our hotel room on the 7th floor of the Capri Hotel just a block from the Hotel Nationale, the supposedly premier hotel in Havana. There’s a lot of work to be done in the Havana to repair the crumbling infrastructure. I read that at least three buildings a day fall down due to neglect and lack of improvements. Honestly, they are trying to keep up as we saw many people working to make repairs, mostly looking ahead to the potential influx of American visitors to Cuba.
The second example is religion. On one hand, there are mostly very old churches in almost every city in Cuba. It’s estimated that over 60% of the population is Catholic, about 5% some version of Protestant but that fewer than 5% attend church on a regular basis. The Communist government did not prevent religious practice after the 1959 Revolution but the religious were not permitted to join the Communist Party. More recently, the Party has softened its view on religious practice probably in response to the recent visit by Pope Francis. Here’s an image taken by in the Plaza San Francisco of part of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.
And an image from the Colon cemetery (named after Christopher Columbus). Note all the crosses and religious symbols in this one photo.
In contrast, many Cubans practice Santeria, a syncretic religion that originated in the Caribbean. This religion is a cross between Catholicism merged with some of the native traditions brought by African slaves to the New World. One of our cultural stops was at the Hamel’s Alley where we heard a brief lecture on Santeria and were treated to some of the music and symbolic dances used during religious ceremonies. There’s much more to it but again it’s complicated!
Cuba is stirring. The young people are very subtly pushing for change and the government appears to be allowing gradual improvements in economic and social conditions. When traveling in Cuba, one would see (mostly) young people near hotels and other places that have wifi. They log onto the internet to read emails, send texts, and check their Facebook accounts just like other places in the world. They are affectionately called “wifi terros” (pronounced “we fe” in Cuba, not sure of the spelling of terros). Mind you the internet is very slow and expensive by our standards but it is gradually getting better and more widely available. Just like the US, heads down looking at screens oblivious of what was going on around them! It was interesting to learn that a lot of information is shared by what is call “the package.” The package comes in the form of a $2 download to a flash drive of the weeks news, tv programs, magazines and etc. most of it pirated by Cuban hackers. Again, its available but also complicated and expensive by Cuban standards as monthly income is the US equivalent of about $30.
We were in Cuba on a photography tour so went to a lot of places for photo opportunities as well as the cultural experiences. The very first stop we made in Cuba after having a late lunch was at an independent photo school , efch, where many Cubans are learning photography. Also on display and for sale were some of the photos taken by the teachers and students.
Here’s one of the efch teachers working with a beginning student.
We also visited the gallery of a couple of young up and coming fine art photographers who were friends of our Cuban photographer guide, Joel (pronounced Jo el) Hernandez Marin. In this photo our US Road Scholar photography guide, Essdras Suarez, interprets for one of the photographers. These prints were selling for about $300, a small fortune in Cuba.
You must understand there are no camera stores in Cuba and access to photographic materials is difficult to obtain. Visitors to other countries will bring back equipment and materials. They do accept donations of used equipment, unexposed film, and etc. If only there was an easy way to send these things, one can only hope this will change soon.
And finally an image I took with the juxtaposition of a poster for the Havana triathlon and an old pink car driving down the street. We Americans often think of Cuba as a society left in the past, in many ways thats true but in other ways its as up to date as we are.
I hope this helps in your understanding of Cuba, again it’s hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it. Your comments and thoughts are welcome. Remember, it’s complicated!
Until next week,