Cuba: Laughs And Cries Of Havana
The archipelago of Cuba consists of 110.992 square kilometers, situated in the center of the Caribbean Sea. This country has been whipped by both natural disasters and political regimes, both of which have left the island the bearer of a past that marks it in the extended and continually-changing story of Universal History. A national producer of tobacco, the flavour and smell of “havanos,” famed Cuban cigars, are enjoyed by aficionados in smoking parlours around the world. However, the island also exports the history of one of the most powerful revolutions in the twentieth century, its images and legends: Fidel Castro, the leader; Che Guevara, the heroic rebel, and a continually struggling people, who despite their daily challenges, still manage to smile.
Cuba is often depicted in two extremes. First, with the aura of a tropical dream, marked by the signs of Eurocentric visions, the insatiable need to find a lost paradise in the antipodes; taken in by the mystical halo of the exotic, the magical and the mysterious. Sugar Cane Ron, tams tams and “mulatas” configure the exotic fancy foreigners establish in their initial impressions of Cuban culture. This “innocent vision” often does not consider the realities of the socio-political conditions of the island, those that determine the way of life for Cuban people, their history and their future.
The January 1, 1959 triumph of the Cuban Revolution commanded by Fidel Castro, opened a new chapter in the history of Cuba, after centuries of economic domination first by the Spanish Crown, and second by the United States of America, the neighbour of the North. The revolution promised hope of a new way of life, full of humanity and justice for all, delivered by the hand of Fidel. An end to poverty and equal rights (health, work and education) for every citizen were the initial intentions of the new order. In short: to dignify the lives of Cubans.
Nevertheless, the inner failings of the Cuban system, the fall of the USSR and the Eastern European Communist Nations, in addition to the trade and economic restrictions imposed by the U.S. government (without considering the Missile Crisis in the seventies, cast by those two Empires) devastated the Cuban economy and left the country in a severe economic crisis. Many Cubans subsequently lost faith in the revolution that they had fought so hard and sacrificed so much for. The island survives today as a flag of socialism, independence and bastion of resistance to the politics of the United States; a condition that now is suddenly changing with the possibility of dialogue between Raul Castro, brother and successor of Fidel and U.S. President, Barack Obama. The future of Cuba is, in fact, unpredictable.
The second common depiction of Cuba is the “restricted vision”. This vision only sees the political face of Cuba (in support of, or in opposition to Castro’s regime) and too often forgets to include the daily lives of Cuban people, in their quiet moments of happiness or strife; their moments of just being an individual human, with dreams and aspirations. Cuban people spend their days living as people live in all countries, Cubans laugh as everyone laughs and Cubans cry just as everyone cries, indifferent to their geographical location or moment in history.
I do not intend to say that Cuba does not have paradisiacal qualities nor make an apology for Castro’s regime. The central idea is to show two of the thousands of incomplete visions of a Latin-American country that has a complicated idiosyncrasy and history that escapes to the construction of national identities made for particular subjects; including the person who writes this.
But it is silly to ask objectivity from the human being. We are all “subjects” and we cannot ask objectivity from subjects. That is illogical, for we all have inherent biases dependent on our life experiences, our cultural and theological indoctrination, the filters that determine our worldview and interpretation of our daily occurrences. More subjective than anything is the writing of history, that construction of identity. In this regard, I do not believe Cuban people have an objective vision about themselves as a nation and a culture but what they do have, is the inner vision.
In 2008, Aaron Sosa, a young Venezuelan photographer, travelled to the city of Havana in Cuba to document the daily lives of Cubans. These images belong to him. The city of Havana has been one of most important cultural cities in Latin America for years. Architects, painters, musicians, philosophers and writers have been travelling to Havana for decades, attracted to its particular cultural and political conditions, and especially for the beauty of the city that many value as a lesson in architecture. For example, Havana has one of most important occidental cemeteries: the Colon cemetery, build in the XIX century and second in importance only after Pere Lachaise, in Paris.
Cuban culture is a syncretism, melting its Spanish, African and Indigenous ancestral roots, whose influences have survived in food, music, skin tones and religious traditions, as seen throughout Latin American and especially in the Caribbean. For example, the “Santeria”, is an African devotional cult brought to the island by slaves during colonization that was mixed with Catholicism as a means of avoiding persecution albeit maintaining the ability to practice their religion. Today, Santeria is practiced by nearly 60% of people living on the island. Cubans have an ability to mix and adapt various cultural influences when confronted with challenges. We possess a resiliency and a sense of humour that I believe is our key to survival against our many troubles.
The Havana captured by Aaron Sosa’s camera isn’t a pamphleteer Havana, a postcard Havana. His quotidian depiction is that of a local Cuban, even though he is not. He is a traveller who looks through his lens as if he were seeing through the eyes of the people he photographs, seeing and understanding their particular reality.
In his photographs, you can see and feel all that you experience walking the streets of Havana: the golden clouds at sunrise, the 1950’s American cars that embody the memory of better times, the gracefulness of people at work and their studies, trying to pave a better future for themselves. You can see Havana’s rich architecture, Cuban colonial style to Neo Baroque, Art Noveau and Art Deco all periods coexisting together in the same city, connected by city streets. You can see the sea, the island sea, which Cuban writer Virgilio Pineira described as “a damned circumstance everywhere”. The sea that, in the long history of the island, has been the place of migrations, spanning since the African slaves and Spanish conquests until the “balseros”, which represent the tragic migration troubles suffered by Cuba during the last decade. An estimated half of the Cuban population has migrated to the United States of America, only 90 miles from Havana’s coast, in boats and home-made rafts in precarious conditions, in search of better living conditions, yet more often than not, perishing during the difficult journey.
This sea, more than a sea, it is another cemetery, less glamorous than Colon’s cemetery and, of course, a thousand times more dangerous and cruel. In its waters rest African slaves who took their own lives in hopes that their souls would return to Africa; in its salty depths rest Indian chiefs who refused to live under Spanish rule and Spanish soldiers who lost their lives battling the long travesty between their natal country and Cuba. In this sea, sleep thousands of Cubans who in despair and desperation in the 1990’s lost their lives fleeing the island in search of nothing more than a better life. Cuba has a history that can at times sound sensationalist, however it is the reality, and that of one of the most controversial countries in Latin America. Nevertheless, Cuban people do not lose hope for a brilliant future; they do not lose their smiles. Cubans keep living because the human desire to live, to move forward, will always outweigh the sting of past struggles.
It is easy to look for a scapegoat, someone to blame for Cuba’s problems. Those on the right point fingers at Fidel Castro, those on the left blame the USA for chastising the island through its economic restrictions. The guilt is laid without considering the entire spectrum of facts. As noted previously, it is unreasonable to ask objectivity of affected participants; we can only interpret circumstance through what our life experiences have taught us. Those that understand the human historical process understand that no one is ever completely right or wrong, and that it is never correct to place sole responsibility of the state of a country on one leader, or one political side. History is complicated and Cuban history surely does not escape this. Perhaps in the future, we will be able to understand the present more clearly, to learn from mistakes made and prevent future generations from having to endure the strife that Cubans have suffered for decades. This is a hope, however, it is also a possibility.
Beyond its history, in this reportage, Havana shows her soul, her quotidian soul without spectacle and grandiloquence. She opens herself to the camera and the photographer in her innocuous and unseen details; those moments that happen in time that wait for a smart eye, a trained eye in the art of revealing the secrets hidden beneath that of the initial impression. Aaron Sosa possesses this quality to truly see, and I say to him, just as Jack Kerouac said of legendary photographer Robert Frank, “You have eyes.”
Without support or denial of the current socio-political moment in Cuba nor painting an exotic view of city’s culture and life, this photographer bring us truthful images of Havana, a city and people that fight daily against time and destruction.
Photo commentary by Kelly Martinez, Cuban writer and daughter of iconic Cuban documentary photographers Ramon Grandal and Gilda Perez.
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