havana, part 1

diptych1recently, i visited cuba with a group of photographers. with more than 3,000 photos to review, it will take me a while to complete my blog posts on this trip, and longer if i want to actually write something perceptive about the experience …

the travel restrictions are still in place, so we were there on a general religious license, which required us to visit churches and charities as part of our activities. i was eager to go, because i wanted to see cuba before the travel restrictions are lifted and planeloads of american tourists overrun the island. this seems to be a common theme, as this article notes: “we want to see the island before we ourselves can get there to ruin it.”

there already is a flourishing tourist industry in havana, however, catering to the rest of the world (as well as to the americans who have been willing all along to visit the country illegally; the cubans won’t stamp your passport if you don’t want them to). our group leaders, who had been to cuba a few years earlier, noted how many more private rental rooms, restaurants, and small businesses – for instance, people selling coffee out of their apartments – there now were as a result of the reforms that raul castro put into place since becoming president.

first, let’s get the clichés out of the way. even though there are new or relatively new cars on the road, there still are lots of the 1950s american automobiles in service. many, but not all of them, have been spruced up and restored to serve as expensive tourist taxis (presumably through money sent by family in the states – everyone seems to have a brother in miami).

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similar changes are visible in the architecture. the capitol building (in the first photo above) is undergoing renovation, as are many of the buildings in the center that will cater to tourists. in comparison – as i’ll describe in a later blog posting – the buildings housing ordinary cubans are still pretty decrepit.

there seems to be a clear divide between the havana that serves tourists, and the havana that doesn’t. walking just a little off the main tourist drag, one can see  plenty of reminders that la revolución sigue – the revolution continues – despite the onslaught of capitalism.

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nonetheless, it’s clear that the u.s. is very popular among la gente. a priest we met told us that, prior to the revolution, cubans thought of themselves as spanish or (u.s.) american. it was the castro government that tried to reoriente cuba alongside the downtrodden countries of latin america and against the northern capitalists. however, it doesn’t seem to have fully worked. every day, at least two different people stopped me on the street to ask me where i was from and to engage in conversation. although sometimes it was just to tout a local restaurant, more often it was to talk about u.s.-cuban relations and to praise obama. and the explosion of small-scale private enterprise is a strong indicator of the direction the country would go if given the chance.

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there is a great deal more to show and say, so stay tuned.