Early breakfast on the roof, before setting forth for the airport. On the bus I read the spoof blog that I wrote of what really happened on our trip, which is very well received by the group. We have three hours at the airport, which I spend talking to Doug, Isabella and Michael, and looking at the fabulous photos that Doug took on two prior trips to Cuba, which he has on his iPad. Some reflections on the trip.
Cuba was great, and I’d definitely consider a return trip. It would be nice to be able to do that other than in a group (even though our group was very good and fun), but that doesn’t seem likely in the near term. As expected, I enjoyed being with some more than others in our group, but there were no real problem people.
On the cultural side, it would have been nice to have had more contact with people. There was not the level of give and take that I’d expected with Cuban photographers, and I did not get a sense of anyone opening up to discuss the Cuban political system. The American embargo has has a big impact on Cuba, and there’s resentment for that and for the imprisonment of the Cuban Five, but there was no apparent hostility towards us, as Americans. People were very friendly and we got a sense of Cuban food, dance and music. (Okay, here’s a bit of Cuban music trivia, courtesy of my friend and loyal British follower, Pat Hemmens. The well-know song Guantanamera is based on a poem of Jose Marti, the Cuban revolutionary hero after whom the Havana airport is named.)
Certain stops we made were particularly interesting–Korda’s daughter’s house, Josie’s house, the apartment building, the horse whispering and the Santarian church. The evening at the Tropicana was quite an experience and the music and dance we saw everywhere were fun. But best was just wandering around the streets and photographing.
Both Havana and Trinidad are appealing cities in different ways. Havana is being restored, albeit very slowly, to some of its former grandeur. The charm of Trinidad is being preserved because of it having been designated a UNESCO site. Of course, there is much of Cuba that we did not see.
Cuba is definitely changing. The ability to own businesses spear-headed by Raul Castro is huge. This gives people hope of earning some money that will allow them to live better. One does not get any of the sense of a people beaten down by their government, as we did in Myanmar. It would be interesting to come back in a few years to see what changes have occurred, and so that Carol can see Cuba. Maybe by then Florida won’t be a key electoral swing state, so that the US can establish some semblance of a sensible relationship with Cuba. Or perhaps some candidate will show a little courage. But I’m not holding my breath.
Thanks for following, and for your comments. Next stop: Nigeria in August.
Breakfast at the hotel and depart by 8 AM for Havana.
Run into a whole bunch of crabs, making their way from the ocean across the road that we are on. We stop to photograph them.
Drive the rest of the way into Havana, arriving around 2 PM. We are dropped at a beautiful old parador, called La Guarida, where we have a terrific lunch.
We also take many photos in the home, in and around a great old staircase and open area where a young boy has on boxing gloves, girls are playing and skipping rope and adults have a game of dominos going.
From here we taxi to the home of the daughter of the famous Cuban photographer, Korda. I admit to being skeptical that this will be worthwhile, but it turns out to be fascinating. Korda is best known for his revolution photos, including the iconic one of Che, but he was also a fashion photographer and was among the early people to photograph while diving. There are wonderful examples of his work around the house, including of Fidel with famous people like Hemingway (below) and his daughter, Diana Diaz, a former ballet dancer and friend of Jorge, is very gracious in showing us around and answering our questions.
The famous photo of Che was taken in 1959, used to advertise some conferences in 1960 and 1961, then forgotten. An Italian journalist who went to Bolivia where Che was fighting in 1967 wanted a good photo of Che. He was directed to Korda, who gave him a copy of the photo as a present. Two months later, Che was killed in Bolivia. The Italian made a million copies of the photo, put his name on it and sold them for $5 each as his photo. Diana says that Korda felt that the recognition he later got was adequate compensation for the photo. In the photo of Diana above, she is holding the original of the contact sheet containing the famous photo of Che.
Around 5:30, we return to check in to the hotel, clean up and prepare for dinner, which we have outside in the Plaza de Catedral at El Patio. Cool breezes and a rather good meal. We meet Dustin’s Cuban girlfriend, Yani, who has just learned that she’s gotten a six-month visa to the US. Jorge brings a portfolio of his photographs. A few group members purchase photos, and Doug and Nevada trade photos with Jorge.
May Day, Labor Day in Trinidad, and we head down very early to the parade site, Cespedes Park, where people slowly gather. Once the time comes, though, just about the entire town is there, some of them under government pressure to come, others because they want to enjoy the festivities. The mood is jovial, a number of bands play and signs proclaim support for socialism, for Fidel, for the revolution, for the Cuban Five, who have been held in prison in the US for more than fifteen years on charges of spying and many pro-Chavez signs.
After watching for over an hour, Henry, Doug and I retire for coffee in a fancy hotel lobby on the square. Henry and I are able to see some of Doug’s fabulous black and white photos on an iPhone. They are stunningly good. Doug is a professional photographer whose style is very different from Nevada’s, but whose photos are every bit as good. You can see his work at www.douglasethridge.com.
The group meets and we retire to Julio’s house to relax, then bus to the Grill Caribe on an oceanside beach. We spend several hours relaxing on lounges under thatch-roofed cabanas and lunching. Around three, we bus to a farm owned by a friend of Julio’s. Julio gives us a very interesting exhibition of horse whispering, in which he gains control of a horse he (says that he) has not seen before through the use of body language. As it is very hot, we all opt to be dropped back at the hotel to shower, change and relax before dinner.
Bus back into town and wander around again photographing whatever catches my eye in the way of buildings and people. These wandering around times may be the best part of the trip.
Meet up with Dustin to go to the restaurant he booked, right next door to the one we ate at last night, 1514 Restaurant. Antique pieces, open air courtyard and musicians with two excellent rumba dancers. We certainly have not been short changed on music and dancing, a predominant theme of our trip. Delicious lobster dish, beautifully presented, with creole sauce and vegetables which, with three chi-chis and tip comes to twenty CUCs.
Taxi back to hotel to pack and ready for tomorrow morning’s departure.
I opt to skip the early morning walk, so head off, after breakfast at the hotel, around 9 AM. First stop is a dance performance, at Palenque de los Congos Reales, an African/Cuban dance with dancers representing various African gods, then some rumba dances. Performance is good, if a bit repetitive of others we’ve seen. Some of us are called up to dance with the group and even a few minutes of not particularly strenuous dancing gives one a healthy appreciation for the energy and stamina demands on the dancers.
We head to the home and temple, Templo Yemalla, of a Santaria priest, named Israel Gomez. We see a shrine erected to the sea god, who,is the god of this temple. Julio explains how the Santaria religion links African gods with saints of the Catholic Church. Israel blesses and purifies Nevada, who he picks out without having been told that she is the leader. He allows us to take photos of him, and we walk around a bit before leaving. Israel became a priest as the result of his discovery of an African artifact buried in the house grounds, which was taken as a sign of his future role. There is no plan for succession, and when I ask Julio whether Israel is married, he says that there is no prohibition on that, but, between us, he thinks that many Santaria priests are gay.
We walk to Julio’s home, photographing on the way. His home is large and attractive, and he runs three rooms as a B&B. We sit for some time, talking, and at one point, Julio marches his 3-year old horse, Apache, into the house and says that the horse is a stallion, “like me.” We look at some of Julio’s photographs, which are okay, but not exceptional. We walk a couple blocks to a restaurant, Cubita, where we have a large lunch.
We bus to an arts academy, where we are shown around by the principal. It’s a large school, but has only 32 students in the 4-year program. Last year over 150 applied, but only six were accepted. They must do exams (produce work) in five disciplines to be considered for admission. We see some drawings and paintings by some third year students that are quite extraordinarily good. The school has been in existence at this high school level for 25 years and many of its graduates are successful artists, including a sculptor who lives in NY, having married an American and whose work is displayed in New York.
It’s quite hot in the sun today, so we are happy to return to our rooms for a couple hours to rest, before setting forth again at 6:15. Again, I decide to separate from the group in walking around town and, again, I’m pleased with the connections I’m able to make, one on one. I’m including quite a few photos from my walk.
As planned, our group meets at a restaurant recently established in his home by a friend of Laura’s, Malibran Palador. Food is terrific and plentiful. A good, young group of men plays and sings local music and, for the last number, entices four or five members of our group to participate on various percussion instruments, which is great fun to watch.
Walk to the bus. Very early start tomorrow. Here are a few street scenes from the walk to the bus.
Finish packing, then up for rooftop buffet breakfast before setting off at 8 for long bus ride. On bus, Nevada talks about photography, much of which I’d heard in China, but it’s helpful to hear it again and be reminded. Several of the people on the trips are techie geeks, so there is a lot of talk that I understand little to nothing about. It did confirm my impression that the small SLRs like my Sony are the future, as they’ve been greatly improved already.
After a pit stop, Nevada spends a good deal of time with me reviewing images. This is very helpful, and confirms that I really had no notion of what I was doing in photographing things in the old house we visited. I think I can do a considerably better job next time. We reviewed some color and black and white images from Ghana, which also was helpful to me in figuring out what works in color, what in black and white, and what in either.
Lunch in city of Cienfuegos at a marina was fair, then on to Trinidad, where we make the obligatory local artisan stop at a pottery place, Casa Chichi ceramic factory, which, mercifully, was brief. Drove to our hotel, Las Cuevas, located on a hill above the city, where we met Julio, a photographer and quite a character. We had a long time to visit on a patio with a very pleasant breeze, because check-in took forever. We bus and walk up to our rooms, past a pool with Cuban rap music blasting. This place is unlikely to be mistaken for an Oberoi, but will do fine for the three nights I’m here.
Bus ride down to town and walk to the main square, Plaza Mayor, where we’re told we should meet again 21/2 hours later to walk to dinner. Julio is leading a walk for those who want to follow, or we’re free to break off whenever we want. After about half a block with the group, I turn right and go off on my own, seeing no reason to photograph with ten others.
This turns out to be a very good decision. It gives me a chance to practice my Spanish and allows me to talk with and photograph interesting scenes: a guy smoking a cigar walking his pig, kids playing ball, folks in windows and doorways, and more.
Trinidad is a charming city of about 30,000, the third city to b founded in Cuba, in 1514. Streets and sidewalks are cobblestone, and buildings are painted pastel colors. Very nice-looking restaurants and souvenir and artisan galleries dot the area, attesting to the importance of tourism to the city’s economy. Situated on the South coast of the island, fresh fish are plentiful.
I stop for a beer at a cafe with music around seven, and, looking around at couples from other countries with Cuba guide books, I think it’s a shame that we in the US are prevented by our government from traveling around Cuba freely. About 7:45, I wander down to our meeting place and hook up with Robert. Later, Dustin meets us and walks us to the restaurant, Vista Gourmet, where we have dinner and drinks. My lobster dinner is very tasty, and with drinks and tip comes to 26 CUCs. Talk with Robert, Tom, Theresa and Nevada over dinner. Taxi back to the hotel, shower and in bed by 11 PM.
Another walk through parts of Old Havana, past the Capitol and the closed-for-restoration National Theater. Colorfully painted and architecturally beautiful buildings give one the sense of the grandeur of what was here. People live in many of these old buildings, and others are being restored. Photograph street scenes and talk to Dustin about recent changes that permit people to get licenses and own their own businesses, changes pushed by Raul Castro, who is in his late seventies. Fidel, about 87, appears still to be with it and healthy, according to Dustin.
Another breakfast on the very pleasant rooftop of our hotel, then meet at 9 for taxis to the huge Havana cemetery, Necropolis Cristóbal Colón, where since its founding in 1871, over two million people are buried. Walk around the cemetery for 40 minutes, but cannot even scratch the surface.
Then off to see a mansion called Casa Miguel Alonso, in the Vedado, or forbidden, area, which is still owned by a family, that, unlike most wealthy families, never left during the revolution. Miguel died a few months ago, so we are shown around by his wife, Josie, who is clearly sad after 54 years of marriage, but is friendly and speaks English. The home feels a bit like a real movie set of the past history and shows the decaying signs of age with little update. We spend quite some time photographing. Though I haven’t a clue what I’m doing, some of the photos are not too bad.
We lunch at El Gringo Viejo, in the home of the owner, who is involved in the society that protects old cars in Havana. The food is very good. I have lobster in a garlic sauce, some others have pigs elbows. And plenty of cold beer.
Back to the hotel for brief blogging and relaxing before setting out for our afternoon adventure, which starts with a walk some distance in more heat than we’ve been having. We are visiting a house which, at various times, has served as a warehouse, a hotel for sailors, a whorehouse and currently is divided into many small apartments. The ones we visit are up three steep flights. We’re welcomed by the residents and able to look and walk into their quarters, and talk and photograph them. Vestiges of stained glass windows from a prior incarnation remain.
Henry and I decide to go to the nearby hotel to check emails and, in my case, to make a blog post. After this, we walk down a main drag called the Prado, where dancing, dominoes playing and kids playing are going on, among other things. We give some of the children small gifts we’ve brought (lollipops and other candy, in my case), which delights them.
As anticipated, we hook up with the rest of our group at the Malecon, for a walk along the sea wall, where we watch young men diving from rocks into the ocean and chat with some locals.
After a while, we break into groups, with JP and Karin and I heading back down the Prado with Dustin. I photograph couples dancing the tango and old cars whizzing by in blurs.
After a while, I walk back to the hotel, wash and change shirts and head out to dinner at a nearby restaurant, Nao, that had been recommended by Dustin. After a really very good beef dinner (with excellent fries) and a couple Bucanero (think pirates) beers, I head back to the hotel to prepare for tomorrow morning’s rather early departure for Trinidad.
I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of Havana and would welcome more time here (I have less than a day after Trinidad). It does feel like a trip back in time, and not only because of the vintage cars, though that certainly adds to the feel. There’s a flavor of the exotic here, though I don’t find it easy to pinpoint why. One begins to get a small feel for the Cuba’s complicated history and it’s troubled relationship with the US. Not unlike Myanmar, there’s an undercurrent of possible change, though formidable obstacles remain.
Met in the lobby at 6:15 for a pre-dawn walk to catch the early light. Great opportunity to photograph old Havana just waking up.
Over to the bay to photograph some fishermen, then wend back to the hotel for buffet breakfast on the pleasantly cool rooftop. Hour to relax before meeting again at 9.
Dustin explains that any transaction with the government takes place in the local currency of pesos. Cubans receive monthly ration cards that allow them to buy modest amounts of rice and other staples at the markets. These cards used to provide for much more, but are being scaled back.
Prior to the revolution in 1959, Cuba was effectively under US control, with Batista acting as a puppet head for US corporate interests. Many people fled prior to the revolution, after which everything was nationalized, including many of what used to be fine single-family homes in old Havana. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia provided everything to Cuba in exchange for sugar and sugar products. After the collapse, the Cuban economy fell to pieces and hungry people tried to flee by boat to the US and elsewhere. The embargo of Cuba by the US and prohibition of travel there has had a big effect on Cuba, and is part of the reason why there are some 55,000 pre-1959 American cars in working order in Cuba. Today, the biggest share of tourism comes from Canada, though there are many direct flights to Cuba from Europe.
Meeting at 9, we break into two groups. I’m in one led by Jorge, the Cuban photographer, and Nevada. We take a very long walk in the old Havana area, stopping to talk to people, looking into building vestibules and generally soaking in the atmosphere of Old Havana. An enormous amount of restoration work has been going on for some ten years. Before and after photos attest to significant progress. It’s hard to imagine that Havana will not eventually be restored to its former grandeur, as one of the world’s great destinations.
We stop in at a Catholic church, Church de la Merced, which doubles for people descended from Africans who are in the Santeria religion, which has blended IRS gods with the icons of Catholicism. Small shops in the area sell artifacts for use in the Santeria religion. We see initiates dressed all in white, with white umbrellas. Many babies are being baptized at the church.
We stop by a place where young boxers are being trained, put through their laborious exercises by a trainer. We see them sparring, exercising, jumping rope, shadow boxing and punching bags. We take way too many photos of them.
From there another sizeable walk to a third floor walk-up restaurant, El Asturianito, where food is plentiful and quite good and, more importantly, the beer is very cold. Slip off my shoes during lunch and am among the half of the group that opts to take bicycle taxis back to the hotel, rather than walk; a very good decision. Visit the room in the hotel that Ernest Hemingway used to stay in, a few doors down from my own. he wrote three books there, including Death in the Afternoon. A brief few minutes in the room before meeting in the lobby to board our bus.
We ride a fair distance to a tree-shaded square, Casa de Rumba, where dancers, singers and musicians will perform sambas, rumbas and other high-energy dances. It’s as interesting to watch the large crowd seated around the square, who are very into the music, singing and moving with it. Members of the audience, ranging from a baby to old ladies to everything in between participated, and some were terrific. Much of the dancing was overtly sexual. While it was quite fun, an hour and a half was more than I needed.
Dropped at Park Central Hotel, where I signed up for an hour of wifi, posted yesterday’s blog and checked emails. This may be the last post I can make while on the trip. Bummer.
Walked back to our hotel down Obispo, a main walking street, loaded with people. Old Havana has a great feel to it. Greeted in the lobby by Nevada, who told me the water was out again, so sat down for a beer, looked at photos and caught up on today’s blogging.
Almost 8 PM, and still no water. I’m to meet most of the group in the lobby in 45 minutes, and then taxi out to see the show at the famous Tropicana night club. Prices in Havana have been very modest, but we’re blowing our budget tonight, spending 100 CUCs each (over $100) for front row seats. We may be a pretty smelly bunch. Miraculously, water (cold) materializes at 8:25, thus making getting into clean clothes plausible. The show at the Tropicana was spectacular, definitely worth the price. An open air night club that holds 1000, with stages on different levels around the grounds. Two hours of brilliant dancing, costumes and singing.
We are driven there and back by a driver in a 1951 Chevrolet that’s in great condition. Our driver speaks quite passable English, has medical training, owns a farm and has relatives in the U.S. He hopes for better relations; we are not enemies.
Met group in lobby. Went into lobby Starbucks for coffee and came out to find the group had left on shuttle to airport, my luggage sitting in the lobby. Tough group. Called Nevada on her cell and took next shuttle to terminal. Hour and a quarter in various lines, overweight luggage fee of $44, through security and hour and a half before our packed charter jet departs for Havana. The plane is filled with many Cubans and with other groups, including alumni from Yale and another, I think, from Stanford.
Photo thoughts. I’ll be shooting RAW and JPEG for the first time on this trip, having previously shot only the latter. RAW files are much larger than the compressed JPEG files, thus allowing more possibilities in modifying them. Also have a hyper drive I bought, which will allow me to copy photos from the camera to it. Nevada (and others) had been mortified to learn that previously I’d had no backup on trips. Most others back up on a laptop, but I’m too lazy to lug one on trips. It’s interesting that other makes (Olympus and Fuji) of the smaller Sony camera that I began using last Fall in China are now being used by several others on the trip, including Nevada. Clearly, they are the wave of the future, as others in the group are looking at them longingly.
The flight is 45 minutes, so we arrive around 11:30, multiple customs and baggage lines with waits, but no real hassles. We’re met at the airport by our guide, Laura, and workshop representative, Dustin, and, after changing some (Canadian) dollars I’d brought because of better exchange rates for CUCs (pronounced “kooks”), the Cuban money used by foreigners, for something less than a dollar/CUC, we board our comfortable air conditioned bus. Laura explains that the main problems in Cuba are economic, and Cubans do whatever they can to earn CUCs, which are much more valuable than the Cuban pesos which they are allocated to buy essentials. I need to learn more about this.
We ride to a large restaurant, called El Aljibe, at which we have a good enough lunch of chicken, rice and black beans while being entertained by four musicians, below, and Nevada.
After lunch we have a bus ride to Revolutionary Square, which is aptly known as Revolutionary Parking Lot, opposite which a large wire sculpture of Che Guevara decorates a building, along with the famous words he wrote to Fidel, “Hasta la victoria, siempre,” or “until victory, forever.”
From there we drive to the well-known Hotel Nacional, a nicely-preserved hotel from the 1930s, where one can see pictures of everyone famous who has visited there, including this unlikely combo of Betty Grable and Stan Musial. We walk around the hotel and grounds.
Laura points out some landmarks and gives us some history about Jose Marti, the poet and revolutionary organizer against the Spanish in the late 19th century, who was killed in 1895 and remains a national hero, with a big statue in Revolutionary Square (as well, Laura points out, as one in Central Park in New York). There’s something nice that Carol would appreciate about an airport being named after a poet, even if it wasn’t his poetry that inspired the honor. We drive to a spot a few blocks from our hotel, since driving restrictions in old Havana, where we are located, prevent the bus from getting there. We have some help with the luggage and walk over cobbled streets in hot, but not unbearable, weather to the hotel, where a lively crowd is hanging out around the bar. We’re served a welcome drink in the lobby and our room keys are handed out for the ride up in the small, old-fashioned elevator. Our hotel, the Ambos Mundos, is not nearly as fancy as the Nacional, but it has a “real” feel to it that I like. The room is simple, but adequate, and we have an hour and a half to relax before a lobby meeting at 6. I am able to operate the hyper drive, thanks to the instruction I got last week from Nirajan, the Nepalese young man who graduated from Northwestern and has been staying with us. Unfortunately, we do not have internet at the hotel, so posting blogs will be a challenge.
Meeting with Dustin, Nevada and our Cuban photographer Jorge gives us information about the next few days, which sound jam-packed and fun. While waiting for the meeting, I may have taken the first interesting photos I’ve made all day from our second floor meeting room window, looking down at small kids on the street who are being entertained by a mime dressed all in black.
Our whole group is going to a nearby restaurant for dinner, except me, because I’m going to Beth Shalom services. Dustin puts me in a taxi with directions and I arrive at the reform synagogue and am greeted in Yiddish by the shamas and seated behind an Israeli pilot and his wife, with whom I chat before the service starts. The service is led by a young man and women, and I’m able to follow in both Hebrew and Spanish (somewhat), though almost none of the melodies are familiar. It’s interesting to experience prayers translated into Spanish and to reflect on how this happens in languages around the world, where we all read the same Hebrew, but experience different takes on it in translation. There is a kiddush and meal afterwards, but I don’t stay, opting to head back to try to catch the end of dinner with the group.
Getting back is an adventure. I first flag down a 1940s Chevrolet taxi, in which I become the fifth passenger, lodged between the driver and another man in the front row. Eventually the other passengers all get out and I’m left in the front seat with the driver, loud music pulsing from the car’s rear speakers, as he shifts gears and moves the powerless steering wheel around. My driver doesn’t quite know where I’m going, but drops me off at the Capitol. There I negotiate with another taxi, who takes me to the Plaza de la Catedral, which is not far rom the restaurant. A young man kindly walks me the couple blocks to the restaurant, where I have a beer and bread and butter with the others, who are finishing off what they said was a very good dinner in the quite attractive Dona Eutimia restaurant.
After dinner, we walk around the area, which is very charming and I take what I think may be a couple pretty interesting photos. It will be fun to walk around this area in the daylight. I walk with Doug and Henry. The former is represented in several photo galleries, including one in Santa Fe, and I pick up some interesting ideas, including shooting black and white JPEGs and RAW color at the same time. Once again, everyone is more experienced than I am, which is great, if a trifle intimidating (or might be, if I were easily intimidated, which I’m not).
Back at the hotel, I prepare for a welcome shower, except there’s no water. I’m told there will be in half an hour. We’ll see.
Water. Shower. Good. In fact, muy bueno.
Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m starting to write this on April 22. Got to begin developing the mindset, and, besides, there are a few background matters to talk and think about, so here it goes.
First, thoughts about blogging. People ask me whether this doesn’t take an awful lot of time. Well, yes; but I think it’s worth it. For one thing, it provides a record of the trip in a way that the journals I used to keep did. But another, and perhaps more important reason, is that blogging forces you to think about things in ways that you might not otherwise think about them (or, at least, I would not).
You go into a trip with certain expectations, and those expectations are bound to color your experience. For me, Cuba is a great trip. It’s close, it’s in the same time zone, but at the same time it’s exotic. The title of this post, Dreaming in Cuban, is stolen from the title of the book by Cristina Garcia that I am currently reading. It’s quite a wonderful book, with the kind of magical realism that I like in Latin and South American writers. It also is written in very poetic language. It evokes some of the mystery that Cuba conjures in my mind – women smoking cigars, bulky vintage American cars, colonial architecture, romantic revolutionaries, and a once exotic nightlife. There also used to be a Jewish presence in Cuba that I hope to at least get a little taste of.
My early recollections of Cuba date back to the 1950s, when, like many US tourists seeking the sun, my parents traveled to Cuba. They returned well tanned and a bit intoxicated by their experience. Of course, Cuba also figures largely in some history that I recollect quite clearly – the Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco and the Cuban missile crisis which to me was the scariest time that we have lived through by a long shot. It took quaint historical events, such as blockades, out of the history books and put them on the front pages of newspapers and on TV screens. To many of us, it seemed like the end of the world as we knew it was a real possibility.
Of course, for 50 years, Cuba was out of bounds for travelers from the US. Only recently has there been some loosening of those restrictions. Now group trips are permitted, but only for cultural purposes. I am traveling with a small group from the Santa Fe Photography Workshop, on a cultural photography trip in which we will be meeting and talking with Cuban photographers. The trip is being led by Nevada Wier, the same person who led the trip that I took to Southwestern China last October and November. We will be a group of 12 people, nine from across the United States, two from Singapore and one from Belgium. The trip is not a workshop, so there will be no formal classes or instruction. However, traveling with Nevada and a group of enthusiastic photographers, I expect to learn quite a bit on the trip.
Carol would have signed on for the trip, too, but there was only one space available, so she became #1 on the waiting list four months ago, but nobody dropped out. As it turns out, she’s had pain in her hip and leg, so the trip would not have been a good idea, anyway. She’s meeting me in Miami at the end of the trip, where we’ll spend a weekend with good college friends.
I take an afternoon flight down to Miami, and shuttle over to Marriott Courtyard for an 8 PM briefing meeting with our group. Ironically, one of the people on the trip had developed severe back pain at the last minute and could not make the trip. Had we known earlier, Carol could have joined us. Damn. Most of the group retired to the bar for some drinks and food, but we disbanded by 10, because of our early start tomorrow. Seems like a very amicable group, all of whom have traveled with Nevada, some many times.
Well, I don’t leave until April 25 (actually, the 26th for Cuba), but I thought you’d better start getting ready. For starters, here’s a map.
Notice a few things. If you never knew where Gitmo, much in the news, was, now you do, Southeast tip, almost as far as you can get from Havana. Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, both much smaller than Cuba (which is the largest island in the West Indies, about the size of Pennsylvania) are tucked to the South. Although you can’t tell from this map, Cuba is 90 miles South of Florida. And, gee, Cuba has its own little group of islands, including Isla de la Juventud. Of Cuba’s 11 million people, 2.1 million live in Havana.
And now, friends, a bit of (quite biased) history, edited very slightly by me, courtesy of infoplease. I apologize for the low brow source, but it’s really very convenient.
Arawak (or Taino) Indians inhabiting Cuba when Columbus landed on the island in 1492 died from diseases brought by sailors and settlers. By 1511, Spaniards under Diego Velásquez had established settlements. Havana’s superb harbor made it a common transit point to and from Spain.
In the early 1800s, Cuba’s sugarcane industry boomed, requiring massive numbers of black slaves. A simmering independence movement turned into open warfare from 1867 to 1878. Slavery was abolished in 1886. In 1895, the poet José Marti led the struggle that finally ended Spanish rule, thanks largely to U.S. intervention in 1898 after the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor.
An 1899 treaty made Cuba an independent republic under U.S. protection. The U.S. occupation, which ended in 1902, suppressed yellow fever and brought large American investments. The 1901 Platt Amendment allowed the U.S. to intervene in Cuba’s affairs, which it did four times from 1906 to 1920. Cuba terminated the amendment in 1934.
In 1933, a group of army officers, including army sergeant Fulgencio Batista, overthrew President Gerardo Machado. Batista became president in 1940, running a corrupt police state.
In 1956, Fidel Castro launched a revolution from his camp in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Castro’s brother Raul and Ernesto (Ché) Guevara, an Argentine physician, were his top lieutenants. The U.S. ended military aid to Cuba in 1958, and on New Year’s Day 1959, Batista fled into exile and Castro took over the government.
The U.S. initially welcomed what looked like a democratic Cuba, but within a few months, Castro established military tribunals for political opponents and jailed hundreds. Castro disavowed Cuba’s 1952 military pact with the U.S., confiscated U.S. assets, and established Soviet-style collective farms. The U.S. broke relations with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961, and Castro formalized his alliance with the Soviet Union. Thousands of Cubans fled the country.
In 1961, a U.S.-backed group of Cuban exiles invaded Cuba. Planned during the Eisenhower administration, the invasion was given the go-ahead by President John Kennedy, although he refused to give U.S. air support. The landing at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, was a fiasco. The invaders did not receive popular Cuban support and were easily repulsed by the Cuban military.
A Soviet attempt to install medium-range missiles in Cuba—capable of striking targets in the United States with nuclear warheads—provoked a crisis in 1962. Denouncing the Soviets for “deliberate deception,” President Kennedy promised a U.S. blockade of Cuba to stop the missile delivery. Six days later, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev ordered the missile sites dismantled and returned to the USSR in return for a U.S. pledge not to attack Cuba.
The U.S. established limited diplomatic ties with Cuba on Sept. 1, 1977, making it easier for Cuban Americans to visit the island. Contact with the more affluent Cuban Americans prompted a wave of discontent in Cuba, producing a flood of asylum seekers. In response, Castro opened the port of Mariel to a “freedom flotilla” of boats from the U.S., allowing 125,000 to flee to Miami. After the refugees arrived, it was discovered that their ranks were swelled with prisoners, mental patients, homosexuals, and others unwanted by the Cuban government.
Russian aid, which had long supported Cuba’s failing economy, ended when Communism collapsed in eastern Europe in 1990. Cuba’s foreign trade also plummeted, producing a severe economic crisis. In 1993, Castro permitted limited private enterprise, allowed Cubans to possess convertible currencies, and encouraged foreign investment in its tourist industry. In March 1996, the U.S. tightened its embargo with the Helms-Burton Act.
In early 2003, Castro sent nearly 80 dissidents to prison with long sentences, prompting an international condemnation of Cuba’s harsh supression of human rights.
The Bush administration again tightened its embargo in June 2004, allowing Cuban Americans to return to the island only once every three years (instead of every year) and restricting the amount of U.S. cash that can be spent there to $50 per day. In response, Cuba banned the use of dollars, which had been legal currency in the country for more than a decade.
In July 2006, Castro—hospitalized because of an illness—temporarily turned over power to his brother Raúl and in Feb. 2008, the 81-year-old Fidel Castro ended 49 years of power when he announced his retirement. Raúl succeeded his brother.
The U.S. Congress voted in March 2009 to repeal the long-standing restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting Havana and sending money into the country. President Obama has signaled a willingness to establish warmer ties with Cuba, a subtle acknowledgement that isolation has not been effective in forcing the Castro regime from power.
On April 19, 2011, Cuba made the most significant change to its leadership in over 50 years, by appointing José Ramón Machado to fill the second-highest position in the Communist Party. It was the first time since the 1959 revolution that someone other than the Castro brothers has been named to the position.
In late 2011, buying and selling cars became legal, Cubans were allowed to go into business for themselves in a variety of approved jobs, from accounting to food vendors, real estate could be bought and sold for the first time since the days immediately following the revolution and the government pardoned more than 2,900 prisoners.