CUBA - Dr. Castro’s 40,000 sq. Mile Petri Dish
If all works out with the State Department, I’ll be in Cuba for the first two weeks of February 2012. Slipping back of the rusted iron curtain, before it crumbles entirely, will be a dream macabre realized.
“Freedom” is proudly advertised by governments the world over and none of them lives up to the term, though some come far closer than do others. Recently I’ve been reading up on Cuba and watching documentaries about and interviews with the father of Socialist Cuba, Fidel Castro.
I find him easier to take as a tottering gray-hair with a thin, sometimes raspy voice than as the vigorous, lectern-pounding, Communist firebrand of decades passed. Still, in his pale, watery eyes and hollow admonitions, one can’t help but see the faces of those who have been silenced for actions contrary to “la Revolucion!”.
In so many ways Castro was the forerunner to the Occupy Wall Street crowd, the chief difference being that he possessed testicular fortitude, charisma, and an intelligent if misguided mind. The enemy is the same - a deep, institutional corruption. We share this view. Where we diverge is in the means to root out such and what system should supplant it.
Over years I have come to think that both pure Capitalism and pure Communism yield the same net result: a detached, minority with much power and wealth ruling over a majority with little of either. There is a balance somewhere in that spectrum, but it exists today in neither the United States nor in Cuba.
To wander Dr. Castro’s 40,000 sq. mile social and economic petri dish, will be a rare opportunity. There is great pride among the Cuban people, and with good reason. They are survivors squeezed in the jaws of a ridiculous vise - on one side Corporate Capitalism and on the other Corporate Communism, the leaders turning the screw. I hope both our countries move quickly toward true Freedom and Prosperity sooner than later. Cuba’s certainly suffered enough.
Here’s the first bit. I’m longwinded, but I’m passionate about Cuba, so this is worse than usual. It rambles. I’ll try to shorten up the rest. Your plans sound good. It is vitally important to go now for the reasons you stated and for reasons you’ll better understand once you go. It’s a special place caught in a very unusual set of decaying circumstances. Castro was right, but he chose the worst possible solution to the problem.
Going legally is best if you can. In my opinion, there’s an awful lot of optimism in the Cuba travel area. Over the past 4 years there’s been a lot of fluctuation in travel restrictions/freedoms. Raina’s uncle is setting up another trip and it’s been on and off for a year now. We were supposed to go in two weeks, but we’re now looking at 9-12 months from now. It changes weekly.
We were lucky enough to coattail on a trip Raina’s uncle was making to teach a martial arts seminar the first time. It was done with necessary Dept of the Treasury permits etc but even at that, we almost couldn’t board the plane. We arrived at the airport in Miami 4-5 hours early for the 9a flight and were only certain we could travel less than 30 minutes before the flight. Legal charter companies are VERY picky about the legal rudiments as the Treasury Dept. will fine them or shut them down for violations. It’s serious business and they can’t afford to screw up.
We traveled during one of the more “open” periods during our relations and the lines were very long at the airport and most travelers brought the maximum amounts of luggage and tons of TVs, air conditioners, you name it. Flatscreen TVs were popular.
Whatever way you decide to go, do everything you can to be sure all paperwork is in order so you don’t wind up spending your vacation in Miami instead. It is equally important to have your Cuba documents in order. They are generally concerned about who enters the country, but with proper paperwork, no trouble.
I’d suggest hiring a Cuba travel consultant on this. Even frequent Cuba travelers do this. There are lots of legal hoops. Ours consultant was a pro and still it was nightmarish, and we nearly didn’t make it due to some of her failings. Once the door shuts on the plane and it starts to back away from the gate, you’re home free.
Entry at Aeropuerto Jose Marti outside Havana was very easy - leaving was the most intimidating aspect (more on that later). The airport experience is much like that of other small Caribbean nations, albeit decrepit. You will have your passport checked and a visa stamped, then you retrieve your bags and meander through the customs line. You are scanned for weapons in a detector and they conduct a rudimentary open bag inspection on every bag. Then you’re IN.
Next you will change your money at the exchange booth, they’re right in front of the doors out of airport. There are two currencies in Cuba. One version for the population and another for tourists. (research this for a less complicated explanation than I would give here - it helps to isolate the citizens from our dollars in an attempt to help them, but fails miserably)
Among the first things you will notice when you walk out of the airport is the smells. Intense smells. The heavy salt air mixes with sweet, acrid smoke from distant trash fires, and gasoline and diesel exhaust that bellows unrestricted from engines limping along. That alone is overwhelming, but couple that with the unimaginable decrepitude of nearly everything you see and a fierce and proud people going about their lives despite this, and… it can be overwhelming. You want to DO something about it.
You can hire a taxi to take you into Havana right from the curb, as with any airport and despite the appearance of the cars and some of the drivers, it is safe. I felt safer traveling nearly anywhere in Havana than in most places in the US. You’ll understand when you’re there.
A number of years ago Raul Castro opened up commerce to allow some private businesses - as you’ve likely heard. Immediately bed and breakfasts popped up, as well as little restaurants and bakeries, all in people’s homes. One of the nicer neighborhoods is called el Vedado and we stayed there. The old Tropicana has been remodeled and is cheap by our standards, and you can stay at 5 star resorts (3 star by our standards) but stay in a neighborhood B&B or in old Havana. Any of that resort crap leaves you completely isolated.
Some of the classic 1950’s mob hotels along the Malecon (the seawall) are getting fixed up and I’d suggest that too. If you have money to spend, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba is legend and it’s where it all happened back in the day. That’s where the US mob planned their take-over, where all the movie stars stayed and so on. It’s by no means a US standard hotel, but classic Havana. It is the pride of Havana and holds a special place in the hearts of Cubans. Beautiful old building. Even if you don’t stay there, go for sundowners - mojitos on the lawn looking out at the Straights of Florida with the strolling band playing requests, a cigar… I want to fucking cry. Perfection. The night we were there, a full moon rose from behind the old fort at the harbor entrance… magical.
Another hotel option, and maybe the best is this: Hotel Inglatera in Old Havana. Actually, if I were you, I’d just stay there. Awesome old hotel and you can walk to almost everything. Right across the square from the hotel is the national art museum, which was good and surprisingly unpopulated. Right next door to it is one of Hemingway’s many watering holes and one of the most famous, La Floridita, home of the daiquiri. Also, you should hire a car for a day and head out to Hemingway’s finca (A MUST SEE - about 1/2 a day) and go to a beach for the rest of the day - the car will wait.
As I said Havana is full of unimaginable decay - I mean to the point that you cannot fathom people living in the structure, and yet… they do. Cubans can lawfully inhabit any structure they care to so long as they file registration papers, and over many decades they improve it.
It took months to fully digest all I saw there. And still there are places where you step back five hundred years. It’s amazing. La Floridita and the Hotel Inglatera and many other places are like this. Bizarre and exciting. Nothing has changed since the late 50’s in some of these places.
There is a sort of bazar or market in an old warehouse on the harbor where you can buy all sorts of stuff. It’s a tourist place, but not like you might think. Buying their crafts really helps the vendors and their families. It’s located in the oldest part of Havana and you really get the feel of 500 years of history. This was the forward operating base from which Spain directed the Conquest of the New World. Pretty amazing.
You should have dinner out where all the mansions are, I’ll dig up some data on that. It’s surreal, especially after seeing how people live throughout Havana…. Stunning mansions from 1900 to the 30’s, in fresh paint, perfectly landscaped, high, wrought iron gates, fences, and walls, Mercedes, BMWs, and a high military/police presence. This is where the ruling elite and their families live - it is a Socialist utopia after all. Hypocrisy at its manicured finest.
There’s a restaurant in one of the old mansions where Castro used to eat from time to time. Excellent food. $10-$15 gets your what would cost $75-$150 in the US.
Photography & Me 2011 (Incomplete)
Photography is my earliest love. I came into this world with that purpose. It got sidetracked, I got distracted, but it was always there. This photo below… I remember this very clearly. I am about three or four. For months I’ve been trying to get my hands on my dad’s Minolta SR-T 101 35mm camera.
One day, late in the fall, he comes home with this junk store, Lomo Diana F+ (a legendary plastic camera that has enjoyed a resurgence in the past five years). I’m thrilled and I call out “twi-pod!”. He sets it up, I hold my camera on the mount, and click away. No film. Film is expensive and my parents are, as the state of my hair might suggest, living outside the “social construct of materialism”.
We are somewhat “nomadic” and in fact, after the 1940 Dodge truck, and my parents’ Raleigh bicycles, the Minolta SR-T 101 is the most valuable family possession. Time moves on and so do my mother and I. She gets a job at a hippy commune cum boarding school in Oregon and my dad remains in California. In the second photo below, you can see the split coming….
In Oregon I’m wild and crazy, living in the woods 14 hours a day. When I’m about seven or eight that’s cut back to six hours and the realities of classrooms start to hit. I don’t care for math and science, but I’m, possessed of a preternatural understanding of government and politics. I have a ready knowledge of history and US politics from the 30’s into the early 60’s and can name world leaders, their country of origin, and their years in office or the period of their reign when shown their photograph. I do impressions of some too. I love encyclopedia, LIFE magazine, National Geographic. Every summer I go to California to stay with my dad, and at 13 I start working. The money I earn mowing lawns or crawling in attics to run electrical wire for burglar alarms (my dad’s business), buys color Kodak film and I’m shooting with the old Minolta and eventually I piece together a Polo wardrobe. Politics….
By about 14 I have a roommate in the school dorms and he’s a photographer. I shoot photos for fun trying to understand what makes an image that gets into LIFE or National Geographic, but he’s really into the art of it. His name is Chris. I’m still deep into government and politics and I want to be a politician…. It shows in the photo below. That’s me on the right, and on the left my roommate Chris. He goes on to earn a degree in photography from The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
For three years I’m shooting black and white for the school yearbook and spending a lot of time in the darkroom - mostly rolling my own film, developing it, but also learning a fair bit about girls and anatomy. There was a blond girl from Missouri, “J. M.”. Said her dad would write me a letter of recommendation to law school. I should have taken her up on that and other things she was offering. My roommate Chris teaches me how to use the enlarger and now I’m also printing photos from my negatives… and I continue study female anatomy.
It’s good to be on Yearbook: all the film you can shoot and print, and access to the darkroom.
I graduate still thinking about politics and I spend two years interning at a lobbyist office in Sacramento for what was the most powerful lobby in California, The Association of California Insurance Companies. Boring stuff, but in the early 90s the insurance industry is in the crosshairs of California politicians.
Day to day I deliver press releases, gather copies of bills at the Capital, read eight news papers and clip any stories on the insurance industry and learn the ins and outs of government, business, and politics. So many “outs” in politics. It’s a dirty trade. It predates prostitution and is lower on the evolutionary totem.
Years later my wife has a political consultancy as a client. The stories of debauchery, lecherous behavior, bag men, back room deals are true. If you can imagine it, it’s happened. Power and ideals suffer in the hands of many politicians and their consultants. Party affiliation doesn’t matter. For example, story of an early morning, brown-bag delivery to a Central Valley sheriff to spring one of the state’s most powerful consultants, his impounded Porsche, and to scrub the books of a DUI…. Did it happen? You might think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment. (The original BBC version is superior)
Through various run-ins and brushes with political staffers and other interns, I soon learn that I lack the requisite ratio of reptilian to human blood to successfully survive in the chambers of government, or in a law office - something I see as another option. My mentor, Tom Coneely, the head of the lobby group, offers to write a letter of recommendation to law school. It doesn’t phase me and I thank him, but no. I kick around in and out of college for a couple years. Mostly out.
Still, I’m shooting photos, along with video - another story with a similar time line. I decide to try college in New York City, so I move there with my high school girlfriend. Political culture shock - I’m a strange mix of early 60’s ideologies, some conservative, a fair amount of what used to be called liberal, overall a good balance, that remains in me. Easy access toThe Met, MOMA and so on is the best part of my time in New York. After struggling a year in the city and more lost than ever, I decide to take the easy way out and return home to California. Artists still seem to exist only in dreams, in a world beyond the one I think is most important - politics. How wrong I was.
The idea that I can pursue photography as anything more than “just something I love to do” does not exist for me. My world revolves around all things political. I start working for my dad’s construction company to make money. Actually, I’m just too lazy to make a go of life myself. Four years later I’m deep in it and I get my contractors license. In that moment I feel that I’ve achieved something marginally important as one of the youngest contractors in California and that I’ve shut important doors simultaneously. I still have not “made money”, my original intention in doing construction.
I build up my own construction company and buy cameras and continue to shoot. My girlfriend becomes my wife, I continue to build and remodel people’s homes. I’m largely unhappy with it, but I come alive when I’m doing fine wood working or interacting with my clients. I buy an autowinding, autofocus 35mm film camera and I think I’m in Heaven. We travel to Honduras to visit my wife’s expat grandparents who moved there in 1975. I feel like a National Geographic photographer or photojournalist. It’s the 90s and the Contras are camped just 30 miles from where we are staying.
Honduras is like the American west 100 years ago. Most people walk or ride horseback, machetes hang from their belts and some wear pistols. I see my first murder victim and lifeless corpse of a child in Honduras. The first, a black form floating down a river we’re riding up on horseback. The next day I shoot a photo of the accused murderers, peering out the steel cage door of the tiny blockhouse jail on the town square. The second as I round a high mountain curve driving to the Maya ruins at Copan. A boy’s body lies twisted, his side split open like a struck deer. The mother, convulsing, face buried in hands. A cattle truck parked roadside 100 feet up, it’s cargo mooing. The driver standing near the body. Matter of fact. A mob waiting for a bus - like this mother and child - stare on. Unmoved. Matter of fact. Life unvarnished.
The sun is dipping back of distant mountaintops that backlight vibrant cotton dresses in many hues. A grief-choked mother. A twisted young corpse. A soccer ball came to rest in a ditch. The driver… matter of fact. Remorseless. I reach for my camera. I pause. I skip the shot. It feels predatory. I drop the Toyota into gear and press on toward the Maya ruins at Copan.
To be continued….