Just before the world caught on fire (or more so than it already was) and everything stopped, Myriam and I were lucky enough to spend a weekend in Havana, Cuba. This is a short photo journal of our weekend, punctuated with my ill-formed and vaguely expressed thoughts about the country and my experiences there.
Despite only having been there once before, fifteen years ago, I have a enormous soft spot for Cuba. Havana speaks to me of faded grandeur, picturesque decrepitude and a stunningly romantic way of life. While I am fully aware that this idealised, romanticised version of the place is in many ways at odds with reality, it is hard to shake and I have always wanted to go back.
Visiting Havana fifteen years apart was a fascinating experience. Obviously, things in Cuba have changed. The last fifteen years have seen the death of Fidel Castro, the loosening of the blockade under the Obama administration in the US, Raoul Castro’s reforms, and the resumption of a hostile relationship with the US complete with trade embargos and sanctions.
Havana has, to my eyes at least, changed enormously and not at all. The city still feels like it did when I first visited, the same rhythm to the streets, noises and smells. However so much has changed at the same time. Restaurants, bars and coffee shops, once almost impossible to find, are now commonplace. The authentic decay of the city’s extraordinarily grand and elegant past has now been embraced, with bars and cafes leaning-in to the vibe that has been replicated in Hackney, Brooklyn and Belleville.
Back in 2005, immediate and constant access to internet was of little concern, whereas now being without wifi even for a day is a novelty. Discovering that internet is one of the many things that remains rationed on the island, and access is dependent on queuing for an hour at the internet shop for a wifi card was unexpected, and a real insight into how Cubans deal with something that we take for granted.
Fifteen years has also changed the way that I see the world, and how I interact with places I travel. Back in 2005 I was far less aware of my surroundings, and a holiday with my parents did not make me think deeply about the realities of day-to-day life in Cuba. This time around I understood far more about how the island works, and paid far more attention to the complexities and difficulties faced by the people of Cuba. Long queues for supermarkets, being unable to find basic things to buy, and the huge disparity between local and tourist prices suddenly loomed large in my thoughts.
Cuba remains somewhere that fascinates and saddens me greatly, as an example of a potentially wonderful way of life that so nearly works, and yet has such fundamental, damaging downsides largely not of their own making. A society that has been essentially destroyed by the arrogance and ideology of political leaders, by the vicious suppresion of alternative political and cultural thought by the US, and by the repression of dissent and difference by Cuban political leaders. A society that can’t buy eggs and bread on a day-to-day basis with reliability, yet has one of the best public health services in the world. A place where you queue to buy access to the internet, but has an unemployment rate of 1.7% and 85% home ownership.
The country’s troubles are starkly shown in the architecture and public art of Havana, by the contrast between how grand it must have been, and how now it is quite literally falling down around you. Yet the spirit of the Cuban people is also writ loud on the streets of the capital. Every hour of the day is punctuated by music and dancing, by bright colours and a celebration of the good things in life. This is not in any way to minimise or diminish the problems, rather to highlight the resilience and committment to joy that epitomises Cuban society, at least as far as my experiences go.
I can’t recommend Cuba and Havana enough. It is stunningly beautiful, with some of the most warm, welcoming, friendly and joyful people I have encountered anywhere in the world. It is a country of contrasts and problems, but one with such a sense of pride, of life, of vibrancy, that you feel that given the opportunity to do so, they could overcome any hurdles thrown their way.
I would love to see what a Cuba freed from constant external attack and obsessive internal control could do. I can only hope that this might one day be a possibility.