Cuba: Ten Years Later

In March 2000, my wife and I went to Havana, Cuba to participate in a photography workshop sponsored by the Maine Photographic Workshops. We made friends with artists, musicians, photographers, old Revolutionaries, among others. I recall that on Obispo Street there were many closed shops and storefronts were often boarded over. There was little commercial activity. The segregation of tourists and Cubans was still actively enforced. There were “peso” stores and restaurants intended for Cubans. There were other restaurants and shops that used the American dollar as the official currency and were open only to those with dollars.

The next year I became interested in the possibility of conducting student workshops in photography through the International Education Program at ASU. There were three such workshops in 2002-2004. After that politics changed and ASU like most all universities in the United States lost its educational permit for Cuba travel. In the past two years I began to hear from old students asking about Cuba, travel there, and expressing how meaningful an experience the trip to Cuba had been. Most had never seen anything like it, could have never imagined living there for a month, and described it as “life changing.”

Last summer after five years of not seeing my friends in Cuba I got the itch to return. After taking a few soundings of current student interest I decided to prepare and submit a proposal for a trip over the winter break. We would go see how things were, how important the holidays were, and whether or not they were taken as seriously as holidays are taken in our country. It was time to renew ties with Cuba–for me as well as the USA.

Quickly eight photography students signed up for the trip. I sweated out the days as we waited for the visas that are an important aspect of travel being legal and above board. I developed a good relationship with a travel service provider in Miami, and before long we were on our way to Havana.

To list the things that have changed would take a lot of space. The most important change is the change at the top. For whatever reason Raul is more moderate than his brother. He is not a hero as is Fidel, but he is admired and respected as a leader. We traveled at what is regarded as “High Season,” and the city of Havana was full of tourists. I was told in the early 2000s that Cuba was a “destination for the budget minded European tourist.” That has not changed, but there are many more of them. Also one encounters many tour groups from the United States that are there on humanitarian, educational, cultural, and “get to know the Cubans” missions. Shiny, brightly painted buses purchased from China have replaced the old truck tractor pulled buses, the camellos. Obispo Street is a pedestrian mall and every store is open and selling something, even if it remains very inexpensive and often poorly made merchandise. There are many new automobiles competing for space on the road with the restored American cars from the 1950s. A lot of these are available as taxis and tour vehicles. There are many more restaurants. Several new hotels have been built both in Central Havana and up near the old golf course in Miramar where they can be right on the beach. These changes made it more exciting for the students, increased the opportunities for photography, and daily tired them out with exciting work.

One occasionally is told by Cubans that they know that if they work harder, they will make more money. There is a new currency, the convertible peso or “CUC”. There is a ten percent surcharge on American dollars plus the exchange commission that can be steep. The locals still have the peso and the peso economy. And they do work harder. My friend Roberto told me that he makes more money as a guide and translator, but his taxes are higher. He is experiencing the move to a free market economy and is a bit unsure about all of it. The students on the current trip understood a lot of the changes based on old photos we reviewed in pre-trip planning and informational meetings.

Some information gathered during the trip indicates how successful it was and attests to the enthusiasm of the participants. We averaged walking between 4-5 miles per day; the record for two of the students was 14.7 miles in one day! In the first two days the ten participants took over five thousand exposures on their digital cameras. Unfortunately we were all exhausted each night so only the hardiest went out in the evening. I think maybe two went to the Tropicana, five to a jazz club, and we took some evening strolls along the Malecon.

We did catch up with some of our Cuban friends. It was fairly typical-Nelson was in Europe at a conference, Leysis was deep into the third trimester, Tony and Amador were in the Canary Islands, Juan y Margarita weren’t speaking to me, and we had a wonderful Cuban meal prepared by Ramon at his and Rufino’s home. There we made 3 or 4 new friends! You never know when you might need a good internist, a fashionista from Miami, or a movie producer and critic in Havana.