Landed in Havana during an evening rainstorm. I spent 8 hours in Mexico trying to fly out, but no go. I even tried to take the noon Cubana Airline flight. For some reason they wouldn’t process my flight at ll:30, even though one would think that $180 would be important enough to the Cuban government. Anyway, I suspect that security was the reason. Still, flying Cubana is always half price, and it’s worth it.
Otherwise, considering that Cuba had two crashes in South America recently, I was a bit relieved to not get on. They fly some very old Antonov and Tupolev Russian airplanes, with a few missing parts?
A new postmodern $30 million dollar airport terminal built by Canada, a definite improvement over the old terminal when I was last here. Meanwhile, security insisted that I put my camera bag through X-ray and I refused. I have a lot of high-speed film that would be damaged and no way could I do this. A brief stand off, but finally another security woman interceded and did a hand held search. They waved me through with no further search of my bags.
I hand over my passport and a man records it in a computer. Otherwise, he does not stamp it, knowing that I will have trouble upon returning to America with any record of my visit to Cuba.
I wander outside in the open air and think about the 10,000 tons of sugar that Castro sent N. Vietnam in 1965.
Now a state run taxi to a State run hotel. Juanita drives the taxi, an old Ladia (Russian) auto. She drives fast, recklessly through a few armored vehicles and a lot of beautiful l950’s American cars with no taillights. Finally we are flagged down by 3 police from the side of the road. They open the trunk and go through my bag. I dare not get out of the car. Finally, Juanita says “multa” and I ask how much. $10 for speeding.
On the way into Havana I can still see an occasional prostitute on street corners, but much less than 94, when the dollar lrst became the official currency.
Now Juanita is cursing Castro and Cuba. She mentions Miami 3 times. I tell her that, should she ever make it to America, there are parts of Miami that I wouldn’t try to go into if I were her.
As usual the architecture is stunning, no matter the decay and ruins of parts of Havana. Time stands still here; I imagine that I am driving into Mexico City around 1940.
It is too late to go to Joseph’s so I go to a State Hotel. The staff of the hotel is very friendly, while the prevailing air is state business. Reminds me of my days spent in E. Berlin in 1977. No Nonsense. Yet, a beautiful crowd of people drinking and singing a bar of the Hotel---mostly tourists from South America; and a few prostitutes thrown in for good measure.
I am here illegally. I meet a number of people and they salute my arrival. Not too many Americans make it here. And Bush now wants a $15,000 fine. Cuba is the enemy. And China is our best friend. Amazing.
Morning and I walk the streets. Prostitutes, kids and dogs follow me in the streets. Other people are curious as to where I am from.
The state of affairs? This is the ‘Periodo Especial’---the period since Russia left, and everyone has had to make great sacrifices. This once closed society has now been forced to open up to the world. The people seem quite restless—this is still a critical period. Sometimes I feel the climate is sad and depressing; other times I see a very strong, proud industrious people, with a lust for life, music, art, etc.
Rumor has it that Castro will speak in the Plaza de Revolution today with Chavez, who is visiting from Venezuela. This from, who else, but a University professor. No show. But I showed with a prostitute that I met of the Malecon sea wall that morning. We had lunch in a black market restaurant and walked through Central Havana. Central Havana is one of the most populated and overcrowded parts of the city, a rather rough area with a lot of neoclassical columns throughout, and faded pastel colors.
We approach the Plaza De Revolucion and it is dominated by a monument to Joseph Marti, a large Soviet Style concrete pillar. It is from here that Castro makes the majority of his addresses to the public. Falishia advises me not to linger too close; she was
I am overcome by a sense of history. Suddenly, I can hear the crowds shouting as Castro and Che approach the Plaza. The Monroe Doctrine has failed; and America has died in its sleep. From my backside I am hosted on to the shoulders of men and women. The roar of the crowd is deafening. I am the last American left on the island.
From here we are followed for a bout 7 blocks by a plain clothes Federale on a bicycle. Every time we stop, he stops and gives me a rather hard stare. Finally, as we walk back through Centro Havana, I turn around and he has disappeared? Falishia says that she is hungry, again. The words: load, action, aim, fire turn over in my mind throughout the rest of the evening.
I am into 4 rolls of film by now. Its has gone well, though outside of Calcutta this has to be the most intense moments I have experienced with a camera. I have pushed my luck on back streets late a night; endless walks, many times with no real idea as to my where abouts, or as to which way back to the Centro Plaza of Vieja.
Felisha and I return home. I propose a photograph. She gets undressed and sits at a table. Perfect light. And perhaps one of the best nude shots of my life?
Late afternoon I take a taxi over to Joseph’s flat in the Vedado section of Havana. Someone leads me into the building and I hold my breath while looking at a rather broken down elevator. I get in and we make it up to the 12th floor. A warm embrace and Joseph shows me around.
I had known Joseph for about 8 years in San Francisco. He is British and lived in the city about 10 years. In 1996 he purchased two of my Cuba photographs at a gallery and hung them in a travel agency that he owned with a friend. Two years ago he sold everything and moved to Havana. I had no idea that he was this committed to Cuba, politically or otherwise.
He works for the government radio station called RADIO PROGRESSO—this is Cuba world news and cultural programming in English that is broadcast around the world. He writes, edits and his program goes on the air for 2 hours every day. The salary is 400 pesos a month ($20) and he doesn’t pay rent, electricity or water. Also there is a ration card for stable food items every month----and he has free medical and dental care, like all Cubans.
Also, he is an excellent translator and will take foreign cultural study groups, journalists, and other people on research throughout Cuba.
Along with a bit of Rum, I am welcomed by a number of Cubans in the flat---and this included a couple of doctors, the opera musical director, a ballet dancer and two writers. Quite impressive. I keep waiting for Castro to walk in, but it never happens.
Amellio takes a collection and goes out for more rum. The minute he gets on the elevator there is a black out.
The room erupts with laughter---Mellio has been trapped on the elevator. I didn’t find this very funny, as it could have been me. Cubans have a sense of humor. Actually, there is still some ‘energy–saving’ electrical rationing, but his is negligible compared to the six, ten and even eighteen-hour cutoffs if the mid-nineties, when I was last here.
7 a.m. I awake to a rather loud transmitter/reverb sound and go out to the balcony. Joseph is pacing the floor and talking rather loudly with the telephone to his ear. I soon learn that he is being interviewed by WBAI, the largest radio station in Chicago. They are doing a program on Castro and his health, and Josephs fills them in on the government’s latest commentary and public opinion.
By noon I go out into the streets of my Ole Havana. I take long walks throughout Vedado, a neighborhood that I passed through four years ago. Some homes and buildings are immaculate, while others are quite ruin down. A lot of the nice places are government, cultural or education centers, while others are homes of Cubans who receive Miami money from families. There are a number of embassies throughout Vedado, and as I walk down Linear Street I run into the Chinese embassy, followed by Poland and Korea.
For the first time since Asia I am focused on color photographs---the doorways, architecture and old American cars. This is a dream, walking these streets, and impossible to put into words….its 1959 and I am in a time machine. Literally. And it’s beautiful.
I wander through neighborhoods and every other block I hear live music being played, many from basements. And I just walk in and am always welcomed. I sit about and often I am offered a cigar or a shot of rum. And we talk about music and they all love the music of America, and were quite influenced by it. As usual, the first thing they talk about is Jazz and how important that was, to discover this music. Others talk about the blues. But I am hearing more Jazz than blues in their music. And African music plays a big role in the history of Cuban music as well.
I meet Joseph for dinner and we go out to one of the local restaurants. Almost all restaurants are, of course, government owned. However, since the dollar became currency, many private homes have opened small restaurants----and this is the best food. Four years ago this was “black market” though for now most of them have been exposed. But now you can register, pay a tax---and with this you are allowed 12 chairs to serve patrons; though many open a secret room with more than 12 chairs, etc. Anyway, the food and service in private homes are very good. Government restaurants are, well, government restaurants….
After dinner we go outside to a café for drinks. 85 cents for a beer. At this point a man comes up and pesters us for money. I have never seen this in Cuba---and Joseph says it is only the second time in two years for him. In a moment of humor Joseph says, “We will have to turn him in to the ‘central committee’ and have him re-educated.”
We return home and I meet Sergio, a doctor, who has come by to see my photographs. I am having a show at Fototeca, the national Photo Gallery in Havana.
Fascinating encounter. In 1944 he was born in Peru and at the age of 2 his family moved to New York. His father has spent his whole life working with the United Nations.
Sergio spent 20 years in New York, and upon turning 22 he visited Russia, where he spent 2 years attending school. In 1966 he returned to New York, and within a year moved to Cuba. Here he attended Medical School for 6 years and became a doctor. He has lived and practiced medicine ever since, though he has made a number of trips abroad. Sergio has a Peruvian passport so, officially, he can go where he likes, but he calls Cuba home.
We immediately hit if off and spend a long evening in conversation, followed by drinks in Vedado. And of course I treat him, as he virtually has no money.
I find it rather interesting to see yet another perspective from Cuba on the ‘inside’. Of course, his English is immaculate, with a slight New York accent. He is a peculiar figure. Also, he is in a state of change, like a lot of Cubans. He says that he is like many Cubans who want change---and not necessarily on Castro’s terms, nor on America’s terms, either. He is critical of many things, but he also loves Cuba and what the government has done for the people---and this being the fact that when Castro came to power he built schools, hospitals, libraries, roads, cultural and artistic centers, etc. No other central or South American country can acclaim a 94 percent literacy rate. And Cuba has a 4.3 infant mortality rate---America is 8.6. Yes, less kids die at birth in Cuba than America. Still, he is quite critical about many things. And in a humorous moment, he says, “To criticize is one thing---to organize is another”.
We laugh and have another drink. Sergio reminds me that the most appalling thing Cubans find about America is violence, that there are so many guns and shootings, they just can’t fathom that environment, especially with kids.
He tells me that he is leaving for England to work for a RED CROSS medical team for disaster relief, and will most likely be sent to Kosovo or Timor. It has been years since he has been out of the country. Sergio plans to make enough money to return and buy a house---and for this he will need Cuban lawyers to get through the State red tape, but these days it can be done. For now, as a Doctor, he is making 400 pesos A ($20 a month).
Today Sergio and I start off for a long tour on his motorcycle. He shows me the University of Havana, the National Ballet Center, and, finally, a number of Hospitals where he has worked.
We continue on the outskirts of Havana and go into rural areas where we turn on a main road and suddenly he says, “look discreetly to your right and you will see the main political prison---and no photographs!” I immediately photograph a shot from my lap.
On the way back we gas up the bike ($4 a gallon) and drive through Central Havana to have his spark plugs cleaned. We pull up to a building, and outside a man has a small old machine that will grind and clean a spark pug. They converse and I wander about photographing. Soon I return and the job is finished. As we get on the bike Sergio laughs and says, “Can you believe it? This guy makes about 4 times as much as I do with that little machine.”
I suggest dinner and he mentions a wonderful black market private Italian restaurant. We ride through Central Havana and while driving up to this house he says, “Something is up”. He greets a man leaning out of the window on the balcony. The man runs his two fingers across his throat and says in Spanish—“shut down”.
At this point I tell Sergio that money is no problem and to choose a favorite. He rarely gets a treat like this, even though he is a doctor. We head for Miramar to the former Russian consulate, which is now a beautiful restaurant. We arrive at the consulate and it has the feeling of a well-groomed country club. This is off the tourist path and is for locals only, though they only take dollars. Cuba now has a lot of places for people to spend dollars and splurge. About 30 to 40 percent of all Cubans get money wired in from their Miami families---and the Cuban government makes sure there is now a lot to spend it on. An estimated eight hundred million dollars a year is being pumped into Cuba’s economy through such remesas (“remittances”) from the Cuban ‘émigré’ community in Florida and elsewhere. The government needs dollars to buy much needed medicine, gas, and other staple items. So there are restaurants, western stores, and a number of places to splurge. I even saw a few places that look like McDonald’s and they serve the same food, with Disney like animals painted on the walls. A lot of “Miami” Cubans live well here, unlike most of the population.
Sergio and I go around back to the Garden and are seated. The waiters are wearing nice shirts and bow ties. It almost looks surreal. We order drinks and food—this being shrimp & chicken w/ vegetables at $5 a dish. I couldn’t help but ask Sergio how often he eats meat, and quite frankly he says, “once in a very blue moon.”
Over dinner I ask more questions. What happened after he become a Doctor and lived in Cuba the last 30 years? He explains that there were a few medical conferences in Russia, visited family twice in Peru, and made one trip to New York. Later in1978 he went into Nicaragua for 2 years and worked as a doctor for that revolution. He dealt with wounded soldiers and was sometimes forced to fight and defend the hospitals. A few very close calls, but he survived. A few years later he went to El Salvador and became a doctor in another “war” and, again, spent some time fighting as well. In 1984 back to Cuba.
And I thought I had a life story. I remind Sergio that he has a book in him that should be written sooner than later. He laughs and says that he has been keeping a journal for 20 years and still hasn’t gotten past the first draft. He says I have a book as well and that we must both finish.
Cuban cigarettes are so strong that they are impossible to smoke, though the cigars are another story. I order a pack of American cigarettes from the waiter and he brings back a pack of Marlboros for $1.25—and that’s 25 cents more expensive than Mexico. Whatever, it look like Cuba hasn’t gotten around to taxing or suing Phillip Morris as yet.
Noon. I meet Joseph and we head out to a Maternity hospital—he is meeting some western journalists and another group doing research of Cuba’s Medical Practice. We go to the director’s office and I am introduced to Alina, who is about 60 and has been a physician for 35 years. I step out and shoot some photos and am immediately confronted by guards. After explaining that I am with Joseph and the director they apologize and offer to take me around. Finally, Joseph, the director and I proceed to a conference room, now filled with people. She gives a brief introduction and greetings as Joseph translates. Then the questions begin. Some questions upset her, but most of the hour goes smoothly.
Doctors in Cuba spend 6 years in medical school and then for 2 years practice medicine. And only after this mandatory two years of practice can they return to school to become a specialist.
This is because medical treatment is based on the “community”. The doctor learns to live in that community for those two years and become an integral part of their life. And this is primary in beginning a practice.
This is a Maternity hospital and there are on average about 350 to 400 births a month. Also, about 200 abortions a month. Birth control services and education are widely available. IUD’s, Pills and Condoms are widely available and free.
Cuban medicine is also based on educating the people—and preventive medicine is key. They provide a lot of literature and have daily community meetings to address people’s concerns. The doctor will also make home visits that have as much to do about education as medical care. This month is a focus on A.I.D.S. and how it will affect their lives.
Cuba has one of the lowest rates of A.I.D.S. in the world. They have an HIV infection rate of 0.09, and compare that to 0.6 for America.
Cubans have the same life expectancy as people in the United States.
The downside of Cuban medicine is anti-biotics. You can have the most successful heart operation, but with the on set of infection there are often not enough anti-biotics to go around. This is another sad footnote with America’s attempt to isolate Cuba with the embargo. Unlike Russia, Viet Nam, and China--Cuba cannot trade goods and open such markets with America. And most recently the United States has lifted a ban on the sale of food and medicine to Iran, Libya, Sudan, and North Korea—the only country that is still denied humanitarian assistance is Cuba. And now about 70 percent of Americans are against the embargo, but the Miami Anti- Castro money lobby has bought our every politician, including the last eight presidents. And the United Nations (all countries, except Israel) have voted 102 to 1 against the embargo.
It is also worth noting that the day after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Cuba had a flotilla of boats with 1600 doctors and 36 tons of medical supplies to help rescue and give aid to America. They were denied access by the United States Government. And 1,800 people died, most of them poor, and they died for lack of aid and treatment.
After every major hurricane in Central America Cuba will come to the rescue with Doctors and supplies. And Cuba has come to the aid of many poor countries around the world.
And in October 2005 the Kashmir region of Pakistan had a violent earthquake, and on October 15 Cuba sent 200 emergency doctors and several tons of equipment. And a few days later Cuba sent necessary materials to erect 30 field hospitals in mountain areas.
Anyway, the revolution has made Medicine a divine right to any and everyone. And the medical schools in Cuba are world famous. In 1958 it was 9.2 doctors per 10,000 inhabitants. By 1999 it was 58.2 doctors per 10,000. The patient ratio has grown significantly since the revolution.
They also offer Medical School to many students from around the world, mostly poor countries. And, in fact, since 2000 over 500 Americans have graduated from Cuba Medical schools; and most of these people could not afford to go to Medical school in America.
Today I make plans for a train to Trinidad, a beautiful city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. But first I will stop off and visit Cinfuegos, the sugar capitol of Cuba.
An eight-hour train ride and the countryside is lush and tropical. Its is good to be out of the intensity of Havana. I have slept very little for 6 days.
The train arrives in Cienfuegos. I walk about the town looking for accommodation and finally meet a man who takes me to a hotel several blocks off the plaza. They have a room but tell me that I must pay in pesos. It is illegal for me to have pesos and I have none. I go out into the back streets and find someone to change black market money---25 pesos for one dollar. I return to the hotel; my room is $4.80 pesos, about 17 cents. A somewhat nice balcony room overlying the port. I wander about the town, a small agricultural province. Sugar is the main crop, exported from the Port of Cienfuegos.
And now sugar is no longer Cuba’s main export. By the mid 19th century Cuba produced 1/3 of the world’s sugar. And American Investors began to make a move on the island. Soon the sugar industry was under their control. But the revolution put an end to that.
And by 1960 80 per cent of Cuba’s earnings were based on sugar. And most of those exports went to Russia and East Europe, at a high market price. And meanwhile, Russia was also subsidizing Cuba at about 4 billion dollars a year. And 90 per cent of all of Cuba’s trade was with the Soviet Union.
But by 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, most trading with Russia and East Europe came to an end. And sugar was no longer a viable product for Cuba. Castro shut down half of the 160 sugar mills and began to plant new crops. Also, it takes a lot of oil to produce sugar and it just didn’t add up. And tourism replaced sugar as revunue for the country.
Castro soon accused Russia betraying Cuba, and of being an ally with America. Putin finally made a visit to Cuba in 2000, the lrst President of Russia to visit Cuba since 1991. He proclaimed Cuba a friend and made a point of continuing a partnership in Nanotechnologies, sharing T.V and Radio communication, etc. And they still maintain a strategic radar base at Lourdes, just outside Havana.
Upon returning to the hotel I see a gentleman standing by the front desk. He says, “Hello Mr. Kenneth, How do you like Cienfuegos?” Thus began my two days with Fedorko Stelmac.
He was born of Ukrainian parents in Havana in 1925. He says at the age of 18 he went to America, where he lived and worked for 6 years in Chicago.
He is so happy to speak English and talk to an American. I learn that the family moved to Cienfuegos when he was a kid, and that his family had something to do with the sugar mill---though I felt he was rather vague about the details.
“What am I going to do? You tell me that, Mr. Kenneth. I have no one. I talk to a dog and cat everyday and they are sick of listening to me. Should I get America to send my identity papers? Castro took them, and the he tried to take my house; then my wife tried to take the house. I can’t tell you how long I have waited for an American to come here and tell me what is my next move.”
The Ukraine accent is very heavy, but his English is quite fluent. His words trail off and I burst out laughing at his comic/tragic state of affairs. He is 70 years old and looks like James Cagney.
He tells me that the Hotel restaurant is one of the best in town; but as every place is owned and run by the State I am not sure what this means. The restaurant is quite pathetic, but the staff manages to keep their chin up. This building, like a lot of Cuba, is in decay---not a can of paint left in this whole country.
We order fish, pork, rice and beans. The food is good but quite bland; there are virtually no spices in Cuba. I ask for wine, beer or a coke, but to no avail.
“Are you dreaming? You are not going to get that in a restaurant. Maybe in a Black Market dollar store in Havana, not here. I end up with very watered down orange juice.”
I then ask him how he makes a living and inquire about what kind of Pension or retirement plan Castro has for people his age.
“Are you still dreaming? I have been selling the furniture in my house for the last 5 years. And another thing: Don’t say Castro---nobody, nobody calls him Castro. He is only one of the people, so we call him Fidel. Better yet most of us call him ‘El Ninjo’ (“the kid”). And me draw a pension? You can forget about it.”
The he says, while laughing, “don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me” This is classic Ukrainian /Russian translation of ‘Don’t make me laugh.’
Fedorko and I agree to meet in the morning at the Funeral home at 8:30---A young girl he knows has died. From there he says he will accompany me to an old Spanish cemetery that I wish to photograph.
It is 9:00 and Fedorko is still a no show at the Funeral home. Finally, I assume his horse carriage taxi is late so I head out for the cemetery to photograph in the early morning light. I walk into a hard rain and see a rather beautiful old angelic woman. She must be at least 100 years old and is wearing a torn white gown. I put the camera away, as it would destroy everything. A dream. I feel as though I am living in a Marquez novel.
When I return to the hotel I find a note from Fedorko, saying that he will meet me here at 3:00. I then go down to the train station to photograph and have lunch on the streets. Afterwards, I return to the room to catch a nap.
Suddenly, the door knocks, and I awaken, thinking it must be Fedorko. When I open the door I see two very serious soldiers standing there. I then panic and begin to faint, but catch myself against the door mantle. What is this about? I quickly recounted the events of the last 24 hours. Changed money on the black market—which is very illegal. And last night I drank rum in a very small workers bar around the corner. They had all crowded around me and refused to let me pay for my drinks. The conversation was light, but at one point someone asked me about Bush and I offered my opinion; suddenly, a man behind the bar said, in very broken English said...”change de conversation.” This frightened me and I looked around the room. Silence. I stayed another 1/2 hour and left with a very cordial, warm embrace with everyone. Still, the events of that evening stayed with me.
By now the 2 soldiers had entered the room. One of them said, “at the bar last night”---then the other abruptly interrupted him--”no, at the restaurant this morning, the man sitting next to your table”. Then I remembered that over breakfast a rather strange Cuban man had entered the room. He forcibly kissed a man and female staff woman. After this he shouted at the ceiling, walked over to my table and threw down his Cuban identity papers next to my food. He was a rather ‘Chaplin’ like figure, I liked him but had no idea what to make of him.
Meanwhile, the other soldier continued, “Did he molest you, hurt you?’
Finally, with a great sense of relief I realized what was going on. I told them that he did not threaten or harm me whatsoever: And that I hope he was not detained over me.
At this point they asked to see my papers. Then one of the soldiers looked at me and said, “You photographed the cemetery this morning, no?” I said yes. They then turned away to the stairs and made a grand exit. I almost called out to ask them if they knew what I had for breakfast that morning, but thought better of it...
I met Ferdorko and explain the day’s events. He said, “Cuba is very careful about foreigners and that they were there to protect me---but on the other hand, in reality, it was nothing more than an excuse for someone from the authorities to finally address you.” He says people don’t know what to make of me---and I am shooting a lot of photographs. “Also, you are an American and this is virtually unheard of here in Cienfuegos.”
Fedorko says he did not sleep the whole night thinking about the one-dollar I spent on my hotel room and our dinner, which came to 20 pesos. “Don’t hurt me, Don’t hurt me”.
We take a carriage ride out to his house on the outskirts of town. It is ruined down, but nice; a few mango and banana trees in the front yard.
Now we return to the Centro Plaza area and walk the streets.
Its suddenly raining and we continue walking through downtown Cinfuegos. Federko stops to talk with a friend, who is sitting on the steps of a storefront. A very interesting photograph. I ask the man for a photograph and he says yes. Fedorko holds an umbrella over me. A wonderful shot in the rain. He has two dogs and I can’t help but wonder how he feeds them? A beautiful man and perhaps one of my best black & white photos in Cuba on this trip.
We sit down for dinner again in the hotel. The woman takes our order and within 5 minute the whole city is blacked out; not an uncommon occurrence. Now she returns to the table with a lantern and gives a seemingly prepared statement addressed to me: “We want to offer our sincerest apology for this inconvenience, but due to the embargo and severe petrol shortage this is a very difficult period. We will bring out another lantern for the table and serve your food.”
Fedorko picks up where he left off in the conversation before the black out….”You and nobody else is telling about a woman: I am. I was all but forced to work in a shoe factory 4 blocks from here. Then my wife worked there and fell in love with the chief of the factory….”
Finally, the woman hangs lantern from the corner ceiling.
The food comes, it is mostly bones and I am no longer hungry. I cannot see the food, and what’s more I am sharing dinner with a man hanged by history and a woman. By now the only thing left to do is go to my room, find my flashlight and start writing a Cuban Opera.
3 a.m. I awaken to the sound of a caravan of trucks. I now suspect that Fedorko is a double agent. How and for what reason did he show up at my hotel that first day? Also, he was the only person to know that I was photographing the cemetery that morning---how else did the soldiers know? And that morning when we were to meet at the Funeral home---I went to the corner Cigar stand, where the day before we bought tobacco from his friend. I had asked him that morning if he had see Fedorko. He said yes, at around 8 o’clock.
However, my suspicion began to take hold yesterday when we had coffee at a plaza café. He asked me if I published any work in magazines or newspapers, though I had told him my work was strictly for Art—my portfolio. He then, in passing, asked about Havana—did I photograph a lot of prostitutes? I didn’t think much of this, until finally he asked if I had specifically photographed the areas of Alamar and Havana del Este. These are the worst slum areas of Havana; though, since the revolution Castro has made some dramatic improvements there.
I go outside on the balcony. The city is still pitch black. Now as I return to bed, I hear a plane flying extremely low overhead—the walls are vibrating. I run outside to the balcony and can see nothing. Not a minute later I hear a very loud explosion near the Port of Cienfuegos. At this point I pack my bags with the flashlight and stay up until dawn; waiting to check the terminal for a way out of here to Trinidad.
I have secured a ticket for the 10:00 train to Trinidad. Now I must go to the Plaza and meet Fedorko as planned. It is raining and he is wearing a very old raincoat that he claims to have bought in Chicago many years ago. He talks about America and asks me about securing his papers and living in Chicago again.
I tell he would have to petition America through the Swiss Embassy. His mother died in 1981, and so I point out that America will perhaps wonder why you waited 25 years later to re-establish citizenship
And I then tell him quite clearly that should this happen he will end up living in a big American City on a small pension, and that it will probably break his spirit.
“Fedorko everyone in this town knows you and loves you. You have many friends here and they always call out your name, wave to you and embrace you. You are a lucky man and, believe it or not, you wouldn’t last a year in America.” With tears in his eyes he embraces me and smiles. “Thank you Mr. Kenneth, I know this is true but I needed to hear it from a ‘YUMA’. We both laugh. ‘YUMA’ is what all foreigners, with the exception of Russians, are called. This came from a Western movie back in the 40’s when a stagecoach set out for YUMA CITY. Somehow this American Cowboy idiom stuck with the whole country of Cuba.
We walk to the bus station in a hard rain. I hand him gifts in a bag: a pair of socks (hard to come by in Cuba) and a small transistor radio—his only radio broke 3 years ago. Double agent or no
As we cross the street a utility truck nearly runs us down and we jump on the sidewalk. I ask him what is the liability or consequences should we have been hit by the truck. Would a lawyer be necessary?
“Are you still dreaming? Hopefully, they take us to the hospital and we ask no questions. And in America?”
I tell him that the Insurance Company must pay medical costs, plus about 3 times that much for our emotional distress, pain and suffering.
“Emotional distress? Don’t hurt me, Don’t hurt me”
Trinidad. This is the best preserved Colonial City in the Country. Declared a National Monument by the Cuban government, the City is very much as it was 4 centuries ago, with the beauty of its baroque architecture and cobble stone square. This city was a key player in the Caribbean Slave trade. In fact, a majority of the people her are Mulattos (blacks.).
Sugar, Tobacco and Cacao were the main crops grown throughout this area. But slavery was abolished in 1807 and slowly the slave trade, thankfully, came to an end.
The United Nations and UNESCO declared the City a Heritage of Mankind in 1988 and they have given a lot of money to help restore it.
Finally, here, I get a much needed rest in a guest cottage. I am surrounded by the Escambray Sierra Mountains and from my room I can see the Manati river fall into the sea. And there you will find Casilda Bay, a beautiful clean ocean that is good for swmming and snorkeling.
Now I have dinner and a drink in La Brotoa. For the 5th time in Cuba I am approached by a black prostitute. What does this mean?
Tuesday. I secure a Train ticket for Camaguey, perhaps my favorite city in Cuba. I came through here 8 years ago and fell in love.
The train arrives in Camaguey and I book a room in the Hotel Colon.. I walk the streets and end up in San Juan de Dios Plaza. The symbol of the city is the Tinajon, which is a clay pot, used to capture rain water. The are literally everywhere. Local legend has it that if you drink water from a girl’s personal Tinajon, you will fall in love with the girl and never leave her.
And Camaguey is like so many other Cuban cities; it was constantly attacked by pirates. In 1515 they moved the city inland to avoid further attacks by pirates.
A lot of beautiful Colonial buildings and Cathedrals. And the Spaniards, who built this city, were quite influenced by Moorish architecture. And this city is so clean, unlike other Cuban cities.
Early evening and I go to the El Cambiio Bar, just opposite the Plaza Agramonte, the most famous square in the City. I sit on the patio and it is a parade of beautiful women, many of them prostitutes, no doubt. Finally, a beautiful black woman walks by and I say hello. She stops and we make light conversation. I ask her to sit down.
Her name is Yolanda and she is a revolutionary. She believes in Cuba and the revolution. Most prostitutes don’t. She works at the local hospital.
“So you don’t want to go to America?”
I invite her for dinner and we have a nice meal and continue the conversation. I learn that her mother lives on a farm, just outside of town.
“I am a photographer and would love to see the country side around Camaguey. Can you show me something tomorrow?”
Wednesday. We meet at the El Cambio and make plans to tour the country.
“So we could make our way to your mother’s place?”
We walk to the Plaza San Juan de Dios and find a man with a wagon. And I let her do the talking and we get the local price.
No one in Cuba is allowed to raise and kill beef for food. And that is 10 years in prision. All cows are owned by the State However, if a cow dies of natural causes and this is certified by a veterinarian, then you are allowed to butcher the animal. Interesting.
I make an occasional photograph and we stop off and buy fruit and provisions where possible. But Cuba ain’t Mexico, and you rarely find anything for sale.
Finally, we arrive at her mother’s place. A very old house, broken splintered wood, with a water well out back. She is cutting up vegetables from her garden. I am introduced. The mother is more beautiful than the daughter.
I ask Yolanda if we can buy some black market meat and perhaps make a nice dinner. She knows a man near by and says we can buy chickens, but its not for certain.
We walk down the road and come to his house. He greets us and his wife takes us behind the house. A number of chickens wandering about, and she says, “Take your pick”.
We select a chicken and I pay in dollars. They cut it up and we go back up the road. Yolanda says we will roast the chicken on an open fire. Sounds good to me.
“Any place I can find some wine around here?”
A nice dinner and I give the mother a hug. The wagon man agreed to meet us at 8 p.m. and he shows up. A ride by moonlight back to Camaguey and we go to a bar in the Hotel Colon. I buy a bottle of wine and we drink and talk. I kiss her hand. She laughs.
“You are a beautiful woman.”
We walk up the hill to Plaza Carmen. No trees anywhere in Camaguey. We walk inside a Cathedral. I kiss her and she smiles.
“So you are trouble”
We continue walking. And we stop and kiss. I finally tell her that after so many train rides I am exhausted and must sleep. She walks me to the Hotel Colon. I kiss her good-bye and turn to go in. Suddenly from behind she calls my name. And she agrees to come up to my room.
One last wine and we undress and go to bed. Morning and she is most beautiful. We make love and it is wonderful. Finally, we go downstairs for breakfast and she is off to work. I write down her address and tell her that I will some day be back to see her.
Sunday. No such luck getting a bus ticket to Sancti Spiritus—two buses part without me. It is illegal for me to be on a bus, as it is illegal for me to have pesos and buy a ticket. Any policeman or soldier could confront me. Finally, in the late afternoon an older woman helps me to secure a ticket. I give her some money but she refuses and gives it back. Meanwhile, the man charges me 14 pesos for a 3-peso ticket. I thought nothing of it, although this is the first time, in Cuba, such a thing has happened. The he says, “and another 5 dollars.” This was too much. I tell him that I will not give him another 5 dollars, especially after paying him 4 times the price of the ticket; and, besides, I tell him that taking money from someone for nothing is counter-revolutionary and that he should be ashamed. He then handed me the ticket, turned and walked away.
Sancti Spiritus. A quiet town. It sits on the Yayabo River. The only thing worth noting is the Parroquial Mayor, the oldest church in all of Cuba. And Sancti Spiritus sits in a province of mountains on one end, and mangroves and swamps on the other. Nothing really here. I go to the train station and buy a ticket for Santiago, the second largest city in Cuba. And Santiago is where all of the most important music and dance originated, not Havana.
Thursday evening. The train is 6 hours late. Finally we depart and an hour later the trains stops. We sit there for about an hour and suddenly the train goes backwards for over an hour. I can’t believe it. I turn to the Cuba next to me.
“What is going on? The train is 6 hours late and now we are stopped for an hour, and now the rain goes backward for 2 hours.”
He gives me the strangest look, like he can’t believe that I would even mention it.
“Senor, It’s Cuba!!”
We laugh and I apologize for bringing it up. And, yes, suddenly the train continues towards Santiago. I go to the dinning car and it looks like nothing less than a train wreck. A very stale ham sandwich and watered down orange juice.
Friday morning. Santiago. The other end of the island, 540 miles from Havana. An important Sea Port, nestled between a natural harbor and the Sierra Maestro mountain range.
This city experienced an influx of French immigrants in the late 18th century, many coming from Haiti, after the Hati Slave revolt of 1791. This added to the city’s eclectic cultural mix, already rich with Spanish and African culture.
In 1959 the Cuban Revolution started here in the mountains near by. And Castro made a speech in Santiago, declaring the revolution a success.
This province is full of tobacco, cocoa and coffee plantations. And a large nickel refinery. Cuba has more Nickel deposits, than anywhere else in the world.
Also, this is home of the Bacardi Rum empire. After the revolution it was taken over and is now called ‘Havana Club”.
But most of all Santiago is the home of the most important music and dance in all of Cuba. Especially the Son and Danzon music.
The Son Cubano is probably the most influential music to come out of Cuba. And this was the framework for the international dance called the Salsa. And this, again, is African and Cuba.
I spend the next days going from club to club listening to so many local bands. Some better than others, but the spirit in this city is like no other.
Friday. I go up to the Castillo El Morro, a fortress built to protect the city from pirates centuries ago. I am looking for a cab or someone to take me around for photographs. No Cab, but I approach an older man and he agrees to take me around for an hour. His name is Manuel, and I give him $10. Its illegal, but he doesn’t seem to be worried and said that he knows its illegal, but no problem.
We ride throughout Santiago and head up to the mountains. Finally, knowing I am an American, he asks if I want to see San Juan Hill, where Teddy Roosevelt and the rough riders defeated the Spanish. I could give a fuck less, but say o.k.
He takes me to the site, called Loma de San Juan; and, yes, a statue of Teddy Roosevelt. You would think Cuba has better things to do.
Finally, we are pulled over by a military jeep. Bad news. One of the soldiers gets out and comes to our Car. They ask for his identity papers and ask what I am doing in his car. He hands the soldier his papers and immediately the soldier apologizes for stopping him. I can’t believe it.
“So, Manuel, how in the hell did you get out of that?”
I book a Train ticket back to Havana. As I walk the streets I see a Bookstore and go in. On the wall a large photograph of Che, and next to it a picture of Christ. A beautiful photograph and I take it.
Back in Havana. Joseph is leaving town for a few days, so I decide to sleep elsewhere for a few days. I return to the Prado and look up Nora, a woman I met 5 years ago. She rented me a room years ago and I love the location. Anyway, I yell from the street and she looks out the window and throws down her keys. I come up, the room is empty and we hug and laugh, so strange to be together again! She immediately asks about my clothes and knows I need to do Laundry. I then go out for coffee, Rum, chocolate and Tylenol. I return and we have drinks, and I propose dinner around the corner.
My last big moment in Cuba was while living with her here 4 years ago, when Elian Gonzales was held captive in Florida. She had proposed that I meet a friend of hers who wanted to speak English. She lives out in the Campo Province. I was not sure what to make of this, but of course I agree to meet her.
I came home late afternoon and in the back kitchen Nora introduces me to her friend Dona—she is a beautiful mulatto woman. I pull out a bottle of Rum and we all share drinks. The are discussing the American lottery for winning a visa to America. That year the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service sponsored a lottery for six thousand immigrant visas for Cubans and more than Five hundred and forty thousand people between the ages of eighteen and fifty-vive applied for them. This out of 11 million people in Cuba.
And if you win the lottery, you are allowed to immigrate to America. And, of course, America must pay Cuba about $15,000 per person to process the papers for departure.
I ask Dona out for dinner and we go down to the Malecon, to an upstairs resturant. Suddenly, this becomes an international dilemma. With the new crackdown on prostitution one must be careful in the company of a Cuban woman. It is suspect, and police will often confront the woman and ask questions. Often they are taken in or fined.
From here, between the three of us, we go over the scenario. We are to hold hands in public at all times while walking the streets—and, again, even though she is not a prostitute it doesn’t matter. I am to say, if confronted by the police, that she is “mi novia” (my love). This should help but no promises. As soon as we go out the door a policeman passes and nothing happens.
Hand in hand we round the corner and make it up stairs. We have drinks out on the balcony and just as dinner is being served a heavy rainstorm has moved in from “Florida. I insist on finishing the dinner outside, as it is so rare to experience a warm rain—something that never happens in San Francisco.
We spend a couple of hours eating and talking, getting to know one another. Soon we must head back out into the streets. Is this a war zone or a movie? As we walk in the rain some one yells and I make nothing of it, but she says “rapido” and we run down the street. Luckily, the key fits and we make it upstairs. I laugh but she is more than concerned. Nora greets us and manages to comfort Dona.
Nora is also illegally renting me this room, though nobody would call us on it, and no one has confronted me while coming to and from the building—though I am always keenly aware of this possibility. Dona has an hour bus ride back to the country, but Nora talks her into staying over.
It is a fact that in Cuba neighbors do spy on neighbors and report people for illegally renting rooms, etc. Also, if you are seen bringing in a new T.V. or Refrigerator to your home, then you will probably be paid a visit by the police.
Today we have a light breakfast, and then I go out to shoot and look for more color film. Dona agrees to accompany me to the Fototeca for a photo gallery opening, and I am to meet the director again about showing my work there. I had a small show 4 years ago, but we plan something big for the future.
1 p.m. As soon as I come in Nora is up in arms about a “Free Elian” rally—a 100,00 people expected to march right under our balcony, along the Malecon seat to the American Interest Section. And, no, it can’t be called an embassy but essentially that’s what the Interest Section is. Anyway, this should be a rather intense march as all of Cuba is quite intimidated about America keeping the boy, Ellian, from his father.
Dona and I fall into an intimate hour in my room, and soon I can hear shouting and a near riot just out the window. Nora is pounding on the door, as she knows I want to photograph this. I get up, half-dressed, and run to the balcony and see the procession happening. I return to the room and get dressed, slinging camera gear across the room. I have waited all my life to live and record a moment in history like this. I politely ask Dona to accompany me but don’t mean it—and she knows—and wouldn’t come anyway. They both laugh as I run, disheveled, out the door. By now the crowd had rounded the Prado and making its way to the Malecon, which is about another mile or so to the American Interest Section. I must move fast. I follow the tail end of the march and mingle in. Now I am approached by police, as I am not wearing a tag, or that I am not Cuban? They don’t know what to make of me. I try to explain that I am American, etc. They are going into a routine about security and I pull out, as I must hurry to get a cab to the Interest Section. Several policemen salute me and seem to make light of our encounter. I am on another planet. The Malecon is closed down for security and impossible to get a cab.
I make my way one block over to try for a cab and desperately attempt to flag down any car or taxi that will take me. The streets are filled with people in near riot, and I am still a mile away. Suddenly, out of nowhere a new Mercedes pulls over—it looks more like a government car and is definitely not a taxi. I open the door and explain that I am trying to get to the American Interest Section. I get in, not knowing exactly who this guy is, but everything is now in the hands of destiny. I tell him that I am an American—and that I am for Elian’s return. He asks me if I am a journalist, and if so, what paper? I respond that I am a Fine Art photographer from San Francisco. I then volunteered that I am staying with a friend who works for Radio Progresso. In a situation like this I couldn’t have come up with a better line, and finally I am relieved to sate my case. Whatever, it is still an anxious moment, though we now continue the conversation with more ease. However, I wonder how much of this is about intelligence and spy vs. spy.
“Everyone in Cuba is quite upset that your country has kidnapped Elian. He belongs with his father.”
Finally, the man laughs and takes me seriously. And I continue the conversation: “And forget the International politics for a moment. It has been documented that Elian’s father is a very committed parent who saw his son 5 days a week. However, had he kidnapped Elian without the mother’s knowledge, and taken him on a dangerous journey and drowned, Elian would have been turned over to his mother in minutes. But a father? No way.
“So you are divorced?”
Now I can hear loud speakers, thousands of people waiving tiny Cuban flags, all yelling in unison, in Spanish---“Free Elian, Free Elian, Free Elian". Now, while pointing towards the Interest Section he says that this is as close as he can get. I hand him $5 and he refuses. Interesting. He reaches out to shake my hand, but my hand is already shaking.
I make my way over to the Interest Section. At this point police and soldiers surround it. I realize now that the government is worried about a violent assault on the American Complex and it is quite tense. I go around to the backside and duck under two barriers towards a platform where speeches are being made. Immediately two soldiers confront me and bring me back. Now two Soviet made helicopters circle the area. The might be 200,00 people, a massive wall of Cubans from here all the way back two miles to the Prado.
I have my eye on a building and if I can get on top it would be a good place to photograph. I discreetly go in the back entrance and head for the stairs. Now three soldiers move in and proceed to block me and other resident try to go upstairs. Nobody is allowed up. I go outside again, and now I realize that not even other Cubans can cross the barriers toward the speaker platform and other protesters. If you weren’t on this march in the beginning, then you are left out. And this is all about security. A woman is handing out small Cuban flags—she approaches me and puts one in my hand. In the next minutes I am in conversation with a couple from Argentine. Several Cubans come over and learn that I am an American and they cheer. Twice I am interviewed on two radio stations, once in Spanish and once in English. Now I see two large television camera crews making their way towards this block. They look American or European. Suddenly it occurs to me that CNN has a bureau in Havana—and I realize that it is a good time to not be in the news!
At this point, with my 15 minutes of fame, I make my way back to the Vieja district and Prado. The women drill me about the events of the day. I am so wired that it would take a few bottles of rum to bring me back to earth. Dona and I make it over to the Fototeca opening. Later we part company and I get a much needed rest and sleep.
Today I meet Andre in a café. He is a doctor and we strike up a conversation in English. He asks me over to his house for a cigar.
I shoot photos and it might be some of the best of the trip. He has a painting of Castor on the wall and photos of himself with Che and Fidel. I ask him to put on his Angolan Army uniform and we laugh. Then I put the uniform on, with a cigar in my mouth and he photographs me. More laughter.
Now one of his best friends drops by. His name is Camilo, a musician, who has played around the World with a lot of famous Cuba Salsa groups. He has played in Canada, Mexico, Russia, Paris, etc. It’s interesting that I have met a lot of Cubans who have been in countries where they could have easily applied for political asylum—but they all love Cuba, their country and consider it home. America media always paints the story that all Cubans live in poverty, slums and are in a political jail, etc. It is just not true. I don’t agree with everything that is going on here, but in many ways it is better off than most countries in Central and South America. Cuba is not another banana Republic, with cheap labor and the wealth owned by 2 or 3 families. Those countries care little about education, medical care and the well being of the people. Cuba does.
Finally I bring up the Santeria religion ceremony with Andre and mention that it would be an interesting photo study. I had noticed evidence of this religion on one of his tables. He inquires about my work and I offer to return with the portfolio.
6 p.m. Back with my portfolio, I show them my work and they take me quite seriously. He does know a few people—and in particular a woman priestess, and he will inquire about a photo shoot, but no promises. I arrange to meet tomorrow evening and will continue to press about shooting a Santeria ceremony.
Monday. I drop by the Cuba National Ballet Center---one of the most famous in the world, and right up they’re with New York, Paris and Moscow. I have made contact with, Celia, an ex-dancer who now works there and she has promised to show me around.
Celia meets me downstairs and we go upstairs and into a large room full of mirrors where young girls are practicing. I wonder if these girls are from wealthy families, as they look rather affluent and protected. A ask and she says that if you pass screening it costs $2.50 a month, which is unaffordable to most Cubans. But if you are really talented and committed then it costs nothing. Anyway, a lot these girls obviously have families with Miami money. But regardless, only the most talented and committed are allowed to continue after a certain age.
I shoot color, and then switch to black & white, change lenses, all the while shooting. We quickly exit to another room and I continue shooting—these girls are older and the scene is more interesting.
Now, we continue down another hall into a very large room where artists are painting and doing set design for the stage—they are preparing for the ballet season, which begins in the spring. A German company is doing a dance performance tonight and they are wandering about. Last month a French entourage performed with Cubans.
Now another practice hall with young women, and they are the most refined. Mirrors, a very large window with stunning architecture and a courtyard below. This is the oldest building in all of Cuba. More shots and I move about freely---20 women and I find two of them spell binding and move in to shoot close while they dance. Celia stands by patiently, though I know I am pushing it, but what a dream.
Now we go to the main stage and these are the professionals---men and women stretching together and applying makeup.
Finally, Celia and I part company and agree to meet for dinner tonight. It would be easy to fall in love with her. She looks like a young Jeanne Moreau.
I am back in Vedado. Joseph has returned from Cienfuegos with a bottle of Mexican wine and we go out to buy pizza for a dinner party. The pizza connection is black market, behind a house nearby. A small round pizza with sauce, cheese and onions. The onions make it, no matter how pitiful the pizza really is. We buy 6 for 36 pesos ($1.50). We return to set up dinner and open the wine. Just before dinner Joseph makes the announcement to everyone that this is the 3rd day without water in the building, and that we must all conserve what little there is. Almost comically, at that very moment there is a black out—the room erupts with laughter. This is Cuba. And there are candles. Now a romantic dinner---thanks to the American embargo!!!
7 a.m. I have coffee and set out to photograph the sunrise in Vieja. At all hours I see kids playing baseball, and they use whatever is possible. Often I see part of a tire cut, rolled and tied into the shape of a ball. There are a lot of good leagues for kids to play in when they get older. Baseball, along with Hollywood and Jazz, is perhaps the biggest American past time that the Cubans have embraced. And they play baseball very well, having won a number of Gold medals in the Olympics. Also, some of the Cuban starts have defected to America and play there. American baseball scouts are even permitted entry to Cuba to scout prospects. Hopefully Cubans will soon be able to legally sign contracts abroad.
Spain held Cuba as a colony for many years, and they have never been too fond of Spain. Originally, Cuba took up baseball in 1890, and this was also a political statement. Spain, like Europe, held soccer in the highest esteem, but the Cubans, in defiance, rejected it and embraced baseball. And a hundred years later this hasn’t changed.
Noon. I meet Joseph at Radio Progresso. A woman in the lobby asks my reason for being here—and she looks quite concerned and doesn't know what to make of me. She makes a call, I am seated and Joseph arrives. As we make our way up an elevator, he reminds me that absolutely no photographs in the building.
We get off on the 4th floor and here are a lot of offices, computer stations, and sound rooms. Everything is old, but functions quite well. Again, it is 1940 and I am in a movie. Radio Progresso is essentially know as “Radio Havana” and is carried around the world in English. It consists of news, commentary, music and other cultural programming. Everything is written edited and recorded here—then the program is sent out and picked up by satellite frequencies all over the world. Call it news, propaganda, what you will---but a lot of countries do this, including Uncle Sam.
Joseph is editing a piece to be recorded. He covers Europe, Middle East and Asia news. Also, he writes a commentary piece and interviews a lot of people, including journalists in America and other parts of the world. He chats with Noam Chomsky and Howard Zim every other week. And Radio Progress has pretty much given him free reign on programming, though, of course, he has a superior that he meets with every day.
It seems like a bit of chaos everywhere, but all business. Mean while, as I am being introduced to a lot of people, a ‘live’ feed comes in from a Cuban reporter in Puerto Rico. We go to the sound room and the technician says “go”: and they start recording. Joseph as usual listens in to make sure all English is correctly pronounced, etc. Her name is Mirta and the story concerns the American military base that does practice bombing on an island just off Puerto Rico. Nobody has forgotten the killing of a local civilian while bombing years ago and people remain skeptical and want the American base closed. A somewhat typical news story, with a more than obvious anti-American slant. This one goes on the first ‘take’ without any problems and will be edited into tomorrow’s programming.
Now Eliza has come in with a story on Pakistan and The Bhutto assassination. A big story and here we go….She brings the story in the sound studio and we are introduced. Finally, the tech man says “go” and she begins. On the 2nd paragraph she says assadinate instead of assassinate. Joseph says stop and the tech man rewinds the tape. Meanwhile Joseph tells her, on another microphone, the error. 2nd take and it goes through without a hitch. Now, into the third paragraph she starts another story and says ‘exarate’, instead of extradite. As Joseph says ‘stop’ the whole place erupts in laughter. She is obviously embarrassed, but is able to laugh with everyone. And now with an American in the room, it makes it a bit more difficult with the English. 2nd take and she breezes thorough.
The program ‘host’ comes in to confer with Joseph and the technicians about his introduction and voiceover to be edited into all stories, music, commentaries, programming, etc. This is all being edited to go out on the next day’s program. Joseph and the sound technician go over the editing, and I sit about with Eliza and the host chatting in English. I tell them both that their English is immaculate---and I remind them that their accents are quite American, not British. They then remind me that a lot of English instructors at the National language Institute have been Americans secretly working in Cuba.
Actually, there have been a lot of Americans in Cuba, helping Cuba in particular with organic farming and solar energy—and Cuba has done quite well in integrating this into the infrastructure of the country.
Now Joseph asks me to take over and help edit a story from two reporters with news from the Middle East. I go into another room and a woman reads their piece. The Anti-American slant is quite heavy, though nothing less than the truth. It all goes smoothly and we finish in 2 hours.
Well by now I suspect I am taking my chances being here. Bush want a $15,000 fine for being caught in Cuba. And I well know Amercian Intelligence is everywhere in Cuba.
Now they take me on a short tour of the building. There are other small stations on another floor that do a ‘news only’ program in 9 languages, including French, German, Arabic, Chinese, South African, etc. From here we go into a very large computer room where you can pick up news being fed in from every major news organization in the world. AP, CNN, BBC, French, Russian, etc. This room is full of tele-type noise, with many people scurrying about with paper feeds of news stories, etc. CNN is the American news bureau with an office in Havana. A lot of visual news feeds on Cuban TV come from CNN—and I’m sure that was part of the agreement for getting a bureau here.
Joseph and I manage a few shots in the studio, exchange final greetings with everyone and exit through the stairs. On the way out we are stopped and thoroughly searched by security. Now Joseph insists that I have the experience of taking a local bus with him back home. We get in line behind 70 to 80 people and wait. Some vacation….
I take a nap, go out and shoot a sunset by the Malecon, followed by dinner and Salsa music with Celia, my ballet guide. Everyone in the Radio Progresso building is making $20 a month and I feel rather guilty taking such pleasures tonight.
And, yes, I have fallen in love with Celia. However I look like I have Cerebral Palsy when I dance Salsa. It didn’t go well. However, I would gladly use seven condoms and be quite happy about it. I have, no doubt, fallen in love with her.
9 p.m. Jeremy Novak has legally flown in from Miami and will be staying here for a couple of weeks. He is writing a book on A.I.D.S. in Cuba. Joseph is organizing people everywhere to go down and help bring up 3 very large trunks that Jeremy has flown in from America. I soon learn that these trunks contain $50,000 worth of A.I.D.S. medicine---donated from 3 hospitals from San Francisco. Jeremy is still in shock that they passed through customs in Miami without being confiscated. Or, we all wonder did they just let it go through because it was medicine?
Now, in celebration, Jeremy pulls out 2 bottles of California wine. I go out with Amelio to bring back pizza for dinner. Interesting, that a day after arriving here from America, I found this pizza to be the most pathetic thing I have ever seen or tasted. Well, now, after so many years in and out of Cuba, I consider this to be a ‘take out’ from a 4 star restaurant and am most grateful. And almost everyday I bow to the Chef, Roberto, as he stands behind this broken down shack behind his house, just off Verde Street.
Over dinner I bring up the question of racism in Cuba. I point out that the Cuba government is, in fact, quite racist, though I’m not sure this comes across to the Cuban people. I bring up the fact that when I see police randomly pull over pedestrians and bicyclists to check for identity papers---they are almost always black, not Latin. Also, I point out that out of 14 cabinet ministers in the Cuban government, only 3 are black. This in a country that is 65 per cent black!
Joseph makes it clear that he agrees, and that he has even lodged a complaint with the Central Communist Committee in Havana. No response.
Joseph asks me out for coffee and says he needs to speak with me. He says that the bureau chief at Radio Progresso would like to offer me a job, working with editing news and other programming. They will give me a place to stay, $20 a month salary, a food ration card, free medical and dental. I am very touched. However, I remind Joesph that I have two kids back in America and $20 won’t go far with their needs.
Over dinner Joseph brings up some very bad news. Pierre, who works for the French radio division of Radio Havana has been arrested for having sex with a minor; a very serious offense in Cuba.
In Cuba the legal age for sex is 16 years old. However, with foreigners a woman must be at least 18. And Pierre was caught with a girl 14 years old. They had a mock trial and he was given 12 years in prison. And he has to serve at least 7 years. The French embassy tried to intervene, but it didn’t help. And Joseph tried to put in a good word for him, but this also came to nothing.
Today I am to meet Andre and photograph the Woman Priestess (Mayombera) of the Santeria religion. This religion is a derivative of the Catholic creed, essentially a mixture of that faith and the religious practices and beliefs brought to Cuba by African slaves. It has given a birth to the most fascinating religion in Cuba and the Caribbean: Santeria. African slaves identified their deities (Orishas) with colors as opposed to figures. It is usually possible to identify followers of Santeria and their chosen saint by the colored beads they often wear around their wrists or neck. Santeria saints are worshipped through a variety of rituals including dancing, music, and chanting and occasionally animal sacrifice. There is also an element of voodoo and it is common, during Santeria ceremonies to witness the use of black voodoo dolls. During Santeria carnivals you are quite likely to witness people falling into trances during the height of the celebrations.
The people who practice this religion often find it necessary to go see the priest---particularly when you have a problem with a loved one, an enemy, health, money, or a need to get in touch with a dead relative, etc. And it does cost money to do this.
Andre and I begin our walk through Central Havana and finally come to a gate. From here a man leads us into the house. It is dark and I already have misgivings about this. I have, of course, agreed to pay up to witness this. Meanwhile, Andre says that while photographing I should focus on any problems that I might have. As we come in there is no greeting—she is chanting with a necklace of red beads sliding through her fingers. Three bowls on a table. The first bowl contains a CARACOL—a shell, with a nail driven through it, and this is called ELEGGVA. In the bowl are loose beads with a small plastic doll. Rum and water have been poured in. Three lit candles. Now she lights a cigar, puts the fire end in her mouth and blows out smoke from the other end over the table.
Andre points out a chicken in her lap and to be ready for blood. Suddenly she takes the chicken with both hands and cuts off the head and the blood drains in a bowl. Now she takes the shell with the nail and cuts her finger and spreads blood on her arms. She is somewhat in a trance, another world, and has yet to acknowledge us. I am already spooked. Finally, I remember to photograph; though it is not so easy in this spell-bounding environment.
The next bowl is OSUUM, and it looks like a baby coconut shell. This is used to clear the ghosts out of the cemetery—it also has the power to take out the dead and speak with them. For the first time she stares at me and our eyes are fixed. She picks up the MAMEY seed out of this bowl and holds it with both hands above her head while chanting. This is a seed from a large fruit that is put out into the sun for 3 days before the ritual. OSSUM eats this seed.
The last bowl is OCHA. This is known as the rule of OCHA and consists of a lot of small tool like objects (4 to 5 inches long) that have been sauntered together from metal pieces. She picks up the first piece and it looks like a bow and arrow. In the ritual is used to kill an enemy.
The next object looks like an anvil and is used to solve problems with work. She continues chanting and blows cigar smoke on it. Now the LAMION, a tool that deals with clearing the mind. This is what I am personally focused on---clearing the mind and getting out of there in one piece. More cigar smoke and heavy breathing. She has spent more time with this than anything.
Now a tool called MUERTO OSAIN LUCERO that has to do with the soul. She blows more smoke on this as she picks up the SAMIAN, which looks like a hole or shovel—this is for the farm and good fruit.
Finally, the last tool, which looks like a machete, is used to kill a particular enemy. You write the name of a person on a piece of paper, and wrap it around the machete with your blood on it.
Now the chanting gets louder, she goes into free verse and starts shaking. Other people in the room join in. Another woman walks up as she is under a spell and the whole place, by now, takes on a very primal air. More photographs and I figure that it is a good time to get out of here before someone dead from the cemetery walks in.
Monday. A final lunch date with Andre and we go out in Vejia for a last meal. I inquire about the photo albums in his place and he agrees to share them with me. He had mentioned a photo with Castro and I am curious to see it. Also, another shot with Che Guevara.
He has about seven photo albums and I start going through them. Pictures of him and his wife in Russia, Hungary, and Romania. Pictures of his kids growing up. One daughter now a doctor in Spain and another working for the government in Cuba.
Finally I see the Castro picture—a dinner party in 1956, and he sits there side by side with Castro. Andre, just out of medical school, and Castro, then a lawyer—and just out of prison for leading the bloody July 26th assault of the Moncada Army barracks in the eastern city of Santiago, in an ill-fated early bid to oust Batista. Three years later he would help take over the government. Now a photo of Andre and Che in a sugar cane field in 1962.
Andre now tells a story about Castro and his mother that I had once heard about years ago. By the time of his death in 1956, Castro’s father owned two thousand acres of land and held the leases to another twenty-three thousand. Actually, the family was quite wealthy. Upon taking over the country, Castro ordered the expropriation of the estate “by the people.” In Cuba’s historical canon, his action is cited as one of the first radical agrarian-reform measures in Cuba, an example of his selfless dedication to the cause of social equality. His mother saw things differently. After Fidel’s surprise announcement, which caused a frenzied free-for-all for possessions among his peasant followers, she took out her Winchester rifle and threatened to shoot him and anyone who came on to her land. Raoul, her favorite son, interceded and managed to calm her down and defuse the situation, and the brothers decided to let things remain as they were. Their mother refuted to leave the estate, and she lived there until she died, in 1963.
6 p.m. I finally get together with Ricardo Fleites, who lives upstairs from Joseph. He is the music director of the Cuban Opera. We spend the evening together having dinner and lots of coffee. It is arranged that I will photograph his Cuba Opera, which is practicing Porgy & Bess.
I walk through his flat and see a large bust of Mozart and a very exceptional charcoal drawing of Castro on the same wall. A large beautiful grand piano, quite old and a bit out of tune, but it does the job. Also, throughout the flat are photos, awards and mementos of his mentor and teacher, Isolina Cazzillo: she willed everything to Ricardo upon her death. This is one of Cuba’s most celebrated composers. She also wrote the famous song—“Two Gardenias for you”.
He is so excited about the opera’s latest production of Porgy &* Bess! And I was somewhat astonished to learn that their production will be performed in July at the Graz Opera house in Austria---one of the most famous in the world. Gershwin, who wrote Porgy & Bess, fell in love with Cuba during a visit back in 1932, and he wrote a beautiful piece called “Ode to Cuba”.
2:00 I take the cameras and head off to photograph the Opera. They are rehearsing in an old house, just off the Malecon. It reminds me of New Orleans, with a lot of old banyan trees about. As I make my way in I can hear the production of Porgy & Bess. A large hall inside with about 100 people sitting, and Ricardo is directing the score. Everyone who is singing is black. The score is often interrupted by his input and is labor intensive. I move about and shoot. Again, this is a 1940 movie and I am in a dream. Now there is quiet and he introduces me to the cast. Another hour and they take an intermission.
Octavio Cortazar, the director, comes over and introduces himself. He learns that I am from the south and he reminds me that has always been his dream to see the south and perform in America. I remind him that the Cuba ballet performs in America every year—and why not the Cuba Opera? I promise to bring back a tape of the production to San Francisco.
A final evening with Joseph and I fly out tomorrow. This has been one of my best trips to Cuba and I thank him for all. He gives me letters and a few packages to take back. Now several people have dropped by---Sergio, Ricardo and others. We have a few drinks, a toast---and I vow to return sooner than later. In the mist of all of this a couple has walked in and I am introduced. The woman is Fifi—she just returned from New York, where she received an award from the United Nations for her community work in Cuba. I congratulate her and she introduces me to her friend, Antonio---he was one of Cuba’s most celebrated ballet dancers, and later became a star at the famous Tropicana. I learn that he is quiet an icon in Cuba.
Saturday 6 a.m. Joseph has arranged for an older man, Juan, to pick me up and drive to the airport. Along the way he tells me that his brother is coming to visit from Miami, and that he left 16 years ago on the “Muriel boat lift.” I ask him why he didn’t leave as well on the Muriel boatlift?
He says, “My family and friends are here and I love my country. And, besides, there is not a goddamn boat left anywhere on this island.”