Michael Cleland

www.michaelcleland.com.au

Travel

Cuba – Viva Cuba Libre!

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Cuba. Why Cuba?

In 2003 in New York, I went to a photographic exhibition near Times Square. I still remember many of the photographs vividly, but one in particular was a large photograph of a city streetscape. Old American cars parked in the street, African American looking people, but not dressed in 1950s era clothes (which would have matched the era of the cars). It looked like a snapshot from another era, but the photograph was too large and its resolution, its detail, too fine.

It had to be a recent photograph, but it looked like it was American Graffiti meeting the depression era photoessays of Dorothea Lange.

A closer look at the caption revealed it all. Havana Street, 2001.

With an inappropriate reference to 30 Rock (which didn’t even exist then) I thought of a quote Liz Lemon has said: “I want to go to there”.

We travelled to Cuba in December 2006, via Los Angeles, via Mexico. If there’s a place that has not been touched by commercialism, in particular American brands, Cuba is it.

Even though Cuba is within 100 miles of the Florida Keys, the trade embargo imposed since 1960 has helped to freeza Cuba in time.

The upside: Cuba has been able to hold onto its culture. The sounds of Mambo, Rumba and Salsa actually come from people’s houses as you walk down the street – it’s not just put on for show for tourists.

There are no Coke signs, no McDonalds, no Starbucks – nothing American – at least, nothing American since the 1950s. Cuba is like a car yard time warp. Old Dodges, Chevies and Fords are keep alive – you won’t find a 2003 Ford Focus or a ’96 Jeep Cherokee on Cuban roads, because you just can’t get them. The mix of cars is topped up with Russian Ladas that were available here before the Soviet Union collapsed and financial support from the Kremlin disappeared.

Americans were not legally allowed to travel as tourists to Cuba in 2006. This will slowly change – Cuban Americans are slowly being permitted to travel there now, and eventually all Americans will be able to return. But in 2006, in two weeks of travel throughout the country, we met just two Americans – one of which had gained Australian citizenship.

Americans illegally travelling to Cuba had to fly there not directly from the US, but stop via a country such as Mexico or Canada.

The downside of the embago: things are just hard to get. People live a basic life compared to the modern word. No iPhones, XBoxes or plasma TVs here. With an average monthly wage of about US$20, gadgets are out of the question. Internet access? If you’re a Cuban, forget it. Even if you could, the going rate for an hour’s access was about a week’s wage. I know where I’d be using my money if in that position: not on the internet.

The Cuban government heavily subsidies the basics: food, medical care and such. But other things, such as pencils, clothes and even soap are classed as luxuries. If you ever travel to Cuba (which you must) take spare t-shirts, socks, pens and soap. People ask you for it – they don’t hassle you – but if you can make someone’s life a bit easier, you’ve made a connection that is much more important than buying a junky souvenir.

The embargo has been used by the Casto government as a convenient excuse for everything that isn’t right about Cuba. In any western city where you’d find advertising (billboards, signs, street art) you’ll instead find Cuban government slogans:

Patriotism or death.
Long Live Fidel!
Socialism or Death!
Long Live the Revolution! 

Faces of the heros of the revolution – Che Guevara, Fidel Casto and Raúl Castro – are everywhere. Che seems to be loved. Fidel is the father you’ve known all your life, and you’re not too sure how you feel about him.

The Castros have held power in Cuba for over 50 years – that’s at least 3 generations of families. Think about that for a moment.

There did seem to be something like a Centre for the Revolution in every town, and every so often in larger cities. There’s nothing like a little taste of East German informing on your neighbour. The government is the only sanctioned source of news. No BBC, no CNN, not even garbage like Fox News.

The economy is crippled by the embargo. While things are reportedly reforming under Fidel’s brother, Raúl, the government controls everything. When we were there in 2006, privately run restaurants could only seat very small numbers of people (I recall it was less than 20) so as not to compete with government run outlets. To me it was hard to tell what was government run, but I guess it was, well, everything.

It did leave me feeling though that if you can’t get it, you don’t want it — and you’re probably much happier without it. Consumerism is a dangerous drug we’re all addicted to if we like it or not.

But oh, the taste of rum, the smell of cigars, the rhythm of the music. Ooooo, it was intoxicating in its own way. Granted we had access to the best food, the best drinks, clubs, bars and restaurants that were available – and not within reach of locals. But Cubans love music, they love to dance, and Cuba will only ever be the place to have a mint soaked, rum filled mojitos.

If you have the opportunity, get to Cuba. Get there before McDonalds, Hersheys and Proctor & Gamble get there. Get there before Cuba changes too much.

Viva Cuba Libre!

Photos from Cuba – click the thumbnails for larger images.

My favourite photo from Cuba. This woman was standing in her doorway. I said "Hola!" as I walked by and continued on. I had to go back and walked up her steps to take her portrait. I then told her "Usted es muy Cubano" ("You are very Cuban") That's about the best compliment I could pay her in my limited Spanish.
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My favourite photo from Cuba. This woman was standing in her doorway. I said "Hola!" as I walked by and continued on. I had to go back and walked up her steps to take her portrait. I then told her "Usted es muy Cubano" ("You are very Cuban") That's about the best compliment I could pay her in my limited Spanish.
Out for a walk with Old Faithful
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Out for a walk with Old Faithful
 
Out for a walk with Old Faithful
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Out for a walk with Old Faithful
Our man in Havana
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Our man in Havana
 
Woman in the local food market
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Woman in the local food market
Traders in a food market
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Traders in a food market
 
A true example of Cuban resourcefulness, pedal powered runs this knife sharpener
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A true example of Cuban resourcefulness, pedal powered runs this knife sharpener
Barber shop, Baracoa
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Barber shop, Baracoa
 
No cable TV in these wires
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No cable TV in these wires
A couple of gentleman about town
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A couple of gentleman about town
 
Hmmm ... melons!
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Hmmm ... melons!
Taking a catnap
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Taking a catnap
 
The hat maker. This man knew how to pose for portraits
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The hat maker. This man knew how to pose for portraits
School children, in the national school uniform, play it up for the camera. They loved seeing the photos of themselves played back on the camera's display
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School children, in the national school uniform, play it up for the camera. They loved seeing the photos of themselves played back on the camera's display
 
Cuba has some of the best highways in the Caribbean, thanks largely to Soviet era funding
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Cuba has some of the best highways in the Caribbean, thanks largely to Soviet era funding
"Hola!" I call ...
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"Hola!" I call ...
 
.. and a friendly wave I get back!
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.. and a friendly wave I get back!
A retired military man at the biggest event of the year - celebrating Fidel Castro's 80th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the landing of the Granma boat which carried the Castros and other revolutionaries. Piazza De La Revolution - Havana
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A retired military man at the biggest event of the year - celebrating Fidel Castro's 80th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the landing of the Granma boat which carried the Castros and other revolutionaries. Piazza De La Revolution - Havana
 
Cinema in Santiago De Cuba
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Cinema in Santiago De Cuba
Show of might. Missile launchers at the celebration of Fidel Castro's 80th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the landing of the Granma boat which carried the Castros and other revolutionaries. Piazza De La Revolution - Havana
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Show of might. Missile launchers at the celebration of Fidel Castro's 80th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the landing of the Granma boat which carried the Castros and other revolutionaries. Piazza De La Revolution - Havana
 
Kitchen at our homestay in Santiago De Cuba. Appliances like the old refrigerator have to be maintained, as replacements are simply hard to come by
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Kitchen at our homestay in Santiago De Cuba. Appliances like the old refrigerator have to be maintained, as replacements are simply hard to come by
Basics like fruit and vegetables are available to Cubans at heavily subsidised pricing
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Basics like fruit and vegetables are available to Cubans at heavily subsidised pricing
 
The head of the house peels food for our meal in the Santiago De Cuba homestay
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The head of the house peels food for our meal in the Santiago De Cuba homestay
 
Great care is made to keep cars like this one going. The Cuban town of Trinidad is a World Heritage listed site.
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Great care is made to keep cars like this one going. The Cuban town of Trinidad is a World Heritage listed site.
Great care is made to keep cars like this one going. The Cuban town of Trinidad is a World Heritage listed site.
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Great care is made to keep cars like this one going. The Cuban town of Trinidad is a World Heritage listed site.
 
"Patriotism or Death!" Slogans like this one in Havana are everywhere in Cuba.
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"Patriotism or Death!" Slogans like this one in Havana are everywhere in Cuba.
"El Asesino" Cuban government poster facing the United States Interests Section (located in the Embassy of Switzerland) in Havana. The United States therefore does not strictly speaking have an embassy in Cuba.
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"El Asesino" Cuban government poster facing the United States Interests Section (located in the Embassy of Switzerland) in Havana. The United States therefore does not strictly speaking have an embassy in Cuba.
 
"Mi español es perfecto!" I proudly announced to these shopkeepers at Coppelia. I don't think they believed me, but it was fun!
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"Mi español es perfecto!" I proudly announced to these shopkeepers at Coppelia. I don't think they believed me, but it was fun!
Coppelia is an ice-cream parlour in Havana that is very very popular
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Coppelia is an ice-cream parlour in Havana that is very very popular
 
The Changing of the Guard was a very impressive spectacle to witness
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The Changing of the Guard was a very impressive spectacle to witness
The Changing of the Guard was a very impressive spectacle to witness
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The Changing of the Guard was a very impressive spectacle to witness
 
Grandfather and grandson at our homestay in Santiago De Cuba
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Grandfather and grandson at our homestay in Santiago De Cuba
Great care is made to keep cars like this one going. The Cuban town of Trinidad is a World Heritage listed site.
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Great care is made to keep cars like this one going. The Cuban town of Trinidad is a World Heritage listed site.
 
Government offices at Piazza De La Revolution in Havana, featuring the iconic image of Che Guevara
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Government offices at Piazza De La Revolution in Havana, featuring the iconic image of Che Guevara
Cubans have had to be resourceful, so every effort is made to keep old cars on the road
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Cubans have had to be resourceful, so every effort is made to keep old cars on the road
 
Cubas love, love, LOVE baseball!
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Cubas love, love, LOVE baseball!
Cubans have had to be resourceful, so every effort is made to keep old cars on the road
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Cubans have had to be resourceful, so every effort is made to keep old cars on the road
 
Children in Baracoa
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Children in Baracoa
Slogans like this adorn walls in towns throughout Cuba
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Slogans like this adorn walls in towns throughout Cuba
 
With no mirrors at a street vendor's stall, the best way to see how a hat looked was to do a self portrait on the camera and look back at it on the preview screen
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With no mirrors at a street vendor's stall, the best way to see how a hat looked was to do a self portrait on the camera and look back at it on the preview screen
With no mirrors at a street vendor's stall, the best way to see how a hat looked was to do a self portrait on the camera and look back at it on the preview screen
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With no mirrors at a street vendor's stall, the best way to see how a hat looked was to do a self portrait on the camera and look back at it on the preview screen
 
With no mirrors at a street vendor's stall, the best way to see how a hat looked was to do a self portrait on the camera and look back at it on the preview screen
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With no mirrors at a street vendor's stall, the best way to see how a hat looked was to do a self portrait on the camera and look back at it on the preview screen
Havana streetscape
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Havana streetscape
 
With the cost and limited availability of fuel, the back of any large truck serves well as transport between towns
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With the cost and limited availability of fuel, the back of any large truck serves well as transport between towns
With the cost and limited availability of fuel, the back of any large truck serves well as transport between towns
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With the cost and limited availability of fuel, the back of any large truck serves well as transport between towns
 



Author: Michael Cleland

Michael is a passionate web geek who is sure that most problems can be solved with a big bowl of ice cream. A believer in social good and fan of great, useful content, Michael is an advocate for web accessibility, usability and mobile web based on open standards. You can find Michael on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn. You can read more on Michael in the About page.

2 Comments

  1. Great article and photos. Wow you were there in 2006 too.

    • It was significant time for Cubans. Fidel was not seen for months and had his 80th birthday celebrations postponed. We were lucky enough to be in Havana when the 50th celebration for the Castro brothers’ return to Cuba and the start of the revolution. We were very lucky to be there at just the right time.

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