March 15, 2009

Cuba: Photo essay

Viva Fidel
Cuba is a strange, beautiful and messed-up place. Like this graffiti on a decaying building, the country is filled with ironies and contradictions. While Cuba doesn't have the shanty towns characteristic of many Caribbean and Central American countries, it does suffer from its share of poverty. Cubans are guaranteed shelter, food and healthcare, but at a level that's barely tolerable (though I hear their medical system is quite good).

Industrialist fetishization
Make no mistake: when you're in Cuba you're in a communist country. I was perpetually reminded of my trip to communist Czechoslovakia back in the 1980's. Here's a case in point -- Marxism and the fetishization of all things industrial (yes, those are brick statues made to resemble various screw-driver heads). And like any communist country, Cuba suffers from long lineups, product scarcity (which is also exacerbated by U.S. sanctions), and miserable jobs (mostly due to obvious make-work opportunities).

Che wall hanging
Cult of Che: Images of Che Guevara are plastered throughout Cuba. He's the icon of the Revolution -- a revolution they believe they're still fighting. After a few days in Havana, and after visiting the Revolutionary Museum, I got the distinct impression that Cuba is nothing more than a country that was taken over by a bunch of ideological yahoos who have no business trying to run a country (and I'm not suggesting Batista was any better).

Thanks you cretin for helping us to strengthen the revolution
I guess they're not Reagan fans in Cuba. The caption reads: "Thanks you cretin for helping us to strengthen the revolution." Virtually all tourists I met in Cuba believe that things are set to change dramatically once Fidel and Raul Castro pass away. But Cubans don't think this at all. They firmly believe nothing will change and that the next generation of leaders will simply maintain the status quo (such that it is). The recent cabinet shuffle by Raul Castro, where he solidified the conservative make-up of the Party, would indicate that there may be some truth to this.

Dying dog
There were lots of stray dogs running around in Havana. But they were friendly. Some even followed me for hours (I learned that you have to avoid eye contact). This dog, unfortunately, wasn't doing so well.

Caged puppies for sale
Stray dogs on the streets and puppies in cages being sold. Weird.

Old green car in Havana
Traveling to Cuba is like a journey through space and time: cars are hard to come by in Cuba and the ones that do exist are fairly old-fashioned. But for those who have cars, they tend to keep them in reasonably good shape. But the exhaust from these cars were awful and it was often hard to breath in Havana.

Books for sale
Rather limited selection of books.

Bank of Nova Scotia
The Bank of Nova Scotia from a different time.

El Cathedral
El Cathedral: Some of the architecture in Havana was unspeakably beautiful.

Beautiful architecture
More beautiful architecture.

Havana from up high
Taken from the roof of the NH Parque Central in Havana. The building on the far left is El Capitol -- the seat of power prior to the 1959 Revolution.

Havana's poverty and decay
One of the oldest cities in Cuba, Havana was founded in 1512. It is a beautiful city, but in a state of decay.

Buried cannons
Only in Cuba would you see historical artifacts buried and forgotten.

Viva la Cuba
Viva la Cuba!

There's nothing like a Cuban cigar
I will return!

More photos here


Aric said...

Wonderful photos with nice descriptions. I've heard people in Cuba grow a lot of their own food and that Havana grows enough vegetables for itself. Did you notice anything like that?

George said...

Definitely. Their rations are completely inadequate, so they have to find other ways to get food, including getting second jobs and growing their own. Many of them also fish.

Anonymous said...

I think the current "pink tide" sweeping across Latin America represents an unprecedented chance for Cuba to move towards democratic reforms. The United States control of the region has never been weaker, as illustrated by the election of the leftist FMLN in El Salvador today (anyone who knows the history of El Salvador knows how amazing this is). The once valid excuse that democracy was not possible in Cuba because of American subversion no longer stands. American policy certainly hasn't changed towards Cuba and Latin America, but the context in which the people can stand up to its hegemonic ambitions has. The United States is no longer able to launch massive terrorist and counter insurgency campaigns and kill indiscriminately as it once was, except of course in Colombia its last major island of political power on the content, even Chile won't submit any longer. With the new trade deals with Venezuela and the regions move to a more integrated and sovereign economic block, there could be brighter days ahead for Cuba.

Che's diaries were a great read. Regardless of what anyone thinks about his politics, I don't think anyone can deny he lived one of the most interesting lives of the 20th century. His life and death made him ripe to become a myth and a cult hero, he died young, idealistic, and in a futile fight against an unbeatable enemy.

Anonymous said...

So where will you go next for vacation? North Korea? Iran? Zimbabwe?

Anonymous said...

"I don't think anyone can deny he lived one of the most interesting lives of the 20th century."

I don't think anyone can deny that Che was one of the great mass murderers of the 20th century.

George said...

Che was definitely fanatical. As a pan-South American, he felt the work in Cuba was only the beginning. He was a true zealot who devoted his life to the spread of communism and and the struggle against imperialism.

It is suspected that he advocated for a first strike against the United States with nuclear weapons, but the Soviets (thankfully) never relinquished control of their nukes (nice, eh?). In the years following the revolution, and frustrated with a government position, Che left Cuba to fight in Central America where he was eventually killed.

James said...

Nice photos George. I didn't peg you as a cigar smoker though...

Anonymous said...

"Mass murderers of the 20th century"

He had a lot of company, to quote Chomsky "If the Nuremberg laws were
applied today, then every
Post-War American president
would have to be hanged.". A few hundred members of Batista's cabinet and secret police were shot during La Cabana tribunals. In comparison, Che's contemporary, the great hero of American liberalism John F. Kennedy began the forced deportation of hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese peasants into urban concentration camps and began the largest strategic bombing campaign in human history, policies that by wars end would leave around four million Indochinese dead. Che and JFK, two great mass murderers, but one considerably more so than the other.

Anonymous said...

George word of advice, your not going to live forever by smoking those cigars.

Anonymous said...

"So where will you go next for vacation? North Korea? Iran? Zimbabwe?" lolololol He was visiting a freind, that was totally uncalled for.

Anonymous said...

For purposes of symmetry, George's next visit of this kind might be Haiti, rather than Iran. That would give an interesting contrast to another Caribbean country that continued on the Batista route. Compared to conditions in Jamaica (for Jamaicans, not tourists on cruise ships), Cuba is heaven.

Anonymous said...

Oops, typo! Meant Haiti and Haitians in my last sentence -- though Jamaica is not in great shape, either.

Anonymous said...

Things would be a lot worse in Cuba if Venezuela wasn't subsidizing them.

Anonymous said...

BTW, how was the Cuban cigar?

George said...

Cuban cigars are truly fantastic -- unbelievable aroma and taste. And they burn nice and slow. But one cigar will wipe you out for a while. I had to go at least 2-3 days between cigars.

I managed to bring home a box of Monte Cristo's and I'm just waiting for the right opportunity to smoke 'em. Can't wait for a hot summer night...

Anonymous said...

"Cuban cigars are truly fantastic -- unbelievable aroma and taste. And they burn nice and slow. But one cigar will wipe you out for a while. I had to go at least 2-3 days between cigars. I managed to bring home a box of Monte Cristo's and I'm just waiting for the right opportunity to smoke 'em. Can't wait for a hot summer night..."

George I suggest your next post should be how Tran-humanist struggle to give up their personal vice for the prospect of immortality. I myself struggle with chocolate.

Unknown said...

George: Great pictures. It's good to see the things that our oil revenue is helping to preserve XD.
Do you mind if I correct some typos in Spanish?

I visited the Dominican Republic and I was complaining about the roads, even the lousy Venezuelan ones were much better. We went to the border with Haiti, and by the time we returned, Dominican Republic looked like Sweden in comparison.

But I am not sure how much symmetry there is between Cuba and Haiti. The Dominicans had a hard time with Trujillo and today they are much better than Haiti. I bet the explanation is not simple at all.

Make no mistake. This supposed coalition of leftist governments of South America will last as long as oil prices remain high enough for Chávez to throw money away. And yes, Guevara had a very interesting life, and he also was a fucking murderer. That fact that US presidents were worse does not make him a saint. Since when are US presidents examples of humanity?

Hansel Castro said...

As a Cuban exile in Miami, and all too familiar with some of these landscapes, I was delighted by your blog- and glad that you were enough of a skeptic to not take the fawning road so many tourists take : "Ooooh, Cuban Communism is wonderfuuuully exotic." It's fun to take pictures of crumbling buildings- it's horrible to live in them. (Not a comment about you, but about the Commie sympathizers in your list). I hope people realize what it's like to be INSIDE of a closed non-democratic system. Your caption to Cuban anti-Reagan, pro-Che art fails to notice what I suppose only experience can expose: we in Cuba made anti-Reagan, pro-Che art BECAUSE that was the only kind of art we were ALLOWED to make. I wrote plenty of pro-revolution essays in my time as a young member of the Communist party- that's what we HAD to do! Oh, ye Canadians and Americans with your Che-shirts, you know not what you do ;-)

Nathaniel Houseman said...

I noticed the author's comparison with other Caribbean countries. Cuba does in fact have 'shanty towns' on the level with any third world country. The author must not have gotten out of Havana. Pretty good photos and a good description of Havana life. Terrible exhaust, stray dogs, and decaying infrastructure are everywhere in Cuba.