Hearing tales about Cuba from a young age it had always seemed like some alternate mythical reality, a tiny country that had stood in the face of oppression and survived against all the odds. I heard that America’s 50 year embargo on the island was going to be lifted, and damned if I was going to miss seeing the country before American tourists flooded its shores.
Cuba’s pace is slow and rhythmic, punctuated by moments of intensity. Kids play on cobblestone streets in the dust kicked up by antiquated American cars next to old men smoking cigars over chess. Artisanias hawk their wares on the main boulevard whilst couples tango under the trees. At night, the Malecon, a sea wall that hugs the coast of Havana fills with crowds of people playing music, singing and gazing across the sea. Bordered on all sides by ocean, the youth I talk with lament that Florida is only 100 miles away, an unattainable dream for many.
The streets are noticeably bare of advertisements bar the odd piece of government propaganda – Che Guevera watches over you like a stern father, or an older brother. The internet is practically non-existent here, a single hour online costs around a week’s wage for the average Cuban. As a Westerner constantly ordered to consume, it felt like a goddamn holiday for my mind. For the Cubans, however, this is no lifestyle choice, isolation from the internet and the world is oppressive in its totality.
Cuba is a land of absolute and confusing contrasts to a foreigner. A place where it’s possible to get more jail time for killing a cow than killing a human, where tourists and locals are separated by the dual currencies and political opinions are two sides to a coin.
Sitting on the cracked pavement drinking thick coffee Cubano style, I swap stories of the world with stories of the island. Whilst fiercely loyal to the nation, underlying dissidence was palpable. The communist regime rules with an iron fist – free education and healthcare balance a nation barely surviving off rations and subsidized accommodation. Homelessness and absolute poverty is unheard of yet the sharp reality of the socialist dream is a country of mixed opinions and a yearning for more. Supermarkets stock shelves with only a handful of bare necessities, a reminder that few countries are willing to export to Cuba in the face of America’s blockade. Shopping arcades are locked and shrouded in dust, unopened for 50 years. Unable to subsist on rations alone, everyone has a hustle. Los Mercados Negros, black markets spring up to supply things the government does not. Everything from eggs sold behind closed doors, to a guy peddling stock cubes on the corner. Fake Gucci purses and jeans illegally transported from Mexico are sold in secret to youth with extra cash and a lust for fashion in shuttered away apartments.
Many people are looking forward to the change the injection of tourists and possible open markets will bring. For a country so rich in history, music and culture I hope that Cuba’s authenticity is not consumed in the transaction.
In a crowded Casa de la Musica, reggaeton blasts through busted speakers. I chat with Raul, a young guy who identifies with Cuba’s counter-cultural punk scene. “We are a poor people. I don’t like my shirt, but I can’t afford a new one. So I tell myself that I like my shirt. You can’t let it get you down – wanting things. Cuban’s know this, it’s a part of us. Our currency is the people around us, walking in the streets, the closeness of my friends, my family. That is the true currency but also the only one we have. So instead of thinking of all the things we don’t have, we dance and we laugh – this is how we trade.”
Photos and words by Koby Hagenfelds