A Country Frozen in Time
Photos and words by Koby Hagenfelds.
Cuba’s rhythm is slow and rhythmic, punctuated by passion and moments of intensity. Children play on cobblestone streets in the dust kicked up by antiquated American cars, whilst older men smoke cigars over chess. Art and expression here are valued, on a boulevard artisanias hawk their wares whilst couples tango under the trees. At night the Malecon a sea wall that hugs the coast of Havana is full of hundreds of people, playing music, singing and staring at the sea. The streets are noticeably bare of advertisements bar the odd government propaganda, Che Guevara watches over you like a stern father, or older brother. As a westerner constantly overwhelmed with signs, lights and noises yelling consume! Consume! It felt like a goddamn holiday for my mind. Internet is practically non-existent here, costing around a weeks wage for the average Cuban for one hour online, the web is out of reach for most. In a place where lack of access to the internet could be seen as oppressing the people's’ right to knowledge, it felt amazingly liberating to a foreigner, on buses people talked to each other, no one walked with their noses buried in their phones if you had to find your way you asked a human not Google. I, like many others, had heard America’s fifty year embargo on the island was going to be lifted and damned if I was going to miss seeing Cuba before American tourists flooded their shores.
What I found was a land of absolute and confusing contrasts, a place where you could get more jail time for killing a cow than killing a human, where tourists and locals are separated by currencies and political opinions are two sides to a coin.
Sitting on the cracked pavement we drank thick coffee Cubano style, swapping stories of the world with stories of the island. Whilst fiercely loyal to the nation, dissidence was palpable, the communist regime rules with an iron fist, the country survives off rations with subsidized accommodation, free healthcare and education. The reality of the socialist dream is a country of mixed opinions and a want for more. Supermarkets tout shelves with only of three or four products, reminders that few countries are willing to export to Cuba in the face of America’s blockade. Shopping arcades are locked and layered with dust, unopened for 50 years, Mercado Negro, 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.
I wanted to understand how the people feel about a changing Cuba, is it possible to foresee what an open market will do to the country, will it make things better, or maybe make it worse? One can hope that with the injection that modern tourists bring to a country that is in many ways as antiquated as its cars, that the soul of the people is not lost in the transaction. As American tourists flood tiny cobblestone alleys of old Havana and arrive by the busloads to small villages recently dormant, the hope is that Cuba retains its heart among the influx of capitalism's gifts and burdens.
In a crowded Casa de la Musica the House of Music, against reggaeton blasting through busted speakers Raul explained, ‘we are a poor people, I don’t like my shirt, but I can’t afford a new one. So I tell myself I like my shirt, you can’t let it get you down, wanting things. Cuban’s know this, it’s apart 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 …”