Cuba // 18 Years Later

I traveled to the magical country of Cuba in 1999 and then again in January of this year. Here is my letter to this country, that my heart now calls a friend. 

Dear Cuba,

Hello my old friend. How thrilling and sweet it is to sit with you. Seeing your face again makes my heart swell with all of our past memories. You are just as intriguing, exotic, captivating and confusing as ever before.

As I walk around your colorful buildings and crumbling heroic walls, I can’t help but reminisce to our first meeting.

Back in '99, visiting you was daring, almost provocative. When I saw “Havana” on my syllabus at art school in San Francisco, I grew nervous and excited that we would meet. Our professor, Tony Labat, who grew up in your neighborhoods, took 20 of us to see you for a week.

We flew out of Tijuana, Mexico. We stopped in Monterrey and had to de-board the plane to get our passports stamped, since it was illegal for Americans to visit your country and spend money there. We landed in Havana and I remember feeling nervous. The agent looked over my treasured passport, chockfull of stamps, and waived me through.  Havana was mine and I was in awe.

Hotel Inglaterra was our home for the week. From there we went to museums by day and then stayed up late drinking Cuba Libres, listening to music, and smoking cigars on the rooftop. We were an eclectic group of artists; some painted, filmed or created performance pieces. We felt saturated in the Cuban art experience, if only for a week.

Upon seeing you, the movie Buena Vista Social Club had come out. I sat in the theater, fascinated by what was to come. Everything was as surreal as the movie suggested; the cars, the architecture.  I watched men play checkers. I photographed little kids in their school uniforms.

I felt honored and changed to have this rare experience. You are resourceful, yet without resources. The resilience of your people was inspiring. I was left questioning our place in the world, and with new real estate in my heart, just for cheering you on.

And now flash forward to January 2017.

My heart had missed a beat when I learned a few years ago that President Obama would open up relations with you. Could we make peace and end the embargo? Could this country that stole my heart, finally know equality and the same advantages and disadvantages of their neighbors?

My photographer friend, Maryanne, and I jumped on a plane and made sure we had the chance to see you before the new presidency.

This time, we flew from San Diego to Fort Lauderdale to Havana. In Fort Lauderdale, I heard over the loudspeaker, “Jet Blue Flight XX to Havana”. That’s when it hit me. A profound moment that actualized in my gut. I was flying from America to see you; a dream of mine and so many others realized. I felt a surge of joy and solidarity with this small victory.

I thought of 18 years ago and the boy I gave a pencil to on the street. Of the artist Los Carpinteros. And of the college girl I once was, walking your streets with a different lens and perspective than today.

We arrived early in the morning and immediately began exploring. I soon realized so much was the same, but we both had grown up too. I have grown from a student into a professional photographer.  But, we both still have our quirks.

This time, we stayed at Casa Particular. Casas weren’t legal on my last trip and very hard to find. This change marked an acceptance of a new socialism and I’m curious to see how it evolves.

We listened to music and had coffee around the city in Plaza Viejo, at the Inglaterra and at the Nacional. The menus were larger and more varied. I remember feeling frustrated with ordering a meal on my last trip. I would ask for a cappuccino and a salad. The waiter would leave and come back 5-10 minutes later and inform me that they were out of those items. This would repeat itself several times. Eventually, I learned to ask what was available and simply order that.

This type of exchange rarely happened this time. Although napkins and toilet paper were still in short supply.

We hired a tour guide for the Art and Color Tour. Our guide Dayana was knowledgeable and indulged all of our many questions. She took us to multiple galleries and the Museum of Bellas Artes. I saw a piece of art that mentioned Los Carpinteros and felt joy at their success. I was thrilled to be in my element, hearing about the history and present culture of art in Havana. I love the familiar joy in museums, people from around the world sharing their own passion for art in many languages.

Ironically, the actual band, the Buena Vista Social Club, was playing while we were in town. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see them in person. There were a couple of musicians from the original documentary there. Snippets of the movie were projected in the background. So we have changed a little, I thought. We were all a little older, wiser, and with a few more lines on our faces.

Yet here we both were, practicing our craft with energy and joy all these years later. Them on stage in a room full of approving fans, and me still walking around with my camera and artist friends, sharing all of the color and contradicting ideas in still images.

What will the next 18 years hold for us? I’m hoping my country and yours will build a beautiful friendship full of respect and admiration.

Just as we have.  

Besitos my friend, until next time.
Suzanne