An Artist’s Visit to Cuba
By Christopher Holt • Special to SMN
When my plane touched down at Havana International Airport to loud applause from the passengers on board, I knew there was going to be something different about this trip.
The forbidden fruit of the Americas was opening its doors a little wider for its friends from the USA and I wanted to see it as soon as possible. As it turned out, I wasn’t alone.
The week of my arrival, the Castro brothers were welcoming a few more notable guests: The Obamas and Rolling Stones — perhaps the truest sign of global warming. After a three-and-a-half-hour wait to collect my painting gear amidst the black-clad security guards as gristled as rock-n-roll roadies, I walked out into a crowd of teary-eyed Cubans welcoming another loved one home at last. It was a sight that could become more commonplace as the five-decade standoff between two neighbors comes to a close.
Everywhere in Cuba one keeps hearing, “before it gets ruined by the Americans.” However, what I found was that perhaps the Cubans need us now more than ever. Food shortages, joblessness, and a lack of hope plague the big island. I just read an article about a boat of Cubans that made it to the Florida Keys that quoted one of the refugees saying, “What you have here is a nest of hope, what you have there is a nest of scorpions.”
This notion that we’re the one’s who are out to ruin the island is a peculiar one. As far as I can tell, we aren’t the only one’s participating in the capitalism that rules the planet, and it often seems to me that we are perhaps the most generous bunch as well. We are oft described as loud and obnoxious, but this too seems a bit unfair. I won’t start the rap sheet of global generalizations here as each of us lucky travelers of well-to-do nations bring our own set of troubles to the table. McDonald’s didn’t open up all across the globe because no one was eating it, nor did American corporations succeed without a tax shelter here and a foreign investment there.
Bottom line, don’t take the bait, and let those lovely English, Canadian, and French couples take a good look in the mirror.
Visiting Cuba really is to take a trip back in time. Its former glory isn’t hard to imagine as you feast on the sights of Havana. Despite its decay and years of disrepair, its grandeur is clearly evident. A 1957 Ford Convertible passes you by, music wafts down to the street from an open window, and an open bottle of rum is always close by. Yet, the struggle to make it is not even below the surface here. It is all around.
Through the eyes of the artist
I was lucky to meet a few artists on my journey that helped me to see the island with Cuban eyes. One thing you are sure to find here are new friends, as we are the Gods in the eyes of the Cubans. Many of them have friends or family here and they know us from our music and movies, and of course, our dreams. One of my friends, whose name I will withhold out of his own respect of and fear for his government, put it like this: “You can survive in Cuba. There aren’t many homeless people and even though there are food shortages you won’t starve. But you will be hungry. Not only for food but also for the opportunity to make it on your own. The chance to take the future into your own hands and whether you succeed or not, at least you Americans are able to do it on your own.”
He goes on to make these points a bit more clear, especially in the eyes of the first-time traveler trying to see beyond the layers of fun and music, rum and cigars, to see the real Cuba.
He says: Cuba is like a mother who brings you into the world, and then leaves you to survive on your own. You are a mute slave living in a quiet hell, and no matter what you do, there is only so far you can go before your endeavors are capped off by the government with no more opportunity to keep growing.
My friend was quite unique is his willingness to engage in political conversation. Many don’t really like to talk about it at all, as the old risks are ever present in a society that is continuously reminded about the revolution. To be honest, in many ways it feels as if the revolution just happened yesterday. Billboards and presidential posters pop up all over the country. I noticed documentaries in black and white on more than one occasion coming from one of the three channels of state supported television, eschewing the victories of Fidel and Che.
There are also the members of the CDR or Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Established in 1960, they are the eyes and ears of the revolution. There is a member of the CDR on every single block in Cuba. This is the long arm of the human rights violations that have been taking place on the island under the guise of Fidel’s revolution.
Change is coming
Yet some of the island is changing. An easy way to see it is when you come upon a Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana and see the crowds of young people huddled over an iPhone or an entire family Facetiming with a relative in Miami. Technology is connecting the island to its lost loved ones as well as to each other, albeit very slowly.
I was lucky to be visiting Cuba at a time when I could cross paths with a friend and journalist, Jon Elliston of Asheville, who has managed to make 20 trips to Cuba over the past 15 years. His knowledge of the country and experience with the media gave me a perceptive advantage. His focus is on the people’s access to media and the Internet and how it is changing. A very interesting topic indeed, seeing as now, there is only about 5 percent of the population of 11 million using the Internet.
So it seems that the real revolution going on in the country is not one desiring to take up arms and overthrow the government, but more of a rising desire to simply be connected. It’s a population more interested in making friends than losing itself in political ideologies that don’t feed, clothe, or culturally sustain them.
The fact is that most Cubans are too poor to use the Internet. Can you even imagine a world where you don’t use the Internet? You have to use the internet to book your camping trips in the national park, let alone do business, pay bills, or god forbid, text someone!
The nation’s average monthly salary is around $24, so spending $2 an hour to connect to an internet that is already filtered and extremely slow makes the idea of uploading a photo to your Facebook account seem pretty ludicrous. However, there are plenty of young people, lovers, and family members crowded around their phones in the country’s Wi-Fi hotspots connecting with each other.
It’s our desire to connect that will ultimately bring real change to Cuba. The government’s desire to slowly spoon feed its citizens’ broadband access can only last so long now that the American cruise ships are making port in Havana.