“See everything; the good things and the bad things. You have to feel things.”
I began this paper with a quotation by Juanito Delgado because I believe that it perfectly describes my experience and what I took away from Cuba. It is difficult even now, to put into words what I took away from this trip. This was filled with new and unfamiliar experiences that reshaped a lot of my beliefs as a person and as an artist. During this trip I tried to experience as much of Cuba as I could, from discussing political and social issues with the Cuban people, from experiencing our “tour” of Havana by our tour guide Marta, as well as Cuba at night when the tourist aesthetic left the streets and was replaced by genuine Cuban people. I spent a lot of nights discussing these experiences and beliefs with my fellow classmates as well as the superiors on the trip. In a lot of the group discussions we were asked more than once if we had any thoughts about things that didn’t seem to add up. Throughout the trip I took note of the things that I believed didn’t add up, ideas of things that intrigued me, and my opinions on aspects of Cuba’s society.
The first thing that I wanted to discuss was the paranoia that most of us students felt on the trip. Our tour guide Marta created the source for most of these feelings of deception. On our day of arrival we experienced our first culture shock, and the only thing the students wanted to do at first was look at everything and soak it all in. However, it seemed that Marta wanted us to only focus on her and not of the surrounding area. The area around the airport that we realized was not up to par with the visual tourist aesthetic that we soon found out Old Havana had. This event was brought up at different times during the trip whenever someone felt we weren’t being shown the true uncensored picture. I didn’t really think anything of her wanting us to focus on her and not look out the windows until it began to seem clear that she was trying to paint this perfect image of Cuban society.
Another point in the trip she tried explaining to us that there was no racism in Cuba. We all laughed it off because it was just ridiculous to think that “Cuba had solved racism” as one of my classmates, commented. In our textbook, chapter 35 discusses race. The chapter describes how discussion of race among Cubans, especially white Cubans, is unwelcome and some claim “racism has never been a problem in the island and that its open discussion is not convenient and will only serve the divisionist purposes of the enemy, however defined” (Alejandro de la Fuente, Page 316). It seems to me that the idea that racism exists in Cuba is something most Cubans don’t want to acknowledge in hopes that maybe it will cease to exist if it is not spoken of. Outside of Cuba it seems that people do identify racism as being a problem, in fact the textbook quotes an Afro-Cuban-American businessman stating that racism “is at the heart of Cuba’s crisis” (Alejandro de la Fuente, Page 316).
Another thing Marta implied that Cuba had fixed was the problem of homophobia. She had implied that the Cuban society was open to the LGBTQ society. She did not try to deny the Cuban governments past with unfair treatment of gay men during and after the revolution. The concept of homophobia was built into the ideas of the revolution. Marta explained to us that gay people were sent to “labor camps” where they were put to work everyday and were out of sight out of mind for the rest of the Cuban society. In fact in 2010 Fidel Castro acknowledged the unfair treatment and injustice towards gays and lesbians during the revolution. Castro is quoted by journalist Carmen Lira Saade from the Mexican daily La Jornada saying, “There were moments of great injustice, great injustice! If someone is responsible, it’s me.” Now in regards to the current Cuban society Larry R. Oberg writes in chapter 36 of our book on his experiences with gays in Cuba. Oberg states, “all laws that discriminate against Cuban gays have been removed from the books” (Larry R. Oberg, Page 327). My first hand experience with how open the society is towards homosexuals was mixed. Walking the streets at night or along the Malecón I saw mixed couples, gay couples, lesbian couples, and there seemed to be no discrimination amongst the crowd. But I heard from two members of our group different experiences with people from Cuba and their reaction to meeting a gay man. These two members were met with hostility and prejudice and that’s where the mixed experiences of LGBTQ acceptance were made.
A big part of Cuban society, it seemed, relied on the black market for items of luxury, supplies, food, and so on. It was Esterio Segura who confesses that his fiberglass airplane sculptures were “100% illegal.” He explained that the government knew that the sculptures he was making could only possibly be made with supplies off the black market. Because Esterio was bringing money into Cuba with selling his works and because they were not considered “counter-revolutionary”, I believe that’s why the government had no problem with him accessing the black market. Using the black market for whatever it is you’re trying to obtain is a social normality in Cuba.
After talking with Lázaro’s two sons Lázaro and César about what its like to grow up in Cuba right now, I found out that Cuban culture isn’t as separated from the American culture as I thought. I was fascinated with their knowledge of television shows, movies, and music from America. Their favorite television show was Family Guy; they loved Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and many young pop artists in America today, and they repeatedly imitated Christian Bale’s Batman voice from The Dark Knight trilogy. They explained that when their father would travel outside of Cuba he would come back with flash drives full of music, movies, and television shows. This is such a big part of culture that Wilfredo Benítez, associate director of the Ludwig Foundation, told us that they were currently conceptualizing a way to obtain and track the flash drives. The intent was to track and see what the people were interested in and to possibly introduce art into the discussion, to “hack” the system so to speak. This was the normality; this is how they were able to stay in contact with American culture and to spread theirs. Another thing that was a social normality was pirated movies. At one point of the trip Luke raised the question about American movie sales in Cuba, if there were any at all. The fact was there were no official American movie sales in Cuba; however, you could find pirated DVDs of American films both old and new.
One thing that I had troubles understanding on the trip was the two money systems at work in Cuba. Initially I thought the money system created a division in the Cuban society between the working class Cuban people and the rich. The fact that 25 CUPs was equivalent to 1 CUC supported my beliefs. This split money system has been in place since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Fidel Castro decided in 1993, due to a lack of hard currency, to legalize the American dollar. This allowed families outside of Cuba to begin sending money back home, which allowed people in Cuba to spend more money, specifically at the new dollar stores that began to appear. Meanwhile, all Cuban workers of the state were still paid less than 20 dollars a month in the old Cuban peso.
This divide between the two money systems I believe separates the visiting tourists from the Cuban people and divides the people of Cuba. I had a discussion about CUCs versus CUPs with a classmate and we noted the similarities between CUCs and Disney Dollars and how they were the currency that could be used nowhere else in the world and only for certain approved expenditures. Disney Dollars being the official currency of Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resorts. Everything we used the CUC for was for tourist shops, markets, our hotel expenses, restaurants, as well as out fees to leave Cuba. If we wanted to buy fresh produce from a farmers market we would need CUPs. We went to what we called the “ice cream park” there were two areas to get ice cream; one with 3 flavors that could only be bought by CUCs and another with over 30 flavors that could only be bought with CUPs. Walking down the streets at night we came across many “fast food” restaurants. Some of which only accepted CUCs and other that only accepted CUPs. You could look at the two restaurants and see who was paying with CUCs and who was paying with CUPs; a literal divide amongst the people.
A reoccurring term in our discussions and artist talks was censorship. Almost every artist we talked with brought up censorship in relation to his work or discusses what he/she believed it was. What I think goes along with the discussion of censorship is propaganda. After everything I have seen and experienced in Cuba I think it’s safe to say that there is a huge control over what we as outsiders are supposed to see and not supposed to see. José Toirac’s artist talk gave us a deep insight on the history of Cuba in regards to the revolution. José was told us how Alberto Korda was hired to take photographs that would heroicize Fidel Castro and Che Guevara during the revolution. He said that “Reality was not enough for the revolution” and I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I would say reality is not enough for Cuba. During the trip we were able to experience different types of Cuba depending on whom we were speaking with. This all goes back to the paranoia of being deceived. The more we learned of the Cuban government’s attempt to paint a perfect picture, the more we began to question things.
When we visited the Kcho Estudio Romerillo La Laboratorio Para El Arte it seemed we were all taken back by the strangeness of the organization. The first place our tour guide took us was the Biblioteca Comandante de la Revolucion Juan Almeida Bosque. A library named after a Cuban politician who was one of the original commanders of the Cuban Revolution. Our guide told us that they offered free Wi-Fi for the neighborhood, access to computers, and access to their library. A few of us began to get the feeling that this was all too good to be true and we weren’t receiving the true picture when we noticed the children that were in the library while we were being taken through there didn’t seem to be reading the books they were holding. The children flipped through the books haphazardly and would read from the end of the book to the beginning. When we left the library, so did all the children who were reading the books. I had suspicions that we were given a staged interaction with the children. Luke later asked our guide if in fact they hired the children to act like they were using the library for us and our guide did not have an answer. She kind of shrugged it off and said that they do not control the children and they were there on their own. I felt a disconnect between this organization with their community. Kcho was the one who funded the organization and who chose the projects. The slideshow/video of the projects they had completed never showed any member of their organization in the photos. So again, there seemed to be a disconnect between the people and even the projects, as if the community projects were just for show and not for the improvement of the community.
On the other end of the spectrum was the Laboratorio Artistico Sculptura Architecture (LASA) de San Agustin. Out of everyone we visited and talked with during the trip I found Candelario Luaces to be the most interesting. The organization that he worked for astounded me. Candelario talked about a new project he was working on where he would create these sculptures that were apartments and would sell them. Being that there was no law prohibiting selling sculptures that just so happen to be apartment buildings he would get away with it as long as it was in the limits of your property. He talked a lot about how his work focused on breaking through the limits the government placed on the people and finding the loopholes in the system. I though the apartment sculpture project was a fantastic idea that would help the people of Cuba. That was the sense I got from him as he talked, was that he genuinely cared for the people. His art piece where he dyed the bread different colors so that the people would have a choice was simple but meant something to the people. Unlike the relationship between the Kcho Estudio Romerillo La Laboratorio Para El Arte and the people, the relationship between LASA and the people seemed genuine. As we walked down the street with him, his neighbors greeted him and he greeted them back. It was just nice to see such a strong and real relationship between them and the people who would be the viewers of their work.
Cooperation with the Cuban government is a big part of how artists interact and show their work with the public. Candelario explained their unique relationship with local police and this initially shocked me. Candelario explained how they had an agreement with the police so that during their shows the police would patrol the neighborhood to make sure the event wouldn’t be sabotaged. When LASA would organize performances the police would show up to the scene but would not stop the performance, they would allow it to continue and protect it from being intruded on by other people. The way Candelario spoke about their close relationship with local police was astonishing to me. Even in the United States you don’t see a lot of cooperation with artists and police officers. It was refreshing to hear that maintaining a relationship of mutual respect between police and artists active in their community is possible and is being done.
On the subject of relations between the state and artist I also wanted to write about Jose Fuster and Fusterlandia. In Jaimanitas on the northwestern edge of Havana, Fuster decided to change the look of his home. With the use of paint, mosaic work, and ceramic sculpture he redecorated his home and soon began to gain attention in his neighborhood. More than 80 of his neighbors have allowed him to cover their homes with bright and colorful artwork. Working as a professional artist since 1966 Fuster had managed to exhibit his work in over 100 galleries as well as in over 500 group shows around the world.
The controversy over this artist was the support he gained from the Cuban government. It seemed to me that because his work was so whimsical and entertaining, the government saw potential in it for a tourist attraction. That is certainly what it felt like when we visited Fusterlandia. Many people, all assumedly tourists, flocked to see his work and purchase art, drinks, or books. I believe it was due to tourists’ interests in his art and the fact that his art was not controversial that the government supported him. His work was not in any way counter-revolutionary and so the government could support it. It had an amusement park feel, in the way that it entertained its occupants and it guided them into purchasing merchandise. Even outside of Fuster’s home there were stores set up by his neighbors that sold the typical tourist merchandise that could be found all throughout Havana. Thinking back, Fusterlandia reminded me of what Calendario said when we visited him, “You don’t provoke the state. You allow them to use you. They don’t understand art so no one will question you. They allow you to do what you do.” What I think Calendario was saying is that in order to be able to publicly display your art with no threat of censorship is to gain the support of your government and to work with it. Calendario also talked about the fine line in which you can provoke the state without a backlash, but only as long as you worked within those limits you could have some freedom to express yourself.
One thing I was not expecting from Cuba was the intensity of tourist attractions and commercialization that has already begun. There were so many stores throughout Havana, and the majority of them sold the exact same items. I personally wanted to find genuine Cuban shops and stores but it was very hard when most of the areas close to us had high tourist traffic. I understood that tourism was a huge part of Cuba’s economy but I did not realize what a big percentage it was.
Something I took note of during the whole trip goes back to Cuba’s culture still gaining access to American culture as I wrote about before. Throughout the whole trip I made note of musicians that are/were popular in American culture. Those artists are as follows: Sting, The Bee Gees, Alice in Chains, The Doors, Rihanna, Eminem, Elvis Presley, Coldplay, Ramstein, Lionel Richie, Frank Sinatra, Enrique Inglesias, Demi Lovato, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Usher, LMFAO, Juicy J, Pitbull, Miley Cyrus, Nikki Minaj, Guns n’ Roses, Michael Jackson, Hozier, Macklemore, Bruno Mars, Fun, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, James Blunt, Eric Clapton, Imagine Dragons, Taylor Swift, Sia, and Foreigner. It amazed me with how embedded these artists were in the Cuban community. A fellow student and I took a taxi and sang a Bee Gees song with the taxi driver, when the whole group went to lunch at a paladar there was a Sting live concert DVD playing, and every day during our group discussion the Foreigner song “I Want To Know What Love Is” played at the pool bar.
I took a lot from this trip. For me it was my first time in a plane, my first time out of the country, my first time to go swimming in the ocean, among other things. I made a lot of good friends, talked to a lot of interesting people, and made connections with Cuba that I hope I’ll be able to maintain as I get older and I continue my career in the arts. I enjoyed every second of our artist talks, gallery visits, museum visits, and daily exploration of Havana. I thought a lot about myself and what I want my art to represent as well as how I want my art practice to evolve into something meaningful to others and myself. Thank you for giving me this opportunity and allowing me to experience the beauty of Cuba.