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In 1985 I was asked to go to El Salvador to document the trip of Gus Newport, then mayor of Berkeley, California, to El Salvador's war zones. I stayed in the mountains to live with and document the lives of those struggling to end the cycle of poverty and violence in their country. The kind of humanism I saw in the midst of war reinforced my belief in people. That we, as people, were capable of more than we might imagine. That trip led to seven more trips to that country and ultimately to a book of photographs (see El Salvador, Atlas 5). In between trips to El Salvador I traveled to Vietnam and Nicaragua, and later to the occupied territories of Israel. I wanted to see these places with my own eyes, rather than though the mainstream American media.
Still searching for answers in a changing world, in 1991, I decided to go back to Cuba and see how the demise of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc had affected that country. As it turned out it was not faring well. I walked the streets endlessly. Talking and photographing. More and more things were being rationed. There were shortages of everything. The buses were packed as spare parts from the eastern block were not arriving. Factories had to close. And there was not enough gas. But there were bicycles, hundreds of thousand of them. Though the children still seemed well fed, I heard that even that was becoming a problem. The US. blockade only made things more difficult for the everyday person. People were demoralized, yet still proud to be Cuban.
Tourism was increasing rapidly as the need for foreign exchange skyrocketed. And with tourism contradictions and problems followed. Prostitution, initially wiped out after the triumph of the revolution, was becoming a serious problem. Incidents of theft, until recently almost unknown, were on the increase as well. Numbers of young people who never experienced Cuba before the Revolution were even more frustrated than their elders. Every Saturday night two movies were shown on TV, usually American films. With the endless images of fast cars, luxurious homes and things, lots of things, it was not surprising then that some might look towards Miami as a way out of an increasingly austere Cuba. While many complained, however, others put all their energy and creativity into solving the country's problems. I spent the next three years working on the book and wondering what the future would bring.
Since the initial publication of these photographs I have returned to Cuba twice, most recently this summer. The dollar once illegal to even poses is now legal. With more capital in circulation some aspects of life may be getting better. But it also means that if you have access to dollars you have access to goods that most Cubans do not. People get dollars by having relatives in the States that help them out or by working in the ever expanding tourist industry. Sadly what this has done is create a dual society, or at least a privileged class. And more than that, it is turning Cuban society on its head. Doctors, scientist, professors, are now working in the tourist industry as cab drivers, or waitresses. The dollar economy is also fueling prostitution. They all can make more in a day than the average worker makes in a month. And they can buy not only "consumer goods" but more significantly food items; meat, vegetables, cheese and more. Cubans I know, who don't have access to dollars have not had meat for months. The phrase one hears most often in Cuba these days is "you have to do whatever you can to survive."
There is also, I feel, an increasing feeling of demoralization and powerlessness. Decisions, people say, are always made somewhere else, at some "higher level." On many occasions people told me how they feel that Cuba is like a ship with out a rudder, and nobody seems to know where it's headed, or what their future will bring.
The new Cuban movie "Guantanamera" is an excellent window through which to view today's Cuban society. In a scene from the movie one of the characters mentions a friend who teaches "scientific socialism" the retort by the other character is "well, she'll probably be teaching scientific capitalism soon." In reality no one knows.
In my five trips to Cuba I've had discussions with people from many walks of life, and more than a few were frustrated with the authoritarian (or possibly better stated paternalistic) nature of Cuban society and some complained about the lack of any possibility of political dissent. Others quietly voiced their desire that Fidel steep down and let others, maybe of the new generation, take his place. Others love Fidel still and put all their hope and trust in him. Few think capitalism is the answer. A more dynamic economy, sure. Small but regulated business, fine. And today there are moves in that direction as small government regulated family business open up.
Many questions remain, not only about Cuba's future but about the future of the world in general. Can societies that have attempted to put collectivity and people first make it in this ferociously market driven world? If not, what is all our future? More and more wealth ending up in fewer and fewer hands? More and more nations ending up on the brink of disaster? Unfortunately this seems to be the direction we are headed.
While some in Cuba may have dreams of Cuba someday being more like Miami, with its apparent wealth, a look at their neighbors is all to sobering, Haiti, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, hardly economic or social roll models. All one has to do is look at the rest of Latin American too see how bad things could really become.
And what of the role our country has played? Why have we never let Cuba alone? Every President and Congress has done what ever they could to put an end to the Cuban experiment. It can't be in the name of democracy that we have tried to destroy Cuba. If that was so we would have invaded Chile to save Chileans from Pinocet, but we helped put him in power. We would have helped the Guatemalans who faced mass murder, instead we supported those committing the crimes. We would have opposed Marcos in the Philippines yet for years he was our closest ally. It must have been for some other reason. I can only imagine that it was the fear that other countries might follow Cuba's example of attempting to be independent. Of trying to keep what human and natural resources they had for their own development rather than selling them to the highest bidder.
This government has used the excuse of a the lack of human rights in Cuba to justify all manner of political actions, not least of all our illegal blockade against them. The great irony of the blockade is that if it was lifted, I personally believe, it would mean the end of the Cuban social experiment. US Corporations bring corporate culture. A new materialism would be over powering. Cuba would eventually look like much of the rest of Latin America, with Mc Donald's and Pizza Hut on every other corner. It would also lead to great extremes of wealth and poverty. Hopefully Cuba can find a happy medium, a mixed yet controlled economy.
In any case Cuba must be allowed to solve its own problems and be free to create the kind of society it needs and wants. That is any nations right. It is all too easy to sit back and criticize Cuba, and some make that a full time occupation. Cuba has struggled to be different, to be independent. However for an island the size of Cuba to be independent politically it would have had to be independent economically, and given it's limited size and resources that was never a possibility. We must then view Cuba as being overly effected by countries and forces much larger and more powerful than it could ever have hoped to be. The list of those powers is long; Spain, the United States, the Soviet Union and today there are others. Had Cuba been able to provide for itself, I am convinced, it would be a very different place today.
With these photographs I have attempted to show everyday life in Cuba. The images here are meant to reinforce a belief that people are people, no matter where they live and no matter what type of social or political system they have chosen. They work hard, fall in love, root for a favorite baseball team, and rejoice and complain about life. Yet Cuba and the United States have been isolated from each other for over thirty years, our views obscured by propaganda and fear. In reality, I think, ignorance is our enemy, not the Cuban people. I hope these photographs, and my book, aid in better understanding a land and people too long mystified.