In Cuba, it’s ‘Complicado’

“Flower Ladies” share a moment on Plaza de la Catedral on Calle Empedrado in Old Havana. | PHOTO by | feb2019

by DOUGLAS JOHN IMBROGNO | | april15.2020 | SUBSCRIBE to this site’s email newsletter

I need to hit the ‘pause’ button frequently from all the dire coronavirus and political news. After navigating Twitter just now, I’m again wiped out from the bad news, vitriol, propaganda, and tribal warfare.

So, it’s off to Cuba for a bit.

I’ve already shared a 10-minute music-video homage to Havana. The video was born from a musical cruise to Havana my wife and I took in February 2019, since we’re fans of the superb singer-songwriter Susan Werner. Given the recent passing of John Prine from Covid-19 complications, the witty, soulful Werner is now perhaps America’s greatest living singer-songwriter. Bold claim, I know. But while fans of Joni and Bruce—of which I’m a mondo fan, too—may cavil, let me float away, out of quarantine.

At least in pictures.

Let’s head south.

“Resting Man” on the Plaza de la Catedral on Calle Empedrado in Old Havana. | PHOTO by | feb2019

For the past three months, I’ve posted photos from our Cuba trip to my Instagram account. It was a lightning quick jaunt. We spent just over two days in Havana. Yet the place stuck with me in a way few other places I’ve traveled out of the country have, except for Italy (and that’s partly because my father was born there.)

I claim no grand comprehension of the challenge of life in the one Cuban city I’ve set foot in, and for less than 24 hours total. As Susan Werner and I discuss in the video, the legacy bequeathed Cuba by Che and the Castro brothers—to say nothing of the Dulles brothers (John Foster and Allen)—“Es complicado.”

We were fortunate to take tours on separate days led by informed, passionate, well-educated Cuban millennials. One was a Japanese-Cuban fellow, the other a thoughtful Cubana. Both long to visit America. They keep up on world news via recently relaxed restrictions on Internet content available on their cellphones.

“Che For Sale.” A visitor frequently encounters heroic images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in Havana, from small to grand. And sometimes, they are for sale. | PHOTO by | feb2019

“Che Writ Large.” | Che Guevara gazes across the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba. Fidel Castro often addressed more than a million Cubans there. The quote on the Ministry of the Interior building featuring Che is: “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (One translation: ‘Until the Everlasting Victory, Always.‘) | PHOTO by | feb2019

Given that I know next-to-nada of the lived reality of Havana, I hesitate to make know-it-all observations from a drive-by visit. I’ll let you draw out any truths—simple or complicado—from your own gaze of what I chose to gaze upon (in what will be a two- or three-part “HavanaGrams” series.) I hesitate even to qualify what I was looking at, not being a seasoned, culture-hopping, truth-seeking photographer. (Like this guy, a former colleague whose Instagram feed I recommend to you).

Snapshooting people in and about Havana—once I studied my photos back in America—was a constant process of wondering: ‘What exactly am I looking at?’ Is the matchstick-thin man leaned up against a pillar in the Plaza de la Catedral taking a break from selling tourists las baratijas (trinkets)? Or is he bone tired from begging to survive?

Is the sad-looking woman on the stoop a portrait of Earth’s dispossessed, in stark contrast to the Flower Lady coming her way, whose outfit looks like it’s electrified? Is that newspaper beside the seemingly sad woman her morning read, before she goes to work? Or is she, too, weary from keeping herself and her family alive, beside a fat newspaper delivered to whoever lives behind those impressive, bolted wooden doors worthy of a castle?

Two bright and perhaps not-so-bright faces of Havana, on a side street near the Catedral de San Cristobal in Old Havana. | PHOTO by | feb2019

A quick visit to Havana is an opportunity to shoot colorful photos almost every direction you turn. (In a future ‘HavanaGrams‘, I’ll take my turn at snaps of the city’s famous reconditioned classic Chevys, Plymouths and what not. They’re reconditioned—usually with homemade, handmade parts—since a far-too-long embargo denies Cuba late-model vehicles, much less anyone being able to afford a radar-equipped Prius or rear view-camera Honda.)

But were you to take an overhead shot of almost any of the thousands of Instagram photos of candy-colored cars, gorgeous Cubanas, and super-saturated streetshots, you’d see what lies behind the shooter. It might be what appears to be a Soviet-era, chock-a-block apartment building like this below from Havana.

“Building Block.” A Havana apartment complex. | PHOTO by | feb2019

To the back of that shooter, snapping a scene with colors soon to be far more saturated than they already are naturally, there may be a scene just as colorful. Yet in a different way. Is this shot (below) of three balcony dwellers a scene of Third World poverty? Or is it a shot of … just life? Who am I to judge the calibre of daily living in the rooms to which these people retire when the weather turns sour? Maybe some of these balcony folk lead happy, rich lives, in spite of the warped wood panels where half-moon glass used to be above their birds-eye view of Havana.

I would need to spend far more time than two days to know a fuller story. I hope they are well, though. I hope the two guys chatting on side-by-side balconies in the warmth of the setting sun are buddies. And that the guy in the red ballcap knows by name the little girl with the head bun one balcony over—and their kids play together.

“Three Balconies.” Three views of Havana. | PHOTO by | feb2019

Bernie Sanders’ 2020 U.S. presidential campaign hit choppy waters for daring to say it is “unfair to simply say everything is bad” in the Cuba that Fidel and Che birthed. “When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program,” Sanders said in a “60 Minutes” interview. “Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”

The interviewer then noted the many dissidents who’ve suffered in Cuba’s jails, presaging the firestorm that would come Sanders’s way after the show rolled credits. Sanders responded, “That’s right, and we condemn that.”

The add-on wasn’t enough. The comment dogged him in debates and primaries to come. Cuba remains a minefield, at least for American politicians. The stiffening of America’s embargo—yet another Trump finger-to-the-eye of an Obama achievement, yet another instance of his cruelty—is one more reason to long for that man-child to be swept into history’s dustbin.

But questions linger for even the brief visitor to Cuba. Long after the last Sanders presidential yard sign comes down, his remark lingers.

Is that a bad thing?

It’s a good question.

Cuba presents North American visitors (and not just tourists) with many questions. The answers will take more than one visit, at least for this quick-shot tourist.

“Flowers To Go.” The Flower Ladies call it a day. | PHOTO by
| feb2019

NOTE: This is the first in a series of occasional “HavanaGrams.” Subscribe to this site’s e-mail newsletter for notice of additional photo-essays and other features. And thanks to these folks below for giving us an often unconventional, incisive view of a complicado country. | Douglas John Imbrogno, apr14.2020

Our guide (at left) on a bus tour of Havana—and the next day in the backseat of a candy-colored ’57 Chevy. Note the scene out the window of a boy who looks to be herding a batch of cows with a red flag, a scene that likely wouldn’t be out of place in 19th century Cuba. | PHOTO by | feb2019

TAKE A DEEPER DIVE into the lively streets of Havana with the video (below) mentioned in the photo-essay. It includes an interview with Susan Werner about her fascination with Cuba, and an excerpt from her evocative, powerful song, “Cuba Is.”

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I wish to note the editing help I get on TheStoryIsTheThing essays by Rich Erlich, who in another life was an English Department instructor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who brought some form to my malleable brain. Check out his blog and published work.

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