It’s a Cuba Thing

PHOTO GALLERY: Click to view individual photographs

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By DOUGLAS JOHN IMBROGNO | Feb. 11, 2023 |

You may be wondering why I have devoted an entire issue of the newsletter for to Cuba. In the middle of the winter. From my home nestled in West Virginia’s back hills. So, it’s like this. A friend of mine, the multi-cultural bad-ass musician and Renaissance-ish fellow Christopher Vincent popped onto Facebook this week with a shout-out to anyone who might wish to join a week-long “Support For Cuban People Tour,” from April 21 to 28, hosted by Broughton Adventures (sign up no later than Feb. 22, through the website link or call Robin Broughton at 304-951-7145). I boosted Christopher’s Facebook call-out with elements of my own brief, but powerful encounter with Havana, in 2019.

I’d like to share two things for anyone interested in such a trip, now or in the future. First, a video, plus an excerpt of a photo-essay I published about my own initial encounter with Cuba, as part of a musical cruise to Havana showcasing the great American troubadour Susan Werner. Because Cuba is … well, Cuba. A confounding, transformative, depressing, challenging, intoxicating place. It behooves anyone going there as a tourist to be something of a student of that complexity.

Old cars are the brightly-polished stars of Havana. | PHOTO by photo | feb2012

I don’t profess to be any sort of an expert on the complex politics of Cuba, including America’s 60-year-long embargo, which continues to fundamentally affect daily life on the island. The widespread protests in 2021 underscored the ‘misery’ felt at the street level after so many decades of oligarchic Communist rule. These are the lived experience of Cubans, not usually framed up in tourist selfies of the colorful Havana streets, jammed with shiny, nostalgic ‘50s era cars, with rum and cigars awaiting on the hotel veranda or out beneath an umbrella near a Caribbean-lapped beach. Which, of course, is all part of the allure.

The first thing I will share is the first video interview I ever conducted on the high seas. Our cruise to Havana and back featured on-board concerts and a Q-and-A with Susan, whose previous dips into the country resulted in the evocative album “An American in Havana.” In a 2017 Chicago Tribune article about the genesis of that album, Susan sums up the spell I suspect any wakeful person will feel, at some point, encountering the country:

“I was there for 10 days, and like so many Americans who go to Cuba, you find yourself fascinated and heartbroken and frustrated and, by the end of it, kind of in love with the place.”

CLICK TO VIEW VIDEO: “Singing Your Way to Havana and Back”

A video by

Below are excerpts from a 2020 photo-essay I published in, depicting some scenes and ponderings about Havana.

In Cuba, it’s ‘Complicado’

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

It was a lightning quick jaunt. We spent just over two days in Havana in February 2019, as part of a musical sojourn there with singer-songwriter Susan Werner. 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 have set foot in, and for less than 24 hours total. As Susan Werner and I discuss in our video interview about the place, 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 Writ Large.” | Che Guevara gazes across the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana. Fidel Castro often addressed more than a million Cubans here. 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. I hesitate even to qualify what I was looking at, not being a seasoned, culture-hopping, truth-seeking photographer.

Photographing people in and about Havana—as I realized 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?

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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, hunkered beside a fat newspaper delivered to those who live behind those impressive, bolted wooden doors worthy of a castle?

A quick visit to Havana is an opportunity to shoot colorful photos in almost every direction you turn. You can take endless shots of of the city’s famous 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, as surely as Cuban economic realities make it impossible for most to afford a radar-equipped Prius or rear view-camera Honda.

But were you to take an overhead shot of almost any of the innumerable Instagram photos you see of candy-colored cars, gorgeous Cubanas, and super-saturated streetshots, you’d see what lies behind the shooter. It might 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, 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 caliber 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 that 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.

[2023 UPDATE: President Joe Biden has relaxed some of those restrictions as this May 2022 Washington Post story notes, while walking a line that has led to criticism on both sides of the restrictions: “Although he pledged during his presidential campaign to reverse Trump’s restrictive measures, Biden has been caught between conflicting pressures on Cuba.”]

Cuba presents visitors with many lingering 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

Thanks to Jeff Seager for editing assistance on this post.

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