For more than 50 years, America has been tantalized by its forbidden neighbor that lies just 90 miles across the clear green waters of the Florida Straight. Like the persistent shroud of coastal fog, travel restrictions under the U.S. embargo have kept the island-nation out of sight for most Americans for more than 50 years. Despite its isolation from the United States, daily life and culture, particularly in Havana, continues to be vivid, colorful and more informed than I imagined.
Touchdown at José Martí International Airport seemed surreal. The taxiways were nearly empty and our plane expeditiously made its way off the runway and toward the smaller of two terminal buildings on opposite sides of the airfield where the hallmark Caribbean island stair-truck was waiting.
End to the Injustice
The ride on our U.S. tour group's Chinese-made, Yutong brand minibus from the airport to Havana followed the highway through the suburban landscape. I immediately noticed the obvious absence of commercial advertising. There were billboards on the roadside but instead of promoting the latest film or newest car model, these signs featured propaganda decrying the U.S. embargo and the trial of the Cuban Five while promoting the ideals of socialism with slogans like "patria o muerte" ("homeland or death").
The U.S. Embargo
Although U.S. citizens have not been able to travel freely to Cuba since 1963 a 1999 exception to the travel restrictions briefly allowed Americans to visit Cuba as part of heavily regulated cultural "people-to-people" programs until 2003 when restrictions once again closed the door for legal travel to Cuba. In 2011 new policies under President Barack Obama restored people-to-people travel to Cuba as well as allowing for Cuban Americans to travel to and from the island to visit close family.
The acres of macadam in Plaza de la Revolucion reflected the heat from the midday Caribbean sun as the diesel fumes from the lineup of Havantur busses swirled around the flickering mirage-like air at the base of the monument and José Martí statue.
Plaza de la Revolucíon
Although the buildings surrounding the plaza were erected just prior to the Cuban Revolution, their stoic facades looked more like they were built with plans from the drafting tables of Eastern bloc architects.
While the buildings in Plaza de la Revolucíon may have looked very stark and utilitarian, the Cuban Capitol building has a more familiar style to me. Construction began on the domed neo-classical structure in 1926 and its design is reminiscent of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. However El Capitolo has not been the seat of government since Fidel Castro ousted the parliament in 1976. Last year, the government announced plans to restore the building for the convention of Cuba's National Assembly.
The visual and performing arts are an important part of Cuban culture. Live music can be found in nearly every restaurant and bar and artists’ cooperatives and studios produce sophisticated works using classical methods.
Taller Experimental de Graphica
By one o’clock we were wandering around the Taller Experimental de Graphica, a lithography studio in La Habana Vieja. The vibrant images flowed off the presses and onto tables where artists proudly introduced themselves and their work.
The Print Shop
Founded in 1962, the experimental studio’s roots stretch back deep into the Revolution. However, notably absent from the artists’ work were the traditional and ubiquitous images of propaganda found throughout the city in murals, posters and billboards. Rather, these artists seemed most interested in capturing the essence and culture of Havana through both abstract and representational images.
From the lithograph studio we headed to an alley performance space and studio where followers of Santería performed a traditional dance.
Although Marxist communism normally marginalizes, and in practice has even outlawed, religion, Roman Catholicism survived rocky relations with Castro’s post-Revolution government.
Intense and rhythmic musical and dance performances focus on the various god-like Santeria spirits which have a syncretic relationship to the saints of the Catholic faith.
The influence of Afro-Cuban practices in Cuba has led to Santería's adoption by people of all ethnic backgrounds in Cuba.
Escuela Taller de La Habana
The agenda for our first full day in Havana included a first stop at Escuela Taller de La Habana a vocational school at which young men and women learn skills necessary for the upkeep of the aging city.
Without a Home Depot or Lowe's to turn to for details like moulding and decorative accents builders must fabricate nearly all of the materials needed for a jobsite from scratch. Trades that have long been lost to the disposable culture in much of North America continue to be taught in the workshops of Escuela Taller.
Escuela Taller is highly competitive and only 200 of the most skilled students are accepted. The program is free and students receive a monthly stipend of 250 Cuban pesos (roughly 10 USD). Graduates can decide if they wish to work for the government or seek work in the small but growing private sector.
Trabajo en la Carretera
From the cobblestones in the streets which arrived from Massachusetts as ship ballast to the city’s Spanish Colonial and Art Deco architecture to the Santeria religion that traces its roots to Rome and West Africa, much of Havana’s culture has been borrowed from elsewhere and transformed in something uniquely Cuban.
Paseo de Marti
Like a species evolving in an isolated enclave, Cuba’s versions of these adopted artifacts have unique twists to them that are the island’s own.