One of our clients, VJ Singh, visited Cuba a week before US President Barack Obama’s historic visit. She and her husband focused their trip on art and photography in Havana and Trinidad, with the help of excellent guides. They went on photo walks, met interesting local artists and photographers, sampled Cuban cuisine in outstanding restaurants, attended music shows and learned about the hopes and fears of the people. Here is an excerpt from her photo essay about Havana:

Portfolio: Past versus future in Cuba

“Cuban eyes often look close to tears. Both their pain and joy are so close to the surface.”  – Brin-Jonathan Butler

Things are definitely beginning to change in Cuba, with Raul Castro granting ~500,000 licenses for self-employment in the past four to five years. Several people I meet have already made the transition to entrepreneurialism – primarily in the tourism industry or the art world. While life is still hard, there’s a huge cultural shift happening. More Cubans can buy things now or dine out. And the culinary scene is certainly buzzing with creative, cutting-edge, farm-to-table restaurants.

Past versus future in Cuba

The positive energy and creative tension of Havana nurtures a breed of artists I haven’t found elsewhere. I’ve always wondered about the connection between dictatorship and prolific art. I’ve seen this in the Philippines, Chile and now in Cuba. Are dictators better patrons of art? Or is it that oppressed people turn to art to find freedom of expression?

In Havana, it’s possible to ring the bell of an artist’s home with little or no notice, get offered a cup of coffee, have a conversation about art and life, and part as friends. It’s nice if you buy a painting or sculpture, but the artist is happy to simply meet you and have their work appreciated.

One evening, we drop in to talk to Roberto Salas, the Cuban-American photographer, whose 1957 photo in Life magazine of the Statue of Liberty wrapped in a Cuban flag, created both history and controversy. At 76, Roberto is still a feisty, passionate man as he reflects on his early years  as a photographer and interactions with Fidel and Che, and tells me that his favourite photo is one he hasn’t taken yet.

Portfolio: Past versus future in Cuba

“As long as nothing happens, anything is possible.” – Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana

Havana is full of contradictions:

  • Beautiful and crumbling. Lavish and threadbare.
  • Sophisticated and naive. Simple joys and complex problems.
  • Marxist-Leninist ideology and emerging entrepreneurship.
  • Paris (or is it Leningrad?) and the Caribbean.
  • And its contrary features are all equally photogenic and beguiling.

Portfolio: Past versus future in Cuba

“People still come out of their homes every evening, socialize, sing and dance. You see, we don’t have many channels on TV.” – Anonymous

At sunset, all roads lead to the Malecón, the seawall on which Habaneros like to sit and watch evening turn to night. Fishing is popular here, but mostly, it’s about aimless gazing into the sea or at the long line of decaying mansions.

Portfolio: Past versus future in Cuba

“We must not let these harsh times destroy the warmth in our hearts.” – Che Guevara

While we’re waiting for big changes to happen, we might as well indulge in a Cohiba cigar. Jjust find building #504, where retired members of the band return nightly for performances. Help, I’m stuck in a time capsule, inside a faded vintage photograph with frayed edges!

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