by Margaret Saunders
“Fish Behind Crystal“
The plane ride from Miami, Florida to La Habana, Cuba is less than an hour. It’s a short enough trip that the plane will fly close to the water, pure blue with white foam, so that if you look out of the window, you might not be able to distinguish the ocean from the sky. If you keep your face pressed against the pane for most of the trip, when you arrive at Aeropuerto Internacional Jose Martí, you will feel dazed. In forty-five minutes time, you will learn, it is possible to time travel.
On December 17th, 2014, Obama announced his intentions to ease restrictions on Cuba, in an attempt to normalize relationships between the long-isolated island nation and the U.S. Though reactions were mixed, with some critics claiming that the sanctions shouldn’t end while the Castro’s still maintained control of the government, the President’s plan received a generally positive reaction. According to the Pew research center 63 percent of Americans support re-establishing diplomatic relations in Cuba and 66 percent support ending the trade embargo. Even among Cuban Americans, a group that in the past largely support the embargo, there has been a visible shift, with 68 percent now supporting restoring diplomatic relations and 52 percent supporting a complete end of the embargo.
In the more traditionally liberal Cuban-American art community, the prospect of easier cross-cultural exchanges with the motherland is exciting and long over-due.
“I think it is great that the US and Cuba are starting the process of normalizing relations,” says Astrid Martinez-Jones of Latin Art Space, a Massachusetts-based gallery that exhibits Cuban art and leads educational trips to the island. “I believe that collaboration through the arts—visual and performing—will be a wonderful way to build relationships and mutual understanding between the two countries.” Chelsea’s Cuban Art Space gallery, part of New York’s Center For Cuban studies promotes a similar message, displaying the work of both Cuban and Cuban-American artists side by side, and selling postcards of Che firmly grasping a cigar between his fingers alongside miniature Cuban flags.
In Cuba meanwhile, almost all of the population seems eager to see an end to the more than fifty-year-old blockade “Cubans all have an education, that’s true,” says Alfred Flores, an artist who sells his sketches in the touristic La Habana Vieja neighborhood. Often times, he says he gives his work away for free—he likes the idea that it will travel in foreign hands to places where he will never be able to go. He wears a Yankees hat and between his charcoal-stained fingertips, he holds a cigarette, which he uses to point at other habaneros passing by. “That man, and that woman, and that man, and me. We all have an education, yes. But none of us can see the world. We Cubans, we are all fish behind the crystal. And when the embargo lifts,”—he motions towards El Malecón, La Habana’s famous esplanade, and beyond it, the seemingly endless sea—“we will all go.” At night, in the same spot, groups of young Cubans gather by the water with their guitars and sing a song with a oft-repeated chorus that says, “My happiness is in Miami.”
An Internal Embargo
However, although more and more people in the U.S. are getting on board in support of ending sanctions against Cuba and Cubans are hopeful about opening up relations, the exact effects of President Obama’s policy change may not be a cure all for the long-suffering populace. Everything in Cuba is tied up in politics from buying stale fruit at the market place to selling your art to foreigners, who over the years, will come and go and come and go, while you will stay. Nobody doubts that the situation needs to change—however, the ambivalence of some Cubans revolves around the question of whether or not the end of the embargo will create those changes for the Cubans who need them the most.
“The embargo will not end,” says Luz de Cuba. She is a spoken word artist who lives in one of the poorest sections of the capital, a slum in La Habana Vieja. She is sitting on her sofa, a collection of foam padding and wood with a warm water bottle tied to a bum knee. The woman who lives next door to her has six dogs and they bark in unison—the sound seeps in through the broken door and paper-thin walls. “I am a Black woman…autonomous…and I live in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Havana. There is an embargo within the embargo. An internal embargo. In Cuba, for us, everything is very slow.”
Across the capital city, government-sponsored billboards read “The Blockade: The Longest Genocide.” The embargo was officially put in place by President Kennedy on February 7th, 1962, only about three years after Fidel Castro and his forces rode victoriously into La Habana shortly after New Year’s Day of 1959. Although the ousted dictator, Fulgencio Batista, had been extremely accommodating to American interests, the United States did not initially oppose the Cuban Revolution until Castro’s intentions to impose a communist government system became obvious. This came at a time when the United States was in the midst of its longest “war”—The Cold War, a conflict with the communist USSR, which, that while never officially declared, endured for forty-six years. Cuba, former hotspot for vacationing mobsters and politicians alike, home to light-hearted son and a luxurious Caribbean sun, was now considered an imminent threat to American security and was severely punished. Now, twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the deterioration of the mighty Soviet empire, the Castro’s are no less powerful for all of the sanctions and the Cubans continue to suffer.
“It’s incorrect to call it an embargo,” explains Desiree DeLoach, a member of the Venceremos Brigade, a Cuban Revolution solidarity group. “An embargo would just be that the U.S. doesn’t do business with Cuba. But this is a blockade—that means the U.S. won’t do business with you and no one else can either or they’ll face heavy fines.” As a result, Cuba receives limited resources from the outside world, which takes a heavy toll on everything from local business to medical facilities. “The first time I visited a hospital in Cuba, I went to a physical therapy center where they had made parallel bars out of curtain rods from the buses,” DeLoach says. “That’s very creative, but it also shows how they’re lacking in supplies.” While DeLoach thinks Cubans could benefit from the end of sanctions and see improvement in quality of everything from housing to transportation, she believes that the policy is not necessarily designed to help the Cuban people. “Overall, when I look at the proposal, all I see is that the U.S. is still trying to control Cuba. New tactics, same end game.”
“The reason for the original blockade still remains,” agrees Tom Whitney of Let Cuba Live. “They still want regime change, but they’re trying softer ways.” Many solidarity groups in the U.S. think that living conditions in Cuba will improve once the embargo is lifted only if the Cuban people are also left to their own devices. “We seek that Cuba be left to thrive without interference,” says Judy Robbins, a member of Let Cuba Live. “My hope for its relationship with the US is that the two countries become friendly neighbors, respectful of each other’s differences.” Yet many in Cuba believe that while U.S. sanctions are largely to blame for their poor quality of life, their own government bears some responsibility.
Eduardo Djata Diele, host of the radio show A Propósito, wanders the sweeping marble lobby of the Hotel Havana Libre, in search of an ashtray. Formerly a Hilton hotel, situated in the fashionable Vedado neighborhood in La Habana underwent a name and leadership change following the revolution, but still caters to the same caliber of tourists, selling Wi-Fi cards for an exorbitant $10 an hour. It is not the type of place where Eduardo would usually find himself, and he eventually settles by a large window towards the back. There’s no ashtray in site, but from this seat, he is able to occasionally turn and look outside. Just beyond the parameters of the hotel, the homeless sit with their bare, blackened feet and their backs against the decaying building across the way. In the middle of discussing his radio show in Spanish, Djata Diele cuts himself off and begins speaking in slow, deliberate English. “This is a story of a nation thought to be white…but the reality is, you can see,”—he motions out the window—“ it is not…You see here, a nation…that never was happy.”
He is originally from Banes, a city in Cuba’s Eastern Holguín Province. From 1898 until the Revolution, it was considered to be a so-called company town. “My mother town was almost a colony of the United Fruit Company,” Djata Diele explains. “When the Cuban Revolution triumphed in 1959…it was…it seen as hope. The definitive way for the nation, for the people. My family was part of the true communist party. And on this march…and with the prioritized Soviet interests…it was very difficult…very hard for the people. For the people people. Because you can say people and that may be abstract. But I am talking of the real people.” Djata Diele’s radio program seeks to highlight the cultural work of these people people by playing music from communities not necessarily represented on mainstream Cuban radio, including the politicized rap of Afro-Cuban artists. Many of these artists are from the poorest segments of Cuban society and have little to no access to the Internet, an important tool for distributing and publicizing their music, especially for those who work independently. With the end of the embargo in site, there is the potential for increased online connectivity across Cuba. Djata Diele, however, while critical of the Cuban government, is distrustful of the U.S. “Excuse me but I don’t see the correlation,” he says speaking again in Spanish. “How will American resources help these people? Did they help before?”
The effects of the embargo, although immediately taxing, were not truly felt until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the isolated island lost its only friend—along with the block of Eastern European countries who, by 1987, had made up 88 percent of their trading partner. Almost immediately, the country lost 80 percent of its imports, 80 percent of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34 percent. Food and medicine imports all but stopped. As is often the case however, the most crucial factor in deciding Cuba’s fate turned out to be oil. “Cuba’s oil imports dropped to 10 percent of pre-1990 amounts… the restored Russian Federation…made it clear that it had no intention of delivering the tanker after tanker of petroleum that had been guaranteed…by the USSR,” explains Nigel Hunt of the Cuban History Organization. In response, Castro halted all oil deliveries from Russia. The loss of oil sent shockwaves throughout various sectors of society, affecting everything from transportation to agriculture to basic quality of life. Unending power outages and 5-hour long waits for the bus became standard, but perhaps one of the most devastating consequences of the “Special Period” was the food shortage and the subsequent malnutrition that it caused. Cuban citizens were estimated to have lost over 20 pounds by 1994 and their daily calorie intact dropped by nearly 1,000 as famine conditions continued across the country. “[When the Soviet Union fell] we were without…mama and papa…without our big brother. That so-called ‘Special Period,’ Djata Diele recalls in a cracking voice. “It was…so hard. So hard. Not for me. Yes for me, as well, but for them”—he references to the unchanged scene outside the window of the Havana Libre, “So hard for them.” Financially strapped, the Cuban government was suddenly put in the uncomfortable position of promoting tourism and all of its capitalistic and immoral trappings—the pimping out of culture and an already impoverished population. Meanwhile, the economic benefits of Cuba’s opening up were enjoyed by a select few who fit the aesthetic requirement necessary to obtain a job in the coveted tourism industry—when it came to most of the new hotel jobs, the Black Cuban population found they need not apply. Today, they continue to make up the majority of the poorest segments of the Cuban population, used as talking points for both Pro and Anti Revolution groups, who either exaggerate or downplay the issue of race in Cuba to fit their rhetoric. The truth lies somewhere in the gray area, a place where Black Cuban bell hops chase their Black Cuban countrymen out of luxurious hotel waiting areas while tourists avert their eyes.
An Uncertain Horizon
Even those who most obviously stand to benefit from the end of the embargo have their uncertainties. Marisol, who did not want her real named used in this story, is a single woman living with her adult daughter in a building named for Bolivar, the great Venezuelan liberator from the Spanish colonial era. Once pastel blue, it has grayed over the years but has managed to retain its most alluring feature—a clear view of the sea and the horizon beyond it. Marisol runs a casa particular, the Cuban version of a bed and breakfast or an AirBnb. The casas particulares serve as a way for average Cuban citizens with extra space to cash in on the European tourism boom—they offer an “authentic” Cuban experience and at $25-$30 USD a night, they’re an attractive alternative to the hotels, which despite their decrepit appearances and lacking amenities, are often priced at over $150 USD a night. Marisol has one spare bedroom, but for the extra money, she will often sleep on her threadbare couch and allow extra guests to stay in her bedroom. Business from flocking European backpackers, who often travel to Cuba specifically seeking and expecting a low-maintenance experience, has proved extremely lucrative for people like Marisol. She has never left La Habana in her life, but with the extra money she earned from renting the rooms, she is now planning a vacation to Varadero, a beach resort town two hours outside of the capitol. Yet, when speculating about the looming rush of American tourists, Marisol was admittedly nervous. “I wonder how they will be and what they might expect,” Marisol said. “I feel overwhelmed by the thought of them.” Her house has no internet, like most others, and a crackly TV that distorts the faces of famous American actors like Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp into pixilated mutations. Some days, her shower has hot water that comes out in a slow drip, but almost always it is a light stream of icy droplets.
Artists, like private entrepreneurs, feel some trepidation about the rush of American consumers. One artist who wished to remain anonymous told me about his participation in Spanish documentary about Cuban rap that ultimately received no compensation for. He shook his head at the memory, saying, “They come, they take, they leave.”
It’s a Thursday night at La Madriguera, headquarters of the government-sponsored La Asociación Hermanos Saíz and home to various concerts and cultural performances. The next generation of Cuban rappers have taken to the stage to perform for their predecessors, representatives from state run music magazines, and less than conspicuous foreigners, who are not shy about mounting the stage and giving the performers face time with their video cameras. There is a range of style and performance: some sport Yankee hats and Lakers jerseys, while others wear dashikis. Some of the beats are “authentically” Cuban, infused with son and timba influences, while others bear more of a resemblance to North American rap songs. One artist could be Lil Wayne’s doppelganger and must know it—he raps about racial profiling over the A Mili beat. The most popular group of the bunch, especially with the foreign audience members, is a duo who pantomime an aggressive fight while yelling out “nigga.” The rest of their verses are a jumble of highly localized Cuban slang, but the physicality of their performance and their strikingly violent delivery of their lyrics, which they scream, sometimes without attention to flow or rhythm, is easily translated. They had pure energy on their side, and this type of forceful, Black male energy is marketable—but not for the artists themselves.
After the show, the foreigners leave with their large video cameras and nobody sticks around to buy the boys’ CDs.