See Cuba Now – Before the Tourism Revolution Takes Hold

Photo by Jena Fox 

Chris Moss, The Daily Telegraph, July 17, 2015

With U.S. tourists about to descend on Cuba, now is a fascinating time to visit. 

On Avenida 54 in the heart of Cienfuegos, a fiery-looking Che Guevara looks down from a huge hoarding at a bronze statue of velvet-voiced singer and local legend Benny Moré. It’s a peculiarly Cuban juxtaposition: the bearded foreign hero of the revolution and the dapper gent in a Panama hat, who stands for all the home-grown style and exportable glamour of Cuba before Castro.

There is little else to clutter the view. No advertisements. No high-rises. No malls, no “donut” joints, no flagship stores, no chain coffee shops. There are hardly any cars either – and the few I do see are either Seventies Ladas (for Che-minded drivers) or vintage Buicks and Oldsmobiles (ideal for Benny). Cienfuegos is a beautiful, Unesco-listed city, very much on the island’s main tourist circuit – yet I can’t see any major hotels, tour groups or air-conditioned coaches.

14 sights to catch before Cuba changes forever

You have to wonder how long this ordinary corner of provincial Cuba will survive. Since December 17 2014, when Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced that they would restore diplomatic ties, the island has seen a huge influx of American visitors. While ordinary tourists are, in theory, still banned, they can visit under the guise of 12 different “educational programmes”, approved in January.

Many in the American travel trade expect the regulations will soon be relaxed to allow beach holidays. American, Delta and United have all expressed an interest in operating flights to Cuba and, since early July, Jet Blue has operated a weekly charter from New York’s JFK to Havana – the first major airline to do so since restrictions were lifted. Last week, the massive Carnival cruise company announced that it would operate cruises to the island from May 2016 – the first time American cruise ships will have moored in Cuba since the Sixties.

All of which makes now a fascinating time to visit. Are we on the cusp of a cultural revolution? What will Americans make of this much-mythologised, much-maligned nation 90 miles off the Florida coast? And will an American invasion change everyone’s experience of the island, including European visitors?

There are many ways into Cuba – food, music, cigars, rum. I chose art, because I suspected it would take me beyond the official narratives and iconography and into the lives of ordinary Cubans. But to get inside Cuban artists’ homes, you need a fixer. In Havana, mine was art critic and curator Sussette Martínez Montero, who has played a prominent role in the city’s famous biennales and seems to know everyone in the contemporary scene.

On a drive around the suburbs – in a red 1954 Chevy (because some clichés are better than others) – she helped me to decode the official monuments, political slogans and street art. We took in the memorial to José Martí – national hero and symbol of Cuba’s liberation from Spain – and the huge Che Guevera face on the Plaza de la Revolución. We saw an official graffiti protesting against the US blockade – “The longest genocide in history” – and, less angrily, the Art Deco figurines on the old Bacardi building.

We parked in a poor district being gentrified with art thanks to a project led by artist Alexis Leiva Machado, better known as Kcho (pronounced “Cacho”). His work was on display in a smart new space called the Laboratorio para el Arte. Large installations made from boats, breeze-blocks, oars, cork, landing nets and all manner of flotsam explored the theme of emigration as experienced by so many Cubans. “He used to be considered polemical,” said Sussette, “but he is now very much a state-sponsored artist. I think the government adopted him because it was easier to do that than take him on. He’s a sort of safety valve. In return, Kcho now likes to say that he was 'always inspired by Fidel’.”

Not everyone is as diplomatic as Sussette. At his smart, modern apartment in the leafy neighbourhood of Miramar, 31-year-old artist Reynier Leyva Novo showed me a drawing of Kcho erupting from Fidel’s backside.

“I’m not a fan,” he said, grinning. “I think art is a way of life, not a job.”

Novo was kicked out of the state-sponsored Instituto Superior de Arte, and continues to rebel against what he regards as the “stale, academic” establishment. He belongs to a generation for whom Castro has always been a grumpy old windbag who just won’t give up. A lot of Novo’s work mocks the myth of the revolution and the official iconography.

He shows me an expensively produced hardback book titled Revolution: A Thousand and One Times; it contains 1,001 pages of four columns containing repetitions of one word: “Revolución”. Another piece, in the form of a software programme, collates the “weight” of the ink used to write the key ideological works of Castro, Lenin, Hitler and Mao. He calls the work The Weight of History. Che surfaces in his work, too, though he’s wearing a monkey’s face.

“I don’t want to be bought by the system,” he said. “I never wanted a degree. Everyone here has a degree, but there are no jobs. We have no art magazines, we have no dealers, and no one has art in their houses because they’re busy worrying about potatoes.

“We had magazines about art and fashion and even ecology in the Thirties and Forties. Now we Cubans are more ignorant than ever.”

That Novo could show me – and is able to sell – his works indicates that the Cuban government is willing to entertain art that challenges the official narrative. But I was moving within Havana’s middle classes. To see the art of the interior, and something of the society Cuban artists are trying to deconstruct, I set off with a driver-cum-guide, Felipe, towards the centre of the island.

A weekend break in... Havana

New cars are expensive in Cuba and there was barely any traffic on the main highway as we sped past plantations of mangos, bananas and citrus fruits to the east of Havana. Sometimes we’d overtake an ancient DeSoto or a Seventies Zil truck, before being in turn passed by a modern Chinese Yutong bus.

After a couple of hours, we turned into the Ciénaga de Zapata, a million-acre swamp that forms part of Cuba’s largest national park. Fan palms and tall reeds fringed the roadside, with egrets foraging in the lagoons and vultures overhead. At the town of Palpite, Felipe showed me a sign that marked the outer limit of the Bay of Pigs invasion. We were welcomed to the bay itself with a loud banner: “First Great Defeat of Yankee Imperialism in Latin America”.

From the coast road, I could see the beach between the mangroves, a classic Caribbean fantasy of waving coconut palms and waveless turquoise sea. I spotted pink Scandinavians basting themselves on the white sand. In the war museum at Playa Girón, I learnt how the “cunning imperialists” had carried out their “cowardly” invasion in 1961, only to be resisted by the heroic patriots.

Spending time with an official guide in Cuba is as fascinating as it is frustrating. Felipe, a veteran of Cuba’s Seventies Angolan campaign, was a punctiliously uncritical commentator. He had done well out of the system and never bad-mouthed the government – his employer, after all. Our schedule was arranged around his needs; Cuban guides have vouchers for free meals to be used at specific places and times. Even when I wasn’t hungry, he always was.

On the upside, Felipe’s accounts of the euphoria that followed the revolution – he experienced it as a teenager – and the so-called “special period” of austerity that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, and key island topics (such as sex, divorce, music and baseball) provided insights into everyday Cuban life.

Having a car meant we could stop to look at the official hoardings. A softer, tropical version of Soviet realism had survived in some of the portraits of Fidel, Che, Raúl Castro and other national heroes. Recent propaganda often features the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez. Paradoxes abound: as I was taking a photograph of a poster of Castro, Chávez and Mandela, all wearing broad smiles, above the reassuring slogan “The Great Patria (Fatherland) That Grows”, a horse-drawn bus came in to view.

I spent two nights at Cienfuegos, a sometime sugarcane port whose historic centre was awarded Unesco World Heritage status for its 19th-century “Spanish Enlightenment” architecture. After ogling the wedding-cake yacht club and several mansions that attested to the city’s other previous life as a bourgeois coastal resort, we visited engraver Rafael Cáceres, 58, at his studio. A proud son of the revolution, Cáceres had visited Moscow in 1985, expressed gratitude for grants that had helped “an ordinary boy in a poor family” become an artist, and said he was once told by Castro himself that: “The first thing you have to preserve is culture.”

The main challenge these days, he said, was economic. “Since 1959 there has been no culture of collecting in Cuba. So we hold a three-day art fair every year, selling engravings at reasonable prices and in the national currency to promote collecting. We are effectively doing free market economics without permission.”

Behind him was a wall hung with engravings in diverse styles. Some touched on social issues – Cáceres’s own work explores prostitution and migration – while others were landscapes or city scenes. All were far lovelier than any of the tourist tat on offer in the souvenir shops.

After Cienfuegos, I visited Trinidad – also Unesco-listed – and Sancti Espiritu, where I met more artists and entrepreneurs. I also checked the souvenir shops. All sold the same garish paintings of old American cars, rum labels and smiling bongo drummers in Panama hats.

At the Guevara mausoleum in Santa Clara, I stood beneath a bronze statue of Che atop a lofty pedestal. A huge bas relief showed his march through the Sierra Maestra mountains – and through history. Cuban soldiers and foreign young women posed together for holiday snaps. The monument represented both the most heroic and most absurd aspects of Cuba’s recent past.

Another Havana artist, José Toirac, 49, uses his work to deconstruct the hagiographic nature of Cuban history. One painting shows Che’s profile in gold lead, an allusion to his quasi-sainthood in Cuba. A pack of exquisite Tarot cards satirises Castro, featuring a dollar bill on the “Nightmare” card, Nixon’s face on the “Secret Enemy” card, and a microphone on the one labelled “Addiction”.

A series of photographs parodies those used by the regime to show Castro as a heroic visionary – many of which were shot after the revolution by regime-sanctioned photographers such as Alberto Korda, the man behind the iconic image of Guevara in his beret.

“There are so many filters separating us from history,” he said. “We can only think of Che in black and white now, which influences the way we think about him. Our official history has been presented in staged photographs, intended to reach out equally to the illiterate poor and to those who live beyond our Spanish-speaking world.

Cuba is all about filters. Visually you are bombarded by clichés and propaganda, which you have to play off against your own prejudices and received ideas. Factor in the American connections – from the old cars to the American accent of anyone who speaks English, and the fact that all conversations with Cubans turn, eventually, to the subject of “the north” – and it takes an imaginative effort to make sense of the country.

On my last night I went to Sloppy Joe’s bar in Havana, reopened in 2013, and another instance of the Cuban tourism industry trading on retro Americana. I sat beside two American women on “a photography exchange” – that is, using amateur photography to visit Cuba under the auspices of one of the sanctioned programmes. Ironically, the supposedly restrictive nature of their “cultural ambassadors” visit had taken them into rough-edged suburbs and into people’s houses.

“We definitely saw a sketchier side of the city,” said one. “Our guide was exceptional. Photography is a great prism for seeing Cuba.”

I asked if she would recommend the trip to Americans. “Absolutely,” she said. “I’d advise anyone to come before anything changes.”

So even the Americans are rushing to visit before the Americans.

Now is indeed the time to go to Cuba – but trust the artists, not the politicians, to show you the meanings of the island’s past as well as its future.

Audley Travel can arrange a 10-day trip to Cuba covering Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad starts from £2,395 per person staying in 3-star accommodation and including international flights, transfers, a salsa class, art tour of Havana and tours of Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Half-day visits to artist’s studios with a specialist art guide cost from £95 per person.

Five essential art stops

Fabrica de Arte Cubano Havana’s coolest art space, combining galleries with food, drink, theatre and live music (Calle 26, esq 11, Vedado, Havana; 0053 7 838 2260; ).

Laboratorio para el Arte Stylish showroom for paintings and installations created by well-known artist Kcho (Calle 9na y 120, Romerillo, Havana; ).

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Arte Cubano) Illuminating collection of colonial-era, modern and contemporary Cuban art displayed in spacious and airy galleries – and in chronological order (Trocadero, Havana Vieja; ).

Sociedad Gráfica de Cienfuegos Artists’ studios open to the public, with original engravings for sale (Ave 50 No 2325, Cienfuegos; 53 43 517979).

Curator/guide Sussette Martínez (537 267 7989; [email protected] ; CUC$120/ £79 for a half-day).


This article was written by Chris Moss from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.