In a previous blog post I referred to Cuba as a complex case where change is expected. A lot has already changed since Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raúl in 2008 — Cubans are now allowed more freedom to travel outside the country, to buy and sell property, and to open small businesses — but the vast majority of people still live in relative poverty (the average state salary is only $20/£13 a month). My limited experience traveling around the island in 2010 suggested that many people aspire to a higher standard of living than what the state can provide, and these aspirations often conflict with the old Fidel-style socialist idealism. Hence the complexity!
I will mention only a couple of examples from our trip. In Viñales our tour guide was a qualified teacher who told us that she earned much more as a guide than she ever could as a teacher and that the story was similar for other professionals like doctors, engineers, etc. Not that Cuba is running short of doctors, but it still seems a bit perverse. And in Trinidad I looked up a locally renowned photographer who specialises in photographing people engaged in indigenous rituals. He said that he simply couldn’t afford new equipment (digital cameras appear as far off as modern cars) and that he was reliant on foreign well-wishers for the odd participation in modernity. I couldn’t afford to give him my camera so I gave him my copy of David Noton’s Waiting for the Light — and now that I think about it the title appears to have harboured a deeper meaning.
No one can deny the achievements of the Fidel era in terms of universal education and healthcare, but some might argue that it does somewhat take the shine off a 100% literacy rate if the only books available to buy are ones about Che, Fidel and the Glorious Revolution!
Yet despite the poverty this is a magnificent place and a true photographer’s paradise. Unsurprisingly the Highlights section of my website features several pictures from the Cuba trip, including the one below of an old American car hurtling down one of the main streets in Havana. (The other Cuban pictures from the Highlights section are Hummingbird and Stairway to Heaven, both from Cayo Las Brujas.) Everywhere one goes in Cuba one encounters an elemental sensual energy, and perhaps the most obvious expression of this is to be found in open air dancing where everyone from 3 to 103 years old moves effortlessly to the rhythms of rumba, son and salsa.
It is this vibrant, irrepressible energy which I sought to capture in Fast Car, Havana. And as we tried to entertain ourselves in Havana Airport while waiting for the volcanic ash cloud to clear, I felt myself hoping that this immense energy would endure no matter what else happens.