|It’s easy to sense the palpability of the Cuban dream. A nation that has existed primarily on hope for nearly fifty years shows the world just how powerful hope can be. It’s this, and little else, that moved Cuba dramatically toward the unknown and untested, and has carried its population through innumerable hardships. People fall in love with Cuba and never leave. This Russian gentleman fell in love with a Cubana, more specifically, and stayed for her. She eventually left him for another man, but not before he bought into the dream of a passionate life on a revolutionary island. He may complain about being tricked by the woman and the revolutionary rhetoric, yet he still wears his Cuban military fatigues with pride.
|La Patria Ante Todo… “The Motherland Before Everything.” The dream of Cuba comes first. This is a lesson taught to the young and old, and repeated throughout life to remind citizens of their reasons for sacrifice: “Sacrifice for our Future;” “Bear hardship with honor;” “We will not back down.” Propaganda appears on billboards across the country.
|Everywhere you turn in Cuba there are reminders of revolutionary heroes, those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their motherland. More than in any other place, these martyrs are venerated and even deified. This brings the revolution alive. These almost Disney-like characters remind citizens that their sacrifices, no matter how difficult, are less than the “ultimate sacrifice” of martyrdom. This is very effective politically. It’s much easier to romanticize a dead man than to argue with him. This is a wall of heroes and saints. Che, Christ, Fidel, and the Pope are granted the most space, but they share the wall with Santeria figures and Cuban musical legends.
|There are so many visuals that impart a tourist’s Cuba: cigars, old cars, tropical beaches, and Spanish forts. The cars are fabulous. You arrive in Havana to a sense that you have just stepped back into the 1950s. Classic American automobiles pass by on the street, most looking remarkably fit for their age. The curves of a ’50s-era Chevrolet seem somehow more glamorous than anything built since.
|Because much of the architecture in Cuba, especially in Old Havana, hasn’t changed since the 1950s either, it is easy to get lost in history. La Floridita, where Hemingway used to get his favorite drinks, still feels like something out of a Bogart movie. Rum and tobacco brought the tourists back then, and still entertain them today, much to the benefit of government coffers. Tourism is the number-one economic engine in contemporary Cuba. This man and his dog are looking over an area in Old Havana, where tourists are drawn to well-preserved bars and restaurants made famous by Hemingway. On the street below, a rum and tobacco shop can be seen on the right.
| Besides old cars and Spanish architecture, I recognize Cuba mostly by the faces of the Cubans I met. Smiles come easily, but on the street you’re more likely catch the worn expressions of weary eyes and set jaws. There is a clear sense that life isn’t easy here. Americans in Cuba don’t go anywhere unnoticed. In Old Havana, I can’t help feeling like I’m walking through a staged set, that if I just walk around the corner I’ll meet the edge of the stage–and with it, reality. Sometimes this proves true. Stray off the beaten track, and you’ll see fewer polished cars, fewer Cuban flags, and more people just sitting and watching and waiting. I love the street scenes–people getting haircuts, talking with neighbors, sweeping the sidewalk, and hanging laundry to dry on the balcony.
|Education is free in Cuba. Younger students attend school in their hometown, and books and uniforms are provided. Children learn the fundamentals of Cuban citizenship along with their math and reading, and are expected to join the youth Communist scouts. Like young Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts of America, they learn songs, lessons in morality, and leadership skills. These children were just coming home from school when I met them. A few years from now, they’ll be sent to mandatory co-ed boarding schools outside of the city.
|Every month, Cuban families receive rations of food: oil, rice, beans, and eggs. This guarantees a certain amount of food on the table, despite low salaries. Families with children are entitled to milk, additional eggs, and meats. Produce availability is extremely limited, unless grown at home, and some goods, such as potatoes and lobsters, are limited to “dollar stores” and tourist consumption only. In Cuba, the U.S. dollar is a powerful tool. Dollars provide access, not just to material goods and services, but to an entirely different lifestyle. Imported goods, produce, and meats are sold in dollar stores, which accept only U.S. currency. Those without access to dollars rely on their Cuban Peso salary and ration cards. Ration cards don’t fulfill all of a family’s needs, and ration stores are bare and depressing, as shown here.
| These young women are celebrating their fifteenth birthdays in the Latin American tradition. A combination of “Sweet Sixteen” and a debutante-style celebration, the fifteenth birthday, or quinceanera celebration, is a woman’s most important time next to her wedding day. She is welcomed into adulthood and presented to the world in high style. In Cuba, it’s tradition for a family to save for years in order to give their daughter a proper quinceanera celebration.
|In every neighborhood, there’s a local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, or CDR. The CDR members act as a sort of “Big Brother.” They watch over the neighborhood and are expected to report any suspicious behavior to the Communist Party (in particular, any behavior disrespectful of the government or its ideals). The sign on this door reads “The CDRs, against illegal activity, against corruption and crime.”
|Cuban art and music are celebrated in Cuba by locals and tourists alike. Both genres of expression are rich, passionate, and pervasive. The Cuban dream plays out in both art and music, and it’s easy to get swept up in it all.