Today's momentous news on the thaw in relations between the US and Cuba, the release of political prisoners (on both sides), and plans to allow Americans to visit and spend money in Cuba for the first time in over fifty years has got me casting my mind back to when I visited there in 2005. I had just attended a friend's very swanky wedding in northern California, and the visit to socialist Cuba provided a real counterpoint to the (very welcome) luxuries I enjoyed while in the US.
I just went and dug out some photos I took while I was there. Cuba is a photographer's dream – the light is beautiful and it's such a time capsule. Squalor is very photogenic, but I'm sure the locals don't see it that way. What was a charming holiday destination for me was a life of grinding poverty and lack of opportunity for most Cubans. While it's true that all Cubans do benefit from free health care and education, and this is a remarkable benefit to Cuban society, they have paid a heavy price in other ways. This is largely due to the heavy trade embargoes and isolationist policies of successive US governments, but also due to the culture of suspicion and fear engendered by the Castro regime. The result seemed to me that, rather than lifting everyone's standard of living to a certain level, the revolution, by the time I got there, had reduced everyone's life to something less than it might have been.
Having said that, I can't help but worry that with this new openness comes some real dangers for Cuban society. An influx of American money could lead to huge problems and introduce some of the worst excesses of capitalism to a society that has been largely spared these nasty side-effects. I for one would hate to see a Havana dotted with Gap stores and KFC drive-throughs, or worse.
So check out the pics, shot on 35mm film old-school style (because I couldn't afford a digital camera back then). They show a Cuba that may or may not survive 21st Century capitalism, but was clearly influenced by it (in a very hand-drawn way). Let's hope they learn from our mistakes and figure out a way to do it better.