Cuba’s political murals are one of the most potent images of this country: the faces of Che and Castro, strong and resolute, looking out over their people. But in recent years, new voices have emerged: they started as a clandestine whisper, a few words - often in English - here and there; but the voices are rising in volume and noise, and graffiti has begun to change the urban landscape.Read More
Cuba is ripe with stories; it has a history so utterly unique and dramatic that many people both Cuban and otherwise have brought its past to life with stunning and compelling narratives. There is no more immersive way to experience a country without traveling there than through their stories and sagas, their collective imagination and memory.
Here is a list of some of my personal favorites and some classics to get your mind primed for la vida loca that is Cuba.
La Edad de Oro, José Martí (1889)
Freedom fighter, visionary, scribe and national hero, Jose Marti personifies the Cuban spirit. Apostle of Cuban independence, he is revered throughout Latin America for his fearless battle against injustice. This book is comprised of the four issues of a children's magazine he published in 1889 while living in New York. Dedicated to the children of America, the beautiful poems and narratives are rich with his teachings and wisdom. I read this is to improve my Spanish, and it was a wonderful way to learn.
Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene (1958)
Naturally. I read this after returning from my first trip to Havana and I wished I had read it before. The frenetic madness of that city is fantastically conveyed, even if it describes pre-revolutionary Cuba. A black comedy, it tells the absurd story of James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman, who gets caught up working for the British secret service.
Before Night Falls, Reinaldo Arenas (1992)
I saw the movie first, which has exceptional performances from both Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp (2000), but it is based on the shocking memoir of visionary Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. Conveying the sheer force of the human urge to create, it charts Arenas' stunning odyssey from poverty-stricken childhood, through his struggles as a writer and subsequent imprisonment for homosexuality, ending with his flight to America. This was a New York Times Best Book of 1993.
Dirty Havana Trilogy, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez (2000) Banned in Cuba, yet famed across the Spanish-speaking world, this gritty in-your-face account takes life in Havana during the Special Period as its theme, portraying a world of poverty, violence and racism at cutthroat pace. Semi-autobiographical, the story follows former journalist Pedro Juan and the lengths he must go to in order to survive.
The Motorcycle Diaries, Ernesto Guevara (1995) You'll see copies of this in many a young traveler's hand throughout Central/South America, now immortalized on screen in the popular movie starring Gael Garcia Bernal. This is 23-year-old Che Guevara's lively travel diaries recording his journey across the continent with his best friend Alberto Granado. If you're interested in the development of that iconic character, the formation of his identity and political beliefs beyond the myth, then this book is vital. It also offers a snapshot of the chronic poverty of 1950s Latin America.
Three Trapped Tigers, Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1965) Originally a member of Castro's entourage, Infante's relationship with the regime soured until his eventual exile. Three Trapped Tigers sprung from those bitter experiences becoming a rich and witty, at times sarcastic, examination of 1950s Havana. Often considered the Cuban Ulysses, full of word play and puns, it is said no translation can do it full justice, but that doesn't stop it from being utterly mesmerizing.
Cecilia Valdés, Cirilo Villaverde (1839-1882) A romantic study of 19th century Cuban society and customs, it is also considered one of the most beautiful and tragic love stories in Cuban literature, and its protagonist has become a mythic icon in her own right. Following the life of young and beautiful light skinned mulatta Cecilia Valdés, the story exposes complex problems of race relations in the country and the horrors of the African slave trade.
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway (1952) It seems every other bar in Havana celebrates the fact Hemingway drank there, but between daiquiris, he managed to pen The Old Man and the Sea, which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and renewed his international celebrity. This stunning, melancholic parable tells the story of old Cuban fisherman Santiago and his struggle to bring in a giant Marlin.
Eating my ice cream at Coppelia, I can’t help but think of the striking first scene of Oscar-nominated 1993 Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate. The title refers to flavours of ice cream, one representing the gay and creative while the other represents the straight in both sexual and political terms. In that opening scene, Diego eats his strawberry ice cream with all the innuendo available to him, while attempting to seduce the straight David at Havana’s most famous ice cream parlour. You can visit Coppelia yourself, which at peak times has queues around the block, and they still only have two flavours of ice cream, at best.
Fresa y Chocolate is Cuba’s most famous and internationally acclaimed film to date. Part of the film’s success was in its daring critique of the Cuban government and the confrontation of the country’s ingrained homophobia, but for international audiences it was as much about the magical way in which it conjured the chaos and beauty of Havana life.
Many visitors to Cuba made the pilgrimage to the apartment of Diego - fabulously played by Jorge Perugorria - wanting to walk through the towering wooden doors into the airy colonial courtyard and to see the room itself, where the bulk of the action takes place, as crowded with antique bric-a-brac and religious iconography as with the chemistry between the two men. In 1996, the enterprising owner turned part of the building into paladar La Guarida (www.laguarida.com), which for years offered the best meal in town.
In Vedado, they also opened up a bar in homage to the film. Fresa y Chocolate is a hip hangout for local film students with red director chairs and film paraphernalia plastering the walls. In the adjacent Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) headquarters, you can also pick up film posters, rare DVDs and see exhibitions. Located on Calle 23, this is cinephile central with the Cine Charlie Chaplin opposite (one of the biggest art house cinemas in Latin America) and the small cinema Calle 23 y 12, which screens just one Cuban movie a day.
Fresa y Chocolate is just one in a long line of art house movies created with the assistance of ICAIC that has made Cine Cubano famous world over. Established in 1959, it was part of the government’s programme to educate Cubans and support Latin American cinema. In its heyday, it nurtured acclaimed directors such as Humberto Solás and Fernando Pérez. Increasingly however, Cuban films are independently financed and digitally filmed to avoid the political limitations imposed by the institute.
Cuba is also home to the Havana Film School, which lists Soderbergh and Spielberg amongst its fans. The initiative of director Julio García Espinosa, novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Fidel Castro, they wanted to create, in Garcia’s words, a “factory of creative energy.” Designated a non-government organisation, it does not actually count as Cuban soil, therefore Americans can bypass the travel ban and study here too. I met dozens of American film students in the city, and sometimes it feels like every young person in Havana is a film fan or critic.
For any lover of cinema, a fantastic time to visit is during the annual Havana Film Festival (www.habanafilmfestival.com). For the first two weeks in December, the entire city is gripped with film fever, and the often dilapidated and sweltering art nouveau cinemas are packed day and night hosting screenings of the best cinema Latin America has to offer. Those visiting outside the festival, should go to the prestigious Ludwig Foundation (www.aflfc.org/eng/whoweare/ludwig) to discover the emerging art scene of Cuba. They host a daily exposition with talks from every discipline including film.
But anytime you wander through the city you’re likely to stumble into a film event, a home cinema hosted in a local’s front room or just a group of friends discussing the classics over a cafe cubano.
As published in Insight Cuba, leading providers of legal travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens
People are always surprised when I talk of the thriving art scene in Cuba. They assume the strictures of the socialist regime suppress any form of expression until only a bland diet of state-sanctioned work remains. This couldn’t be further from the truth. With an utterly unique and peculiar socio-historical context, Cuban art in many ways stands alone.
Furthermore, it’s everywhere; from private homes turned into open studios and small street galleries to lurid Afro-Caribbean murals on city walls. In addition to free education, there are multiple government programs assisting the arts. Castro’s 1961 dictate - “Within the revolution anything, against the revolution nothing” - still stands, but artists find multiple, subtle and stunning ways in which to negotiate and undermine this often discovering even greater creative depths.
But nowhere outside Havana seems such a hub of creativity as Camagüey, home to many of Cuba’s most celebrated artists. Located in the middle of the country, Camagüey feels different to its neighbors, though with its history of defiance - it has nurtured revolutionary poets and thinkers - this comes as no surprise.
They say the city’s twisted layout was designed to confuse and disorientate the pirates and pillagers who frequently ransacked the city. I purposefully lost myself in the labyrinthine streets imagining these gallivanting marauders and cowering citizens. With low rise brightly colored houses, it feels distinctly South American. As the third largest city in Cuba, it is decrepit in parts, but the beautifully restored historical center was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2008, the 9th Cuban city to achieve this.
Emerging at Plaza del Carmen, I met a gathering of life size sculptures of everyday Camagüeyanos: a man reads a newspaper sat on a bench; a pair of lovers embraces and a gaggle of women gossip over coffee. There was a spare chair amongst the women so I joined them, becoming part of the art. These characters feel distinctly Cuban: familiar scenes you’ve seen all over the country depicting the strength of community, the passion of the people.
There were also giant clay pots, called tinajones. Known as ‘the city of tinajones’, the residents once used them to collect rainwater to stave off drought. Now the pots have become the city’s trademark.
Just off the square, an open door invited me into a studio with vivid paintings many addressing issues of women’s rights. The artist Martha Petrona Jimenez was hard at work and I learnt they were her famous sculptures in the square. We sat in her leafy courtyard and talked about the arts in Cuba. She extolled working in Camagüey, saying this square in particular was home to many artists. She also told me about UNEAC, The National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba. This organization has headquarters in every region and is a great place to start when on the hunt for talent. They host free events, talks and exhibitions, and often have a bar - a great place to meet with the local art community.
Martha pointed me towards Joel Jover and his wife Ileana Sanchez (above), two of Cuba’s most prodigious contemporary painters. Their home in the center of Camagüey functions as both gallery and a bona fide piece of art with every surface covered in work. Ileana greeted me, warm and welcoming, despite it being the end of the day.
She talked me through their work. Her paintings were a celebration of color and glitter while his were darker, some reminiscent of Egon Schiele in a palette of red, white and black with religious undercurrents. They have collected antiques for 20 years – they married in 1971 - and every surface is covered in vintage toys and oddities. Ileana told me how her inspiration changes from day to day and how she feels deeply privileged to be able to make the art she wanted in this country. The implication I gathered was that not all others were so lucky.
Censorship is still rife and testing the boundaries a potentially dangerous endeavor. But, for us visitors, talking to artists and hearing their stories firsthand offers an unparalleled opportunity to understand this country and the complex realities of those trying not only to live here, but create something of beauty and value.
All Photos: Tyler Wetherall | All Rights Reserved
As published in Insight Cuba, leading providers of legal travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens.
‘Antique’ doesn’t have quite the same significance in Cuba. There is an abundance of antiquity in this country for many reasons, but certainly years of economic hardship and trade constraints contributed to a make-do-and-mend culture that has kept everyday items in circulation longer than in other places. Fifty-year-old American Buicks are passed down through generations patched up with Chinese parts and perfectly preserved dinner sets from the 1800s are still in daily use.
While the young of Cuba hanker after newer cars and faster electronics, for visitors it creates a unique aesthetic. The heavy Victorian furnishings stand somewhat staid and sober against the world of bright Caribbean colors and the constant stream of music. People call this country a time warp, but it’s unlike anything that’s come before.
The houses of ordinary people, surviving on a modest state-controlled income, may have a chandelier hanging above the dining room table that could be worth thousands of dollars back home. Not that it would do them much good - a ban on exporting antiques has preserved the country’s colonial stock from foreign pilfering with amazing efficiency.
With the tourist industry in the country booming, naturally proprietors and restaurateurs are aware of the appeal of their abuela’s best china, and nowhere is this more apparent than Trinidad, known as the Museum City. Like the Disneyland of Cuba, this picture perfect spot plays up to all our Cuban daydreams. The rows of houses are brightly painted, the streets are cobbled and by night, as the sunsets behind the palms in the church square, musicians take to the steps of Casa de La Musica to play while visitors and locals dance.
After amassing a sugar cane fortune in the 18th century, the town grew fat with grand mansions and decorative squares. But when the trade collapsed, it was abandoned, and remained a sleepy outpost until UNESCO awarded it World Heritage Site status in 1988. This saved it from the decay seen on the streets of Havana, and you can now lose yourself in a historical fantasyland.
The houses here are famous for their antique-laden rooms and there are more museums than anywhere else in Cuba. The former homes of the sugar-rich aristocracy have become shrines to the colonial heyday of the city, such as the impressive 18th century Palacio Brunet. Now housing the Museo Romántico, it was originally named after the daughter of Don Jose Mariano Borrell y Padron, one of the richest men in Trinidad responsible for much of the city’s finery.
But shelves of antiques can bore even the most enthusiastic. Eating amidst them is another matter. Restaurant Sol Ananda (#45 Frente a la Plaza Mayor) is a veritable museum in itself. Run by the same people behind famous paladar Sol y Son, they spent five years restoring a 1850s mansion - once home to the governor of Trinidad, I believe - to its former glory and packed it full of original European antiques. Eat at one of the two tables in the bedroom, and make believe this is your boudoir. They curated the entire building with incredible attention to detail down to the 1920s shoes stacked on the shelves of the wardrobe.
Another restaurant harking back to the city's illustrious past, Museo 1514 (#515 Simon Bolivar), will make you regret not packing your long gloves or top hat. The long dining table in the courtyard is especially atmospheric, and every place is laid to perfection.
But all of this can, at times, feel like a flight of fancy. A whimsy far removed from reality. As travelers we want to be part of the beating heart of any city we explore. So, go sit on the stone steps leading up to Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima Trinidad on Plaza Mayor in a fading sunbeam; as the sky is slowly stained red, people will gather around you; a few musicians will start to play; and then the dancing will begin and will continue late into the night. This happens night after night, and has happened in one guise or another for aslong as people can remember.
All photos: Tyler Wetherall | All Rights Reserved
As published in Insight Cuba