There are 1.2 million Cuban people living in Miami. To put that into perspective, there are only 2 million people living in Havana. If you tell a Cuban person in Miami that you’re going to Cuba the first thing they ask is “Why?” They don’t have any idea why anyone would want to go there on their own volition, but after that, they want to tell you exactly how they feel about Cuba. On our way to the airport, our Uber driver, a Cuban immigrant who has lived in Miami for 13 years and has managed to get by with only Spanish, told us that “there’s the rest of the world, and then there’s Cuba.”
Well he was right: when we arrived at the Plaza de la Revolución (the sort-of National Mall of Cuba), we looked up at the massive Orwellian edifices of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara that gaze down at the square, put on our best “I’m not sure how I feel about this” faces, and dove right in.
Arriving in Cuba is like going back in time 30 or 40 years. They only drive cars from 1950-1959. It looks like the entire city’s roads, buildings, bridges, streetlights, and telephone lines were built in 1960 and then never repaired or maintained since. The best way of communicating with people over long distances is still through landline telephones, and the streets are littered with payphones. There is basically no Internet. Recently, the government created WiFi "parks" (they aren’t necessarily parks, but just hotspot areas) where an extremely poor WiFi connection can be purchased for 1 CUC ($1) per hour. In 2017, it’s so hard to describe just how difficult this makes things.
There are two currencies in Cuba, the CUC and the CUP. The CUP is the peso of the Cuban people, and it has roughly the value of $0.04. The CUC is exactly the value of the USD, and exists to be converted into other currencies. These two parallel economies create some really strange purchasing situations. If something, like a bag of bread, costs "1 peso," it might costs $1 or $0.04, so you have to ask or you might end up spending 25 times more than is necessary. Also, and not at all surprisingly, some people try to take advantage of foreigners like this. The entrance to a museum might be 8 CUC for a foreigner but only 8 CUP for a Cuban person. The salary of a Cuban person (employed by the government) could be about 750 CUP ($30) per month, but the introduction of outside money into the Cuban economy has made that 750 CUP worthless, so the country is using CUC more and more.
You might choose your path through the city based on which streets are cleanest rather than most convenient. There’s garbage everywhere, and locals don’t seem bothered by it. It’s a very smelly city, probably the smelliest we’ve ever experienced. There’s one exception though, a place to escape the heat, the trash, and the smells: the Malecón.
The Malecón is the walkway that follows the edge of the water in Havana, as well as in other Cuban cities. Cuban people love it. They gather along the sea to catch up with each other, navigate the city, go fishing, and feel the sea breeze. Perhaps they love the Malecón so much because it is one of the few truly nice places to be in Havana; perhaps it is also because you can stare out at the ocean and imagine being literally anywhere else.
Another surprise: the state run television company pirates TV stations from the US by intercepting their signals, and has been for decades, so a lot of the Cuban people are obsessed with shows like Desperate Housewives.
Our first performance in Cuba was the day after we arrived, and like artists do, it wasn’t long before we met a host of Cuban actors, writers, and musicians. Among those, was Charles Wrapner, a theater director and playwright, and this post is really about him. It’s about what being an artist in Cuba is like. He is finishing his studies at ISA, a half-abandoned art school that was once a country club. He gave us an extensive tour of the school that was both interesting and eye-opening. His thesis work is due in June, and is titled "Eight Degrees Northwest." It’s about the mass emigration of Cubans from Santa Clara in 1994, who after boarding rafts, boats, or anything that floats set their compasses to eight degrees northwest to embark on a ten-day trip from the coast of Cuba to the coast of Florida. Charles told us that he might prefer to tell this story literally, but that the government will not allow it, and so telling this story abstractly is the only way it is possible to tell it at all.
From the Cuban Constitution: "Artistic creativity is free as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution. Forms of expression of art are free."
ISA, the Instituto Superior de Arte, deserves its own post all together. The story goes like this: Guevara and Castro were golfing at a country club. Castro went to swing his club, and just before hitting the ball, stopped and said, “I will turn this country club into the greatest art school in the world.” (I’m paraphrasing) And so he did, or at least he would’ve if they had come even close to finishing construction. ISA is basically abandoned, with about 40% of the architecture in use, and 60% sitting in various states of completion unused and overtaken by the tropical foliage, wildlife, and some massive heaps of trash left by the Cuban people. Three architects were commissioned for the school’s designs, two Italians (Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti) and one Cuban (Ricardo Porro.) The only completed building is the visual art school, whose architectural forms closely resemble the female body. It is said to be the “birthplace of art.” In general, the architecture features the organic curves that you might expect from modern architecture of the 20th century, but there are also some creative innovations. The music school (not in use) contains half-buried rooms that are acoustically engineered for practicing musicians. The art school contains skylights that provide good natural light in all the spaces throughout the day. An enormous circular amphitheater was designed as the dance performance space, and there is a system of aqueducts that distribute rainwater throughout the school and ultimately lead to a fountain at its center.
Cuban people can attend the school 100% tuition free, but they must complete a "public service" after graduation. That might mean teaching in a school, working at a cultural institution, or running the box office of a theater. Conditions aren’t exactly first-world though: each student shares a 23m² (250ftm²) dorm room with three to five other students, and receives a stipend of 50 CUP per month (enough money to buy a loaf of bread.) We were also told that the cafeteria food and water is most likely not safe to eat and drink, so we had lunch at Dora’s house (a grandmother across the street who cooks for the students.) She made us a huge meal of rice, pork, yucca, and beans for just 1 CUC ($1.) Although it’s not legal, many of the students still use the abandoned parts of the school as studios and practice spaces to make their art.
After a long tour of ISA, Charles took us out for mojitos in central Havana. With Habana Libre in view, the once Hilton hotel that Castro took over as his headquarters during the revolution, Charles told us about what it was like to grow up in the 90s in Cuba, and how it has influenced his work.
Charles’s father worked under Fidel Castro for the communist party for many years, and as a consequence Charles was exposed to a high level of propaganda growing up. When Charles was little his father would say, “come here Charles, the Comandante is speaking!” and Charles listened to many of Castro's speeches. By age ten, Charles could think for himself, and understood that the story of the revolution that Castro and his father spoke of was like a work of theater. It was a complete fabrication, and suddenly Charles recognized there were two Cubas: the one his father spoke of, and the one he experienced everyday.
What was the Cuba Charles experienced?
Just after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba plunged into a deep recession that is referred to as the "Special Period." The government saw through a plan especially reserved for wartimes, that was instead used for this special time in peace. That means: no food, very little electricity, and hardly functioning public transportation. On top of that, the government also split into two sectors: one that continued the socialist practice of providing extremely low wage jobs to its people, and one that began outside trade to the United States out of desperation to provide for the Cuban people, further disrupting the unstable economy.
Every Cuban home has a special book called the Libreta de Abastecimiento. It is a log where you keep track of what government-supplied rations you can purchase each month. Every family gets a certain amount of beans, bread, sugar, and some more basic items per month. They are bought at local stores with Cuban pesos for extraordinarily cheap prices. Everyone’s libreta is logged all the way back to just after the revolution in Cuba, so the libreta is also a window into Cuban life throughout the 20th Century. One thing is clear though: everyday the key thought in Havana is, "What will I eat today? Will I have breakfast, lunch, and dinner?"
So why have to choose between free bread and free speech?
According to Charles, when Castro’s rebellion finally was able to take control of the island, his campaign slogan was “we must hate.” He felt that Cubans were complacent, and didn’t hate enough. They didn’t hate enough the dictatorship of Batista, nor the "Yankee imperialism" destroying Havana with capitalism and casinos. It was the knowledge that the revolution was based on an idea of hate that finally drew Charles's father away from the Cuban government.
Who’s this guy?
He’s José Martí. If there’s one thing all Cuban people agree on (besides loving the Malecón) it’s that José Martí was the man. But just like there are two Cubas, there are also two José Martís: Castro’s and reality's. Castro took this figure, and projected a political ideology on it, and this was the only Martí that Charles's father ever knew. Charles’s knew the real José Martí; by reintroducing his father to Martí's poetry and true ideology, Charles gave start to a process that lead to his father's decision to privately denounce the communist party, move to rural Santa Clara, disconnect from the world, and start a small farm.
Now, it's been one year since the death of Fidel Castro, and we feel very lucky to have traveled to Cuba in what seems to be an ellipse after this more than half-century of diplomatic contention. Obama traveled to Cuba in 2016 and said, "After all, these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It's time for a new approach."
Our time in Cuba ended with an experience that demonstrated the tenuousness of the political climate there. We performed on a festival called, Festival de la Habana de Musica Contemporánea. In the festival's 30th anniversary year, our performance was featured on a concert celebrating a half-century of post-revolution Cuban masterworks. We performed directly after Rosario Franco, a celebrated composer and pianist now 87 years old, and the national choir of Cuba who ended with Electo Silva's Tríptico from 1969, a pro-revolution choral work clearly influenced by the government's agenda. But the festival was also very excited to include us as international artists. The compromise between abiding by laws banning art contrary to the Revolution, and a desire to open up a country once completely isolated from the outside world was visible daily. In a country like Cuba, it seems there is no contemporary art without a political premise and historical undertones, intentional or not, hidden in the background.
Charles Wrapner / Eight Degrees Northwest
"My theatre group and I are investigating the kind of history that is told person to person, because I have this personal obsession: I believe that Cuba's government created an official history for everybody, an objective history, and that this made people forget the subjective story that is inside them. So with this work we try to remember this subjective story, why or how things went for each individual. There is a lot of talk about hero figures in the official history, but this brings a very fragmented memory; it’s not enough to remember just a hero, there are many subjective histories and through this we try to reconstruct personal memories.
The project of my thesis is related to the dramatic crisis that affected Cuba in the 1990s after the fall of the wall in Berlin, and the dissolution of the USSR. Cuban people, at first, were trying to reach the United States even if it was illegal to leave the Cuba, and many horrific accidents took place. In the night between the 5th and 6th of August in 1994, a huge number of people assembled in a manifestation asking the government for freedom. As a consequence, Fidel Castro allowed Cubans to go to the United States, and allowed families to come from the United States to Cuba to visit their relatives.
Immediately, a massive exodus began. People took any small improvised and precarious boats, called balsas, leaving from the Malecón and sailing through the Channel of Florida. The conditions were terrible, people lacked knowledge of the sea, and the weather was problematic. The United States sent out its Coast Guard to help these boats and the Coast Guard directed the balsas to Guantanamo, officially United States territory but located in the land of the archipelago of Cuba. Cuban people were kept there for months, even years, hoping to be brought little by little to the States.
My project is an investigation into the letters that were sent between these Cubans in Guantanamo and their families in Cuba; they reflect the political conflict between these two governments, showing how families during a political crisis strengthen bonds through these words. They create new ways to communicate.
The title comes from the fact that, in the north of Santa Clara, there is a street called “Salt street," where the Cubans embraked on their journey toward the United States, positioning their boats at eight degrees northwest. After a certain point, the Gulf current would bring them to Florida. Emigration always existed, but my interest is in the stories of these people at the naval base of Guantanamo. It’s said that fourteen thousand Cubans passed through there: doctors, engineers, architects, artists, kids, the elderly, and complete families. I have conducted interviews and listened to many stories. One of these made a big impression on me: this woman told me how she was in the boat, and almost dying. After days of sailing, the American marines arrived, and the captain helped them to enter their boat, gave her a kiss on the forehead, and told her in Spanish: "Welcome to American territory" (Bienvenido en territorio americano.) She told me that Americans in Guantanamo are SOBs, but that in a moment of life and death, this person reached out to her his hand.
When the Cubans reached the base, the American government told the guards: these Cubans are murderers and criminals and prepared them to treat the foreigners as prisoners, but while days passed, the guards began to understand that they were normal Cuban people. Although some of them were criminals, many of them were regular families. So the story is also about these relationships at the base. At some point the American soldiers even started to illegally help the Cubans, with food and more. The testimonies are very strong, and I always go to them with the utmost respect, because many people lost their relatives. This story reminds me of Schindler’s List: a person kept coming every day, and calling the names of the ones that had been chosen to go to the United States. And the families in Cuba every day tuned into Radio Martí, the Cuban radio that was reading the names of the Cubans arriving to the United States. They were anxiously listening every night. A grandmother told me those were the worst ten days of her life: she waited every night to hear the name of her son, daughter-in-law, and grandsons. Listening to every name, and if she couldn’t hear them, she thought they would be dead. She couldn’t eat or sleep: only listen. All the families in the island met in a few houses to listen, and it was difficult because there was no electricity. They kept batteries in the radio, and it was hard to even understand the names. A thousand grandmothers and a thousand mothers, waiting day after day. This grandma told me Radio Martí is propaganda, it says a lot of lies about Cuba, but every night she listened to it for the names of her family.
We haven't talked much about this part of history in Cuba so far, but we have to, because I think that when you feel a resentment inside, you need to take it out. In Cuba, many people have this resentment held inside for their entire life. When I ask people, I never reach out for a political statement, but rather I look for families that have a need to scream. Because it's a very strong feeling. There are so many of us that disappeared. Thousands of Cubans dead in the Channel of Florida for a war of power, and that is needless. And I understand that the United States is busy with war in many countries, from Iraq to Afghanistan; I am so sorry for Iraq, and I am so sorry for Afghanistan, but I live in Cuba: and I am also so sorry for Cuba. And I am sorry for the Cubans, and for my family and many families, and for this grandma that talked to me about the ghosts that accompany her."