Light and Shadows in the Heart of Cuba

“I would so love to travel!” Perhaps no sentence says more about Cuba today. It was pronounced by a 20-year-old girl while I was drinking a mojito in marina’s cafe Hemingway, not far from Havana, in the company of young Cubans.

It doesn’t seem that important to us. To us used, when it comes to our mind, pack a few things in a car and jump to Graz, Trieste, or Budapest, for example. It is not so easy for Cubans to travel. It’s impossible!
Imagine a city of two million people by the sea, strolling along the magical promenade of Malecón that stretches over four kilometers along the Atlantic coast. A beautiful spring day. Flat calm.

And suddenly you realize something is wrong: there is not a single boat at sea! The reason is simple. Because even the smallest vessel allowing the authorities to sail Cuban waters without control would have only one navigation course – the coast of Florida, the “promised land”! The way this girl looked at me, while in my almost forgotten Spanish (I used to be a Madrid student), I spoke to the companionship to which countries and cities I had recently traveled to photograph or sing in them, spoke much more than words.

The similarity between Croatia and Cuba is that both countries are potentially enormously rich and full of talented, creative, hardworking, and capable people who, unfortunately, are not in power. The others have been in power for decades! However, Croatia went much better.

In Cuban schools, children have internet access for an hour a week. Owning a home PC and a mobile phone is only a distant dream for most families.

The free and quality healthcare system the Cuban government boasts about is the most ordinary illusion! The evidence? The doctors, who only earn about $100 per month, own luxury villas and park the latest BMWs or Toyota SUVs in Havana’s affluent neighborhoods.

But fear not. As a tourist, you will have first-class medical treatment. You are too precious to them! The average Cuban, not part of the country’s wealthy elite, can only dream of traveling abroad.

Tourism is a significant source of income for Cuba, generating billions of dollars annually. You won’t find any empty seats on flights from Europe, which are not low-cost at all (the cheapest round-trip flight to Cuba from Munich or Milan costs around 600 euros).

This transitional period between the dictatorship of the Castro brothers and the entry of consumer capitalism in a big way (on a small door, came in a long time ago) is a marketing genius move. If it didn’t exist, it should be invented! Millions of people from around the world rush to see the disappearing land. Like Venice: hurry to see it, is about to sink!

We started with the Cuban shadows. What about the brightness? Well, Cuba is a land of light. Literally! To a first-class photographer, and I consider myself such (when I get caught by an attack of immodesty, luckily, it’s not often), the light seems to be coming from everywhere!

Photos of the Caribbean shine with the kind of lighting that Europe and even the southern Mediterranean can’t find! The angle at which the sun’s rays fall, the reflection of white facades. Who knows what is causing the glare?

One more thing in Havana comes out, like light, from everywhere. The music! Even the poorest can sing and dance. And they are doing it so enthusiastically and with such ease and serenity that we professional musicians, burdened with years of classical music education and some high standards, we can only envy.

For many in the music industry in our region, they can’t see the forest from the trees! Music is a pristine joy, and the moment a career is involved in the story, the desire to make money or a musician’s ego, the magic disappears forever.

And the confirmation of this thesis? During my seven-day pilgrimage to the streets of the old part of Havana (Habana Vieja), accompanied by my inevitable companion, who rode me on a vehicle called “bisi-tasi” (a tricycle bike, something like a rickshaw in Southeast Asia), I heard the sounds of magical Cuban music.

Of course, I immediately got off the tricycle, walked into the small living room of one tiny apartment, and asked the musicians to allow me to attend the rehearsal. Of course, they did not mind, and so for about half an hour, I could enjoy there at first listening to unburdened and casual music, which they enjoyed.

Listening to them, I noticed on the wall two framed diplomas, diplomas that each of our cultural and artistic societies has in their showcases dozens, almost from every regional or republican folklore event they attended. During the break, I asked them, guys, what’s this on the wall? They, by the way, laconically, as if it was about some tapestries say: this? That’s our two Grammys!

​I spent my only Havana Saturday night in the hall of the legendary Hotel National, the Cuban National Monument, at an orchestra concert played in honor of the great Compaya Segundo on the anniversary of his death. For me, it was a rare privilege.

This is where the whole Havana crème de la crème gathered together. Along with Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzales, Omar Portuondo, and others, Compay is one of the musicians who, quite rightly, gained worldwide fame thanks to the cult film by Wim Wanders (with the grand contribution of the legendary Ryan Cooder) – Buena Vista Social Club.

Cuba has maintained its spirit despite all dictatorships and ideologies. I was fascinated by the cheerfulness with which a young man, the father of three children, whom I photographed in the backyard of a former colonial villa where the state had awarded them a small apartment, explained that Croatia had recently had a war.

Croatia was one of the republics of the former Yugoslavia, state that fell apart and was created after World War I by the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and re-formed after World War II under the leadership of Joseph Broz Tito.

How the man from another part of our planet, living in total media isolation, feeds his family from his monthly salary of no more than 50 dollars (the average Cuban salary is far lower, but he is lucky enough to work in the civil service), can know so much about something as remote, negligibly remote and as exotic to them as Croatia? He answered me briefly, smiling, “I’m reading books.”

Cubans are proud, a cheerful nation who are waiting for their chance after more than half a century of socialist tragedy. Let’s hope the capitalist disaster that inevitably gets to them is much less evil. The fall of the Berlin Wall devastated their communist allies and friends and deepened the agony of dictatorship, exacerbating their already unbearable poverty.

If your trip takes you to sunny Havana after visiting the cigar factories, the monumental Capitol-like Washington DC, the Revolution Museum, the mausoleum where their national hero was born, the icon of Cuban independence, the poet José Martí after you drive the Malecón in a Cadillac convertible from 1956, and when you enjoy lobster, a pound of which you will pay 7-10 euros in restaurants, try to communicate with ordinary, ordinary people in any way possible.

You will remain fascinated by their communicativeness, hospitality, pride, and dignity, with which they often endure the extreme misery and isolationism they live. Take this lesson and be grateful for the freedom and well-being in which, for the notion of the average Cuban, we live.


TEXT & PHOTO – Voljen Grbac