A country stuck in time, forever frozen in the 1960's. The people believe deeply in La Revolución that lifted them from the authoritarian rule of Batista and brought them into the "democratic" reign of the Castros. We tell ourselves many things about the Cuban people in our own classroom, but surprisingly, when you ask the people, they'll tell you it was against the tyrannical oppression of the imperialist United States that they rebelled.
We visited in April, just weeks before president Raul Castro, the populist leaning and perhaps less patronly brother of Fidel, was set to abdicate his rule, representing the first time in almost 60 years that a Castro would not be in power. Winds of change are blowing in Cuba, however gently...
Jason had previously visited Cuba back in 2011 (don't tell the State Dept) and fell deeply in love with Havana and its people. Despite the hardships of living under communist rule, being effectively blocked from joining the 21st century thanks to a complicated (and arguably draconian) international blockade enacted by the US and allies, they'll never let on that their lives are anything short of carefree. Abundantly generous hospitality can hardly describe the people we encountered, both in Havana and in the countryside. And while there are always bad apples anywhere, on the whole, Cuban people struck us as some of the most kind and amiable people we've ever met during our travels.
see more images from of our Cuba trip here
One of our main goals for this trip was to spend quality time with tobacco farmers of Viñales and create a body of portrait work documenting their daily lives. While Viñales is becoming more and more popular with tourists and the local economy is transitioning to one increasingly marketed to accommodate the wave of Europeans and Americans that visit every year, real work is still being done by multi-generational farmers. Indeed, most of the farmers we met had been working the land all their lives, sowing and harvesting the same plots their parents worked before the revolution.
With calloused hands and sunbaked skin, these men appear rough-edged and coarse. Yet to a person, they generously gave of their time, proudly showing us their land and livestock, and made every effort to make us feel welcome.
See the rest of our Viñales series here.
Back in Havana, we turned our attention to the world famous Gimnasio de Boxeo Rafael Trejo, where many of Cuba's World champions and Olympic boxers have trained over the past 50 years. This tiny outdoor gym, like the neighborhood where it makes its home, is a dilapidated relic held together by the passion and grit of the amateur and professional boxers who train there daily. Surprisingly enough, when we arrived it was in the midst of a months-long renovation, intended to revitalize and restore some of its early glory. We had mixed feelings witnessing workers lather on fresh coats of paint and install new awnings over the bleachers. This work would help keep Rafael Trejo running for another 50 years to come, but the charm and character that landed the gym on many photographers' bucket lists was being changed forever. And with the Cuban government having just recently officially closed the site to visitors during the construction period, we suddenly felt a lot of responsibility as possibly the last photographers to experience the old gym as it was, before it becomes the new thing it aspires to be.
Our fixer, Yan, spent days making arrangements for us and let's just say it took some special 'convincing' of the coaches to get us exclusive access. But we managed to photograph a couple of incredible boxers and produce a story that we're really proud of.
See the rest of our Rafael Trejo series here.
Cuba is a land of contrasts. It's filled with warm, friendly people with a liveliness and joy for life that can't be humbled by the city's crumbling buildings nor the pot hole infested streets littered by banged up old American classic cars our grandparents used to drive. They are at times aggressively charismatic and perhaps too eager to work a mark, but at their hearts Cubans are unfailingly beautiful people, quick to share a smile, a warm cigar, and a finger or two of rum.
We are eternally thankful to our hosts and especially our guide Yan who made our trip possible and to all the beautiful people we met along the way.
Hasta la Victoria Siempre!