When I first got to Cuba, my plan had been to retreat into the beauty of the country and to get some writing done, to take a bit of a breather from writing at home in my usual environment.
On my second morning in Cuba, I woke up to find out Fidel Castro had died.
So instead, I stayed in the city of Havana. I was sent lots of questions when I was there, by journalists, friends and family, readers and fellow travellers – what was it like there? What was the atmosphere? How did I find it? Ever since leaving the country, I’ve still been considering those questions. Because my reaction to these questions, at first, and in as little words as possible, is ‘There wasn’t much change’. But the undercurrent of that, I think is naturally more complex. I think I have disappointed so far with my answers to these questions. But really, what I ended up saying, is that it wasn’t like I would have expected. I woke up on that second morning very unsure on politically what I had walked into, how this was going to change everything. In the end, I found that I had initially underestimated the spirit of the people living there and the energy of the country.
And also, I thought, I had overestimated my own entrenched views. Outside of Cuba, and inside the country too, I’ve been so used to seeing these figureheads as the icons of revolutions and political movements, that it took me a while to cast off my own image of these leaders, and instead grow to understand how he was viewed by the millions of people in the country living under their rule. Coming to realise that maybe the cult of personality of these Cuban leaders actually affects us more to this day than it affects the people in the country – where there, everyone who wanted to speak to us said, ‘What is going to change with his death? Things are going to stay the same.’ But also, at the same time, everyone was very respectful, a sort of honour code – the mourning period said no alcohol being drunk or sold publicly, no dancing, no music, and the only people who didn’t respect this were a couple of tourists here and there. I didn’t see any people from the country who wanted to break the mourning period. So the reaction was muted in many ways.
There is something about the representation of this which frustrated me a little, how we view Cuba and want to view Cuba – and other countries, in general. Earlier I wrote in a different post about the experience of taking photos of the people in the square, of seeing all the different stories between them all. So in the Revolution Square, at the public viewing of Castro’s ashes that brought thousands and thousands of people to the square, my friend was also there working on photos in the square. He saw this one older lady crying. One person we have seen crying, in all the two days we spent there. And suddenly… all the cameras from the top end journalists and news channels appeared and came around to take pictures of this lady. It made me so frustrated because I didn’t feel it was a true representation of everything that was happening there. I know also, that it’s so much of a ‘slower’ story – trying to unpick exactly what people are thinking during these times. I didn’t see the headlines for that particular photo, but I know what they were mostly – how Cuba is reacting to the death of Castro – and I felt this was an extremity, more of an anomalous reaction. But actually, I know this is more of me talking, more of me wanting a deeper look and fairer representation, than how the media actually needs to work in a coherent way – that there is a lot of interest in the strong reactions, the interesting things happening, than the deeper undercurrent. And of course, where interpretation happens, that’s where disagreement arises.
There was something I thought to myself when I was going out to the country, the same thought that I had when I travelled to Palestine and Israel years ago – ‘Cuba is probably a country that, no matter how much time I’ll spend there, I’ll never quite understand it. I’ll go back to England more confused than ever before’. Well, that’s exactly what happened! I’ve gained a lot more knowledge but that doesn’t mean I’m any closer to forming a solid opinion on what is happening, where there isn’t a black and white to the situation there. But one thing I have really learned is not to assume I can know what it’s like to live there, and definitely not what the citizens of Cuba think or feel about the situation. Not to pick an opinion on what they should do or what anyone should do, just for the sake of it. Just like any country or political side, there is no easy answer. If we can’t even understand our own countries and our own turmoils, how can we understand other people’s countries?
A special thanks to Emmanuel Abreu who taught me photography over in Havana and helped me capture some of the images on this trip. His film photos that he took in the country are so beautiful and really reflect some of the scenes we saw in Cuba during this time. http://eabreuvisuals.com/photos-cuba-film/