Chicago-based photographer and writer focused on social documentary.
Infinitely complex and visually mesmerizing Cuba. Since 2010, I’ve photographed the changes…the Entrepreneurs – Cuentapropistas. Animal welfare. Preservation. And a growing restlessness and inequality.
In 2010, in an effort to relieve some of the Cuban economy’s struggles, Raul Castro approved over 200 private sector jobs. Businesses like manicurist, clown, and seamstress are included. As of 2015, these “cuentapropistas” number almost 500,000. Barber is #12 on the list of approved jobs. 12/8/11
Cuba has been called a living museum. Families fleeing Cuba after the revolution left behind many things to start new lives elsewhere. This family runs a small business selling antiques out of their home in Havana. Cuba. They quietly buy, trade and sell mostly housewares and jewelry. 12/13/10
At the Hotel Nacional, a bartender pours two mojitos for me and a friend as he prepares for a rush of tourists arriving via bus. Tourism-related jobs earn higher salaries than doctors in Cuba. 4/9/11
Bicitaxis (approved job #175) take Cubans to work and to school. And haul tourists around the busy streets. In the background is the Capitolio. This building, modeled after the U.S. Capitol, was once the seat of government. After the Revolution, it was used as offices for the Ministry of Science. Renovations are now underway so that Capitolio will once again host Cuba’s National Assembly.
Children’s ride operator is another approved job on the small business list (#75). These rides most often pre-date the 1959 Revolution. Baracoa, Cuba 4/8/12.
“Parking attendant for cars, bicycles and tricycles” is #76 on the list of private sector jobs approved by the Cuban government in 2010.
Construction laborer is job #3 on the approved ist of private-sector jobs in Cuba. Years of neglect and lack of resources means that Cuba has a massive infrastructure problem. Now that Cuba-U.S. relations are thawing, more materials are making their way to the island. There is visibly more construction, more repair, more cranes and more scaffolding. April, 2011 Havana, Cuba
Some categories of small business, like this one selling used baby gear in Havana, have been on the fringes of approval. In 2013, restrictions on retail activities were tightened to crack down on people who sell goods brought back by Cubans who travel abroad or buy the items at state stores. Flights from Miami into Cuba are ladened with full cargo holds. It is common to see sofas, bikes, TVs, computers, tires and baby strollers wrapped in cellophane while waiting in line at the airport. Supplies, once in Cuba, are often sold by cuentapropistas and then recycled and reused many times over. 12/9/11
Many Cubans are figuring out how to open cafes and bars, converting parts of their homes into space for business. Without a wholesale component, small businesses buy at regular retail prices and have to work carefully to earn a profit. Arianne and her mother consider expenses in their Havana cafe which opened in 2013. Restaurant/Cafe owner is #35 on the approved list of jobs. 12/18/13
Hair and make-up preparation backstage at a fashion show at Bertolt Brechtin in Vedado, Havana. Creativity and the arts flourish in Cuba. Make-up artist is the #65 job on the approved private sector occupations. 12/18/12
Backstage at a fashion show at Bertolt Brechtin in Vedado, Havana. Creativity and the arts flourish in Cuba. 12/18/12
While photographer, artisan and producer/seller of arts and crafts are on the list of approved jobs (numbers 9, 50, 94 respectively) video/movie maker is not. Havana is a hub for art, both of Cuban artists and visitors at their odd-year Biennale and annual December film festival. More celebrities are showing up in Cuba and many USA-based production companies are scrambling to film TV-series and movies in Cuba.
Illegal fishing in the blackwater of Havana’s river. Fish caught are sometimes sold to paladars on the black market.
A pre-revolution neon sign remains hanging over a busy Havana street. After the revolution, Fidel Castro banned the capitalist tool of advertising. Many signs throughout Cuba were destroyed. Today, Cubans are up-to-date on world pop culture, TV, music and fashion thanks to “él paquete semanal”, a collection of material passed on thumbdrives in the underground black market for ~$1 U.S. 12/11/2010
There has been an extraordinary growth of new private sector cafés and bars with prices in tourist CUCs. However most Cubans cannot afford tourist prices. Many government-run bars continue to operate in more affordable Cuban Peso prices. For comparison, 24 Cuban pesos = 1 CUC = $1 US dollar. In Cuba, doctors earn ~$35 CUCs a month. A mojito ranges from $2-5 CUCs. 3/4/15
A family collects hay along the road one Saturday afternoon. While plow operator, part time farm laborer, and food vendors are on the approved list of jobs, farmer is not. Farms are part of the state and produce food for the country. Fuel shortages mean that food distribution can be tricky business. It is estimated that, in Havana, about 90% of the city’s fresh produce comes from local urban farms and gardens. And shortages of fertilizer mean that much of Cuba’s agriculture is organic. 12/14/13
A young boy buys juice from a home-based vendor. Sales from home windows are allowed for non-alcoholic beverages (job #37).
Manicurist is #64 on the list of the 200+ approved private sector jobs. This manicurist gets her supplies from family in Miami. She also takes care of a statue of St Lazarus and his dog who is believed to protect one’s health. On December 17, many Cubans honor Lazarus (or Babalu Aye in Santaria) by lighting a candle or making a pilgrimage to a shrine just south of Havana. Historically, to be a member of the Communist Party, one must not be religious. In 2015, Raul Castro said, “I am from the Cuban Communist Party that doesn’t allow believers, but now we are allowing it. It’s an important step.” 12/8/11
Clothes washing and ironing is job #59 on the approved list.
House painter is #82 on the approved list of private sector jobs. Construction, renovation or just getting a fresh coat of paint are frequently seen in Havana now that restrictions are easing.
Fósforero y Relojero…Lighter Refills and Watch Repair. Approved private sector jobs #125 and #107. Havana, Cuba 2015.
You hear the cries of “Mani” and see the discarded white paper tubes all over old Havana and the Malecón. Peanut roaster is # 137 on the approved private-sector job list.
There are two currencies in Cuba: the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC). Cubans are paid in CUP, which is about 24 CUP-to-1 CUC. Tourist business is transacted in CUC, which is 1-to-1 with the U.S. dollar. While tourists may pay $10 for a 10 minute taxi ride, Cuban pay about $0.50 CUC to ride across town in peso taxis. These operate like buses, stopping periodically to pick up/drop off passengers. Taxi driver is #170 on the list of approved jobs.
As more money cycles into Cuba, there is more disposable income. For animal lovers, this is bringing some disturbing new trends–puppies as accessories and dog fighting. Breeder/Seller of Pets is #26 on the list of approved jobs. There are no animal welfare laws in Cuba, and no shelter system. Unwanted animals are left to wander the streets, often unvaccinated, sick and hungry. Periodically, strays are rounded-up by Zoonosis. The process is not humane–dogs are picked up by hind legs, thrown in a small metal box and taken away to be poisoned. Aniplant is a small organization in Cuba working to provide spay/neuters and trying to educate Cubans about good and humane animal care.
Trained dog exhibitor is #161 on the list of approved private sector jobs. The dachshunds are good sports about it…wearing watches, glasses and clothes…but they are not amused.
Shoe repair and resale is a vital business in Havana. He works in a room full of shoes at the front of his home in Centro Havana. Shoe Repair is #143 on the list of approved private-sector jobs.
Caretakers of the Elderly or Handicapped are considered approved private sector jobs (#30). Havana, Cuba, 2011.
This government owned shop, Variedades, closes its’ doors for the evening. This was once a Woolworth’s, one of eight in Cuba that were nationalized between 1959-1960 in the wake of the Revolution. Woolworth’s first opened in Cuba in 1924 and was referred to as “Centavos” by locals. 12/9/13
In the tourist areas, there are many approved jobs…like this one: sketching popular scenes of Old Havana is #155 “Painters-selling pictures in the street”.
There is no official wholesale in Cuba. Small businesses must rely on family bringing supplies in from off the island or buy supplies in Cuba. In Cuba, the options are to pay full price at government supplied shops, or to find black market sources. Havana, 2015.
In September, 2013, 18 jobs were added to the approved list of private sector licenses. One of them was Vendor of Agricultural Produce.
An old building along Parque Central in tourist-heavy Old Havana has been emptied of tenants. Renovations are underway to turn the building into a hotel with a mall of shops. Like the Cuban flag ripped by the barbed wire around this construction site, there is a growing divide among the haves and the have-nots in Cuba. Cubans who have family outside Cuba often have more resources than those who don’t have family outside Cuba. 12/17/13
Cuba’s Entrepreneurs – Cuentapropistas
Between 2010 – 2013, in an effort to relieve some of the Cuban economy’s struggles, Raul Castro approved over 200 private sector jobs. These self-employed entrepreneurs, or cuentapropistas, now number almost 500,000 and are learning to do business quickly despite many challenges like limited access to supplies, and lack of wholesale pricing.
Photographed over 7 visits from December 2010 – March 2015.
View this in slideshow to see captions for each photo. Start slideshow by clicking on the first photo.
Animal welfare in Cuba is a daunting challenge. On my recent trip to Cuba, I had the honor of meeting Nora Garcia Pérez, the founder of Aniplant, an animal care and protection organization in Havana. Nora has dedicated the past 28 years of her life to the animals of Cuba: from big ventures like founding Aniplant and promoting animal welfare on Cuban radio and TV, to smaller efforts like traveling around Havana in a little yellow Fiat with the passenger seat removed to make room for two street dogs who sleep in the car every night.
Aniplant, or Asociación Cubana para la Protección de Animales y Plantas, is located in Centro Havana, not far from the University and only steps from the beautiful Malecón sea wall. Aniplant seeks to eliminate the suffering of Cuban animals through sterilization campaigns to reduce the number of strays, public education to promote the need for good veterinary care and animal health, facilitation of dog/cat adoptions, and hands-on intervention in cases of animal abuse.
If you’re a dog lover and have ever been to Cuba–or to any third world country for that matter–you know the helpless heartache of seeing painfully thin and sick animals on the streets. And while Cuba is a highly educated, healthy and empathetic population, their lack of resources is a tremendous problem. Often, people simply do not have the means to properly care for animals. That means that many dogs/cats go without spaying/neutering, resulting in unwanted animals roaming the streets in search of food and shelter. The Cuban government collects strays from city streets, and almost all of those dogs/cats are immediately euthanized by poisoning or electrocution. Aniplant’s main mission is to reduce the number of strays by providing as many spay/neuters as possible. They have performed nearly 5,000 sterilizations each year since 2012 and are currently trying to expand operations throughout Havana and all of Cuba. Like everything related to Cuba, it is complicated. While Aniplant is the only animal protection organization permitted to function in Cuba, there are ministries and permissions to deal with and there are the obstacles of getting medical supplies and donations around the U.S. embargo.
The Aniplant location at 128 Principe is home to 19 dogs: 16 adoptable ones and 3 waiting to be on their way to homes in the UK and the USA. The dogs have the run of the back areas of Aniplant–the kitchen, a play area outside and a little room just off the courtyard. There are employees at Aniplant who work to train and socialize the dogs, and to prepare their meals of rice and meat. A veterinarian and vet tech are also on staff for routine procedures and emergency care. And every Friday, hundreds of pounds of meat for dog food are delivered to Aniplant to be sold to the community for fundraising. The place is immaculate, colorful, lively and upbeat–the receptionist sings on occasion and offers tiny cups of strong coffee to those waiting patiently for services. Dog and cat owners chat with each other and hold their pets close in the tiled lobby. Potential adopters check in at reception and discuss the adoption application process. And every now and then, the dogs break into barks or whines as a visitor makes their way back through the courtyard.
I spent several days at Aniplant, photographing and videotaping and will have a short multimedia piece to share with you soon. In the meantime, if you are moved by this story, please consider a small donation to the Aniplant Project. Considering that veterinarians in Cuba make only about $250 a year, any amount of money donated will go a long way to helping the animals. Donate to Aniplant. Nora’s wish list also includes a truck or large van to take the Aniplant spay/neuter clinic on the road and a small animal ventilator. If you, or anyone you know can help with those items, please contact me.
As many of you know, I’m a dog lover and have an on-going project documenting the work of people who rescue dogs. And I love Cuba. I love walking in Havana, photographing the elegant decay and witnessing the extraordinary changes happening there. I love meeting the people, getting to know their hopes and worries, and always admiring their persistence, creativity and resourcefulness. So this month, I decided to overlay these passions and dig a little deeper into the stories of the rescued dogs of Havana, Cuba and those sheltered by museums.
Street dogs are commonly seen in Havana, picking through the trash or teetering down the sidewalks. It is heartbreaking and frustrating. But in a country where food can be hard to come by for people, perhaps it is not unusual or unexpected. One thing that has surprised me is that many museums in Old Havana have taken on the role of sheltering dogs.
On my first trip to Cuba I saw a fat little dog wearing a business card and sleeping near Fototeca in Plaza Vieja. On subsequent trips, I saw more of these dogs with business cards…in front of other museums, in front of Havana’s University, and wandering around the old plazas…dogs who generally looked healthy and happy. So, on this trip, I went looking for these card-carrying dogs to find out more about their lives and the people who care for them.
These are the five dogs of Museo de la Orfebrería (Museum of Metal/Silver Work), a quiet courtyard museum on Obispo near Plaza de Armas. They are cared for by Margarita Garcia and Odalys Valdéz, who work at the museum as guides and security. The dogs spend their days napping in the shade of the courtyard, or lazing on the sunny bricks in front of the museum. During the day, they greet visitors politely–without fanfare or dogged attention. And they keep Margarita and Odalys company during their 6 day shifts working 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. In return, Margarita and Odalys feed them and keep fresh water on hand. The dogs are sheltered in the museum– partially in the role of protecting the museum from thieves–but most definitely to save the dogs from a hard street life.
After noticing a few strays outside who seemed to pace by regularly–as if looking in…one more time…for an opening, for an invitation, I asked Margarita if there were ever more than five here. “No. Only five. We cannot feed or have more. But these five? Good for them.” And good for Margarita and Odalys and all the guides who care for these precious little souls.
During the last 3 years I’ve been asked that question thousands of times and in a hundred different ways: What is the appeal of Cuba? What do you see in it? What do you do there? Why this absorption, this obsession? Truth is, I’m not sure I really know why I go. I just know that I have to return.
Before I went the first time, I read Carlos Eire’s “Waiting for Snow in Havana” and was enthralled by his description of Havana’s radiance… the turquoise water, the light, the sunsets. But one part of his childhood description stuck with me–and came rushing back almost word-for-word the first night I arrived in Cuba–the part where he describes the car nearly tipping over as his dad drives through the crashing waves along the Malecón: “That was the beauty of it, and the horror. So much freedom, so little freedom. Freedom to be reckless, but no genuine freedom from woe. Plenty of thrills, and an overabundance of risks, large and small. But so little margin for error, and so few safety nets.”
So, what does that have to do with why do I go? Why have I been six times in the last 3 years? Why do I already want to return?
Cuba seems to call to me…beckoning things that I’ve forgotten, lost or restrained. Adventure. Audacity. Creativity. Purpose. There, I feel an openness and confidence that seems compounded and exquisite.
I’ve tried to explain why I go to Cuba with photos, and with stories of what I’ve seen and done there. It’s hard to define, to draw a picture that helps a curious person understand…How can I explain the light of the sun and the shade, or the smell of the humidity, or the raw elegance in the decay. How do I explain hearing in my Cuban friends’ stories the vast hope and repeated frustrations as Cuba’s many reforms zig, zag and snowball? How can I explain how my skin tingles from partaking in the random little bits of risk in Cuba, or from seeing the creative resourcefulness of their fixes for things broken or not available?
Maybe I can never really explain my enchantment with Cuba because I don’t yet understand it well enough myself. Or maybe because I don’t understand myself…what draws me to these raw edges. The pattern is not yet revealed. I do know that I will keep on going back…witnessing the changes–both in Cuba and in me.
Time and time again, I miss Cuba. Really miss it, with an ache, with a feeling that I should be there right now, among the raw beauty, the surprising quirks, and the magnificent people with such life and humor and hope. Some people would say “time stands still in Cuba”. It does not. It moves at a speed and in directions all it’s own. There’s no explaining that with logic or words. Nor even with photos. I was sleepless there, trying to pin down all the little moments, the tiny things that remind me, “you’re in a special special place in time…remember everything!”
I’ve had Cuba on my mind a lot lately. Such a beautiful, colorful, extraordinary place. I spent some time today walking through my photos. Here are a few that spoke to me this afternoon… I was in a mood to edit them in black and white…what do you think?
Moscow to Havana! The news hummed with “where is Edward Snowden?” this week. He arrived in Russia from Hong Kong. He supposedly bought a ticket Moscow to Havana, then never made the flight. Maybe he is making his way incognito to Ecuador? Or Venezuela? Or will he live for awhile in the Moscow airport, perpetually in transit? Whatever happens, these news nuggets launch me into travel reverie–thoughts of airports, of getting on planes, of all the great spy movies where they skip seamlessly country-to-country. I love travel…the tickets, and passport stamps, and visas…I get chill-bumps just imagining holding a plane ticket that reads SVO – HAV. I amuse myself with a vague thought of traveling one day from a Russian winter’s deep snow to a sultry Cuban night in the streets of Havana. I have this dream that one day, I will go. I will sell everything and go. For a year, for two, maybe three. Travel light. Take my time. Get to know the cities. See the countrysides. Meet the people. Stay long enough to recognize the accents, the light, the patterns of life…like how to order an espresso like a local in a Roman cafe, or where to find the right peso taxi line in Havana. These thoughts make me tremble with anticipation. There’s just something about travel. The essence of life.
Around this time last year, I was traveling in Cuba. On the road across the length of the island. Such an exceptional place, and even more so when saturated in spring rain. These images washed over me like a dream. Looking at the photos now, I’m reminded of the fresh smell of that warm Caribbean air. I remember the feel of the humidity, the breeze, the sound of the rain, and the low rumble of thunder rolling. The season was changing. I was changing. What is it about Cuba that draws us out, that lifts life, calls it to the surface?
Packing for a trip to Cuba is a careful endeavor. There are the gifts to take, and the necessities, and the cameras and lenses, and of course, the clothes. But there’s a weight restriction of 66 lbs total…no more than 22 lbs carry-on. I’ve spent the last couple of days piling up the things to go, weighing, reweighing and then making hard choices of what stays and what goes.
In my bag:
A bag of Snickers and a bag of M&Ms (intended as gifts, but a constant temptation…)
Box of Tylenol (gift)
2 boxes of Band-Aids (gift)
10 tealights (gift)
10 bars of little soaps (gift)
10 Hot Wheels (gift)
20 Little Pet Shop figures (gift, they are the cutest little things!)
10 peanut snack bars (para me, between meals)
1 pack of shortbread cookies (para me)
3 pills for diarrhea (just in case…)
ATM and credit card (for Mexico…U.S. issued cards won’t work in Cuba)
105mm f 2.8
24-70mm f 2.8
Holga + 7 rolls of film
Sony Cybershot for video
10 memory cards
2 extra Nikon batteries
A mile of chargers and cords
Hopefully the right adaptors
Blackberry and charger for Mexico (our cellphones won’t work in Cuba)
2 pairs of jeans
2 pairs of travel pants
1 pair of linen pants
Finn comfort clogs
10 tops (combination of long/short sleeve)
rain jacket (pockets are stuffed to reduce the carry-on bag weight)
undergarments + socks
shampoo, conditioner, lotion, toothbrush/paste/floss, deodorant
Trip insurance paperwork
Medical insurance paperwork
Moon handbook to Cuba
The carry-on camera bag alone weighs 25 lbs, not the 22 requested (so I’ll be stuffing some things in my pockets The big bag is at 38 lbs. 66 total is the limit.
Oh…and it’s 12 degrees in Chicago.
Pre-Cuba // Meeting the group in Cancun, Mexico: December 9, 2010
The American flight landed early yesterday…just after skimming low over the most beautiful seafoam-turquoise-ink colored waters you can imagine.
Immigration–baggage claim (mine was one of the first out!)–customs and out into the throngs of people touting time-shares, rides, tours…They’ll do just about anything to stop you. “We must check your voucher here please”, “Here we are, waiting for you!”, “Ride to the hotel?”, “Welcome to Mexico. Let me help you”, “Do you know where you are staying?”…blah, blah, blah.
You walk–quickly, confidently, and with a smile, past the obstacles–a bit like a video game, going around them when they step directly in front of you. Once past the hurdles, the doors automatically open–there’s a mariachi band in black playing the Frito Bandito song, a bar, and another herd of drivers holding signs with everyone’s name. And it’s warm, humid, a smell of that air that can only be hot climates near the sea.
Reid from Santa Fe Photo Workshops was waiting by the Marriott Shuttle spot–guarding someone’s luggage and greeting us. He dolled out my $230 pesos with instructions to take the airport shuttle from Terminal 3 to Terminal 2 and get my Cuban Tourist Visa from a lady in white next to the Air Cubana counter there. That was the “normal” terminal–not full of tourists. Starbucks, regular lines of regular people doing regular airport things.
The lady at the counter spoke to me in Spanish–but I understood she was asking if I had pesos–I replied “Si, pesos.” She had on wedge heels–how long would she stand there today I wondered? She was filling out visa forms pulled from her purse–and sitting alongside her rubbermaid of peppers for lunch. Visa done. Easy peazy.
Met Angelina and Larry back at the shuttle area and we piled in for the short drive to the hotel. Checked in (room 449 for me, $149/night) and met back in the lobby for quesadillas and margaritas. Conversation about “our photography”–what do you shoot, what do you do with photography, what camera did you bring? Lenses? And the same concerns about weight and bag limitations.
Back to the room for a bit of a nap and some reorganizing of stuff. Down to the lobby again around 7 to meet the folks returning from Cuba… talked to a couple of ladies and Dinah & Barry; heard about rice and beans, exchanged $40 U.S. for $40 C.U.C. They were still in awe. We watched their photo slideshow of their week–stunning. The light, the faces, the eyes, the decay… One lady described it as very European, but not–it’s decayed, dirty, neglected. 3rd world. She said she couldn’t even describe the feeling she had on the first day–the depth of culture shock. I can’t wait! Shaking with anticipation.
Talked to Nancy–someone I met in 2008 at Nevada Wier’s workshop in Santa Fe. We think we’re roommates on this journey–and made a pact to get up early, stay up late, and go to the Tropicana
So now, it’s 8:15a–I slept good, I’ve made my second pot of coffee in my room, had breakfast downstairs, had a shower, and have repacked yet again…moving chocolates to my carry-on for snacks and for gifts, loading up my pockets so that the raincoat weighs about 10lbs–relieving the carry-on. Crowded House’s “Always Take the Weather” came on the iPod shuffle–good advice! I’ve called home…and sit ready. I can feel my heart beating in my skin. CUBA!
We will meet downstairs at 9a for an orientation. And head out to the airport at 10:30 to deal with check-in and the cultural visas (that came in last night). Flight is at 2:35p.
POSTSCRIPT // 2017:
As I am moving old TravelPod entries over to my blog almost 7 years later, I came across this first trip to Cuba, and the entries that abruptly stop before I even get on the plane. Of course, now I know. Now, after 7 trips to beautiful Cuba, I know how shocking those first days are. Now I know that packing is indeed a careful endeavor. You’d better pack anything you might need, because you are not likely to find it there if you’ve forgotten it. “It’s not like I’m packing for Cuba,” has become a standard “don’t worry” statement when I pack now for all other trips. I also know now that these flights TO Cuba are the heaviest flights ever. Seriously, it’s a wonder that the planes can leave the ground. Coming back, without all the gifts, the bags are less than a third full, but the memory cards are bursting.