Some Cubans say their island is shaped like a crocodile, a water creature that looks lethargic in repose, but, once roused, becomes fierce and territorial. Others say Cuba is an iguana with eyes of water and stone, an ancient, mystical creature that eludes the grasp. The poet Nancy Morejon has said that, from the air, her island is a pair of wings about to take flight. But the tourist brochures call it the pearl of the Caribbean. The habit of treating the island like treasure waiting to be dug up dies hard.
A young Cuban photographer I met warned me that Cuba is Fantasy Island. Foreigners come here to find what they need: revolutionaries find revolution; capitalists find dictatorship; tourists find the perfect beach. “No one seems to see Cuba for what it is.”
This book began with a meeting between a photographer and a writer. When Malcolm Batty started taking photographs of Cuba five years ago, he fell in love with something he could not quite pin down, a quality of grace in the Cuban people. There was a combination of humour and challenge in the stare they directed back at his camera’s eye. Fascinated by the integrity of Cuban culture, he began to conceive of a photographic record of contemporary Cuba.
Since I have had a specific interest in Latin America for over two decades, I was invited to look at the photographs with the idea that I might write an accompanying text. I did not know Batty then, but his photographs spoke for themselves. Exquisite compositions of light and shadow, they had a tenderness and respect for the personhood of their subjects. They didn’t seem to need much commentary — they wove their own stories, a narrative, as Batty called it, of grace under pressure. Yet I knew that beyond the frame of the photographs was a world of voices astonishingly rich in their variety and complexity. What about a book that would offer parallel though independent narratives, one verbal, one imagistic?
When Batty and I took up the challenge of this book, we were aware of the quagmire into which we walked. Who were we to speak about Cuba and why should we presume? I suppose the answer is that Cuba is hemmed in by a visual and verbal rhetoric that makes it impossible to see. The images we are offered of Cuba are mainly clichés: vintage cars and elegant buildings in a state of imminent collapse. The discourse is always political, rarely personal, as if people had no private lives. But we all know there is more to it. We hear it in the music that translates without language or ideology.
What would we discover if we went behind the stereotypes? My narrative attempts to do what Batty’s photographs do: resist the clichés. I cannot pretend to objectivity; neither photograph nor text can escape the bias of its author. But I talked to as many people as chance and serendipity allowed. I can say that my ambition has been to get out of the way and allow Cubans to speak for themselves.
I would not have attempted this book without the aid of my companion, Juan Opitz. I needed his corrective vision. As a Latin American he could keep me from straying too far into any delusional assumption that I could understand what was in front of my face. I will give you a trivial example. As we sat in a café at the Hotel Vedado, our modest hotel in the university district of central Havana, I expressed my commiseration with the people lined up at the adjacent bakery. “Here they line up to buy; at home they line up to pay,” Juan said. And yes, I thought, the line was not much longer than the ones at my local supermarket. I understood he was simply reminding me to withhold my judgments until I at least had some information to go on.
When we encounter a foreign culture there are always historical nuances overlaying each moment, codes to be penetrated and conundrums to be read. That travelers write about foreign places at all astonishes me. But the explanation is simple. What we feel compelled to record is not really a portrait of the place visited but rather of its impact on us. And in the case of Cuba, this has a particular value. This island looms disproportionately large in the imagination of the twentieth century, and because it has developed outside the prevailing hegemony of North America, it has become almost impossible to think of it apart from fierce political and ideological debates.
But what if one were to suspend one’s preconceptions and turn to Cuba with fresh eyes, to enter Cuba through its art, its culture, its people? The story of Cuba is a family story, a story of a small island with a culture that has international reach. This book will attempt to capture the joy and fierce independence of a people who clearly love their country.