Contemplating Havana’s Malecon…

The Vedado end of the eight-or-so kilometre Malecon in Havana has a very different feel to it, from the more grandly built-up and fortified stretch toward the harbour mouth. Crumbling apartment buildings face across the dual carriageway, and the sea that crashes coldly into the rocks seems a metaphor for isolation and banishment. People sit on the battered sea-wall, or stare in vain at the horizon, as if waiting for something – the future? – to appear.

Here is a final set of images.

Out and about in Habana Vieja

I thought I was done with my Havana portfolio, but I’m not – at least not yet. I had planned, this morning, to pull up a final set of images of the Malecon for processing, but decided to go through the complete file, just in case – and came up with these photos instead, which I hope you will agree deserve a life of their own.

After this past ten days in South Africa – a midnight reshuffle of the Cabinet, two ratings downgrades to junk status, by Standard & Poors and Fitch, after protests against Zuma all across the country (followed by wooden-headed declarations from the ANC Youth League and Women’s League, to the effect, ‘who needs the ratings agencies anyway – we love our President!’- as if that’s an argument) I  can’t help thinking, this is what South Africa could look like, if the tenderpreneurs, the state capture crowd, the ‘a looter continua’ brigade, have their merry way.

Roll on 2019, I say – we still have democratic elections, so let’s throw the bums out.

Enjoy the photographs.

Bosque de La Habana

The Bosque de La Habana tells you something about the city. A patch of shady woodland along the banks of the Rio Almedares, it is crossed at one end by a picturesque stone bridge. Drawn by the bridge, and the shade, and the river below, the open Chevies and Buicks in their bright colours gather, with their cargoes of tourists.

But the bridge is crumbling, the grotto is littered, the stream a stinking grey intestine. The drivers pull in, nonetheless, and the assembly of vintage automobiles, and the luxuriant foliage, and the scattered light filtering through the leaves and branches, make it all seem romantic. But you can’t help wondering – at the neglect, at the lack of maintenance, the pollution, the seeming absence of initiative to fix the place up and – at the same time – the easy charm and resilience.

Life goes on, it seems, despite tourists and communism, and the old cars retain their air of romance, even if they are markers of isolation and impoverishment rather than celebrations of heritage.

 

Your weekend post

Your upcoming post this weekend will feature the cars of Havana – cars which are not just cars, but markers and expressions of a society, an economy, a particular history.

This Chevy truck is not a car, obviously – but deserves a place, perhaps, as a kind of precursor or foreword. No matter how glamorous, how retro, the car in Havana – like the truck, the motorcycle with sidecar, the crazy coco-taxi – is a workhorse.

Keep an eye on your inbox.

chevrolet

Sitting in Cape Town, thinking of Havana

So I have come to the end of a week in Cape Town – a round of project inception meetings with officials and academics, dinners out with my 85 year old mother or quiet evenings at home watching The Crown on Netflix, calls on FaceTime to my wife in Toronto, and – stealing a few moments here and there – working on my photos from Havana.

And so it is, I guess, that we inhabit multiple places, multiple eras. Echoes of ‘radical economic transformation,’ from this week’s State of the Nation address, provide a ghostly, sardonic music to accompany the photos – if you want radical economic transformation, try Cuba.

Yet these scenes, and the people in them, ask you to relate, not comment: other people, getting on with their lives, on their own special island.

Habana Vieja: two murals

Cuba’s history, of course – by which I mean only its modern history, which we can date back to the first Spanish warships, sailing off the island in the late 1400s – long predates the Revolution.

As Richard Gott explains, in his dry but absorbing Cuba, A New History (published in 2004) there has always been trouble: privateers, conquistadores, slavery, wars and coups, poverty and excess, rebellions and the mafia pock-mark the narrative like bullet-holes in a wall.

Visiting Havana, in this sense, means descending into an archeological dig. At the surface is the Revolution, with its heroic moment, followed by scars and decay: below it there are layers upon layers. Hard-edged or crumbling, you see this most immediately in the architecture. You see it also in the bodies – dark, light, African, European – of the Cuban people, and in glimpses of the culture. The music, obviously, but the art also, and – if we had stayed longer, and if we understood the language – many other manifestations.

These two murals, found in the streets of Habana Vieja – the Old City – give you the idea. The one, with its bold figures, worn but strong, offers a window into Cuba’s history of slavery and its African population; the other, with a hooded woman, her breasts two snaggle-toothed fish, speaks to darker perceptions and other beliefs.

Neither, let it be said, says anything of Revolution.

The dark side of Havana

Once more to Havana….

So far, I’ve tried not to fall into the trap that the English novelist George Eliot described more than a hundred years ago: seeing other people’s misery as ‘picturesque.’

I’ve described, and shown, the Hotel Inglaterra, posted images of the magnificent Grand Theatre and other architectural triumphs, monuments and renovations, and avoided overt comment on – well, on the dark side of Havana.

By which I mean, not its flawed grandeur, or its magnificent decay, but its political system. In a word: communism.

Because one of the things you can’t help noticing is the drab, dreary, official lexicon of ‘the Revolution.’ Everything in Havana tracks back to the one brief, heroic moment of glory, a moment frozen in time, historical but without history, in the sense that nothing, evidently, appears to have happened in the half-century since then.

The hard-as-nails old men who rule Cuba appear, still, in the public iconography, as long-haired, gorgeous, romantic revolutionaries, uncorrupted and incorruptible, while everything you see – crumbling infrastructure, a quarantined, impoverished but somehow still resilient people – gives the lie to their lies.

Yes, the American embargo has done enormous damage. Yes, the regime has delivered education and health-care. But the regime, let it be said, is the author, also, of Cuba’s misfortune.

Failed economic policies, incompetence, repression – not to mention Cuba’s long alliance with and dependence on the Soviet Union – are visible everywhere in the streets and on the faces that you see in Havana. The tools of dictatorship – the cult of the leaders,  cult of the Revolution, the ideological instruments of the schools and the radio, not to mention the ‘repressive apparatus’ of police and the prisons – are there, too, if you choose to see them.

Here are a few images: the primary school, touchingly – or cynically – named after Camilo Cienfuegos: like Che Guevara, a hero of the Revolution who fell out with the Castros and died – would you believe it? – in mysterious circumstances.

And then you stumble across a simple memorial – on a street corner, lost, almost tender, standing in deep shadow beneath the leaves and branches – to Ethel and Julius  Rosenberg.

 

Havana’s Magnificence

Because it is a popular cliche to see in Havana only what is strange and exotic, ‘a magnificent ruin,’ one task of the visiting photographer – the photographer who is a traveller, not a tourist, a humanitarian, not a voyeur – is to reveal something of that city’s other nature: magnificent restorations, as in the Habana Grand Theatre, Art Deco masterpieces in the form, for example, of the Edificio Bacardi – the Bacardi Building – the intricate, ornate balconies and arches of another era.

With this in mind, here are a few images.