The short plane ride into Cuba did not prepare me for the changes I was about to see. It was as if time had stopped and I had entered into a dream, and nothing was the same. True, I had grown up in South Florida, so I was accustomed to this kind of weather and vegetation. Also the architecture looked familiar, although they were the buildings of fifty or more years ago... And of course there were the cars-relics from the fifties, old Chevy's and Fords and Buicks that I had not seen since my childhood. Everywhere I looked I got the feeling that this is a place very different from our own. There are no neon lights, no billboards, nor even very many traffic lights. There are no stores, and no advertisements. There are no highways clogged with traffic, no shopping malls, no motels, nor fast food outlets. While the rest the world rushes on to whatever awaits it, Cuba seems to remain motionless, as if it were lost in slumber. And this was only a forty-five minute flight away from the bustle of Miami.
Havana itself is drab and decrepit. It looks like one of those East European capitals before they emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, albeit one with palm trees and tropical vegetation. There is a crude level of industrialization here-just enough to put smokestacks up against the skyline. Its elegant old buildings are now occupied by multiple families, or else simply falling down. I was astonished to notice that there are no signs. The very few shops in evidence do not advertise their presence or their wares. There are barely any road signs or even traffic signals. In the U.S. we are accustomed to a barrage of printed information in our city streets, but here there is nothing.
I am not saying that any of this posed a problem for me as an artist. On the contrary, artists look for the unique and striking, whether it be depressing or otherwise. In Cuba there was plenty to catch my eye. I felt like the Romantic painter who finally found himself in a truly exotic landscape. It seemed as though there was something meaningful and unique wherever I looked.
Somebody told me that the Revolution had been made by the "campesinos," and that they had a clear prejudice against the city, and were content to see it neglected. The countryside, however, was a different matter. It was left in a pristine condition. Picture if you can, miles of highway without any traffic, going through a lush, tropical landscape, with no gas stations, billboards, motels, or peasant shacks along the way. Where do the people live? There was no evidence of them, nothing but agricultural land, mostly in sugarcane, and the mountains in the distance. Whatever effect the Revolution has had in Cuba, it was good for the scenery.
I must say I expected that the work done by artists on the island would be very different from paintings by artists living elsewhere, since conditions in Cuba are so unique, and I looked forward eagerly to seeing how this was going to be expressed. As a rule I anticipate that art will reflect its surroundings and that it will give some explanation of what it is like to live in a particular culture. What I found, however, was that Cuban art looked remarkably like what you would see in Lower Manhattan. How could this be, I wondered? Surely there could hardly be a bigger difference between two environments than that between the neighborhoods of Soho or Chelsea in the heart of New York, and Cuba. And yet I did not see any of this reflected in the artwork. There was perhaps an Hispanic flavor to it, but not one especially different from that of a Latino living in New York. I did not know how to talk about this with the artists themselves, but the explanation for it happened to occur to me one day after a conversation with one of them.
In Cuba everything is a state-run proposition. There is no private initiative. The state picks applicants for art schools and then trains them. Without a diploma from one of these schools an artist cannot get a gallery showing. Thus Cuba is treating its artists as if they were something analogous to an Olympics sports team. The officials select what they consider the best talent. They then hire coaches well-versed in the newest techniques to train them. When all is ready, they promote it to the world. The whole idea is to have a world-class artistic product. In a sense they have succeeded, because Cuban artists can exhibit all around the world. However, the thing that is missing, and which I regretted not seeing, is any sense that Cuba is at all different from the rest of the world-which it certainly is. The artists who are not part of the Cuban system, whom I did not get a chance to meet, are left isolated and unsupported. They cannot exhibit their paintings or sell them openly. I learned that they have difficulty even getting art supplies, and that some end up in prison because of their work.
The most interesting person I talked to in Cuba was an American who was married to a Cuban artist. They had both decided to live in Havana, although they had arranged to have their son born in the U.S.A. so that he would have an American passport. As a young couple they had done pretty well. The husband had inherited some property and although he was not allowed to sell it, he was able to arrange a swap with some people who had a house that he wanted. The Cuban government permits these kinds of swaps. It is an enormous advantage to start out with something you can trade; there was no other way the family could have gotten their dream house. They were working on fixing up the house and studio for themselves with the help of friends. Their son was enrolled in the local school where he learned revolutionary songs and slogans. The family felt a part of the system, even though the system had many inconveniences. There was one thing, finally, that the wife said that struck me more than anything else. When I asked her whether she felt a lack of freedom, she said that for her there were different kinds of freedom. The freedom she enjoyed was a freedom from economic and social insecurity. Politics did not matter so much to her as everyday life.
I wondered, does the Cuban government really give its citizens economic and social security? I was not there long enough to know the answer. In my minimal observations I saw such things as groups of happy, healthy children walking to school each day in clean uniforms. I noticed that the streets were devoid of homeless persons or beggars. I did, however, see a lot of people standing around without much to do. Some told me they were desperate, but most of them seemed complacent with their condition. I could not see any glaring social inequalities, although they may exist. Instead I witnessed a kind of egalitarian spirit. Every man and woman considered himself or herself an equal to everyone else. It would seem to be very bad form to set yourself apart in Cuba. Carlos, our guide, made a point of respecting everyone he met. He indicated that his advantaged position as a guide (they make ten times the amount of income of ordinary Cubans because of the tips from foreigners), was used mainly to help his community and his family. He wanted to avoid any appearance of being privileged. I believe this ideal was genuinely important to him.
Fidel Castro, of course, is the big topic in Cuba. Whether or not people want to talk about him, his presence looms large. I wondered what the relationship was between Castro and the inhabitants of the island. I could not get much information from anyone I talked with, but one incident gave me a surprising view of Cuba 's longtime leader.
We had gotten tickets to see the opening of the ballet season. There had been rumors all day that Castro himself might attend. When we arrived at the theater there was a crowd of people gathered in front and in the park across the way. We went through a brief security check at the door-about the same as you would find at Lincoln Center these days. When we were seated, we noticed that the atmosphere was charged with excitement. There was a microphone on the stage, only twenty feet from our seats. In the audience were all different types-young couples and older people, blacks and whites. I suppose they were all privileged in some way, but they did not look like a government claque. Then Fidel Castro walked out onto the stage. I was shocked to see this. There were no security guards standing near him armed with automatic weapons. He was all alone and vulnerable. Instantly the audience rose to its feet and gave him a standing ovation that lasted about ten minutes, and which seemed very heartfelt. I do not think any of this was scripted or planned. I think the audience accepted him as if he were an elderly relative. Castro himself looked very healthy and well-dressed, hardly the image we have of him. He spoke clearly and eloquently about the importance of the arts to a nation's independence, and then left to take his seat in the audience. It shattered every view I had of a savage, aging tyrant, isolated from his own his people.
So, what is Castro, I wondered? He is a dictator, that is clear from everything I saw and heard. No one is allowed to criticize Castro or to try to remove him. But is this perhaps a different kind of dictator? Does he care about the general health and well-being of his country? Nobody knows what will happen to Cuba after Castro, whether the state machinery will survive him, and a new dictator without the conscience of the Revolution will take over; or whether, perhaps, Cubans will make an attempt at the uncertainties of democratic government. Cuban history is the record of long periods of calm and stagnation followed by brief moments of immense change. It happened when the British opened the port of Havana, when Marti's forces won independence from Spain, and when Fidel managed the Revolution. After forty-five years of Castro's Revolution, what is next?
The following is a discussion of some of the locations where I did the paintings, and more information about them: In the nineteenth century hundreds of thousands of Chinese were brought into the country. Cheap labor has always been a problem for Cuba. The Spaniards swiftly destroyed the local Indian population and had to replace them with slaves from Africa. When that was outlawed, the owners brought in laborers from China. There is still a large Chinese population in Cuba, and there is even a Chinatown, which I depict in the painting, "Barrio Chino." In this district, as in other parts of town, old cars from the fifties are used as the main source of transportation. A man called a "buquenque" stands nearby and calls out the destination of each car, so that passengers can catch a ride.
Some distance out of town is a nature preserve called Las Terrazas. In one part of the preserve are communal workers' housing and a tourist center. The painting "Encuentro" depicts the road to this settlement, which passes by a reservoir and a tropical landscape. Another painting, called "Las Terrazas," shows the unspoiled countryside with a lake in the foreground.Back in Havana, the center of town is occupied by the old capitol building and the state theater. Across the way is the central park, and between them is the main boulevard, as is shown in my painting "Capitolio." The street behind the capitol, in common with other back streets, has very few cars. The painting "Fabrica Upmann" shows how this street is turned into a sort of mall. But it is not a street dedicated to buying or selling, as it would be in other Latin countries. Here there were just crowds of people, either socializing or on their way to someplace.
"La Bahia de la Habana" is the name for the old harbor. This is where so many events of Cuban history took place, and its importance is emphasized by the several forts still in existence around its periphery. There is a quiet and calm about the harbor now, even though we know it as the location of the sinking of the "Maine," and the beginning of the Spanish-American war.
Havana has a district that many years ago was an equivalent of Fifth Avenue. It is called the Prado, but its former glory is completely faded now. Elegant old townhouses are falling down along its streets. I saw this district several times, but riding past it at daybreak one day was the most memorable. My painting, "Amanecer" shows this scene in the very early morning light, signifying the hope of a new day among the ruins.
The only buildings to escape the ravages of time are the government and cultural buildings. The Museo National de Bellas Artes is one of them, and it has been beautifully and lovingly restored. There were very few patrons there to experience it on the day that I sketched for the painting, "Conversacion." It shows what I imagine the Cuba of the past was like, with its Spanish heritage and its tropical mystery.
I had permission from the Treasury Department to go to Cuba on a kind of cultural exchange, and I intended to use the time to do as many plein air paintings as I could, even though I only had five days. My impressions were quick and sketchy; it is hard to say how much they might have changed with more time spent there. Although I do not know a lot about Cuba, it has always formed a part of my imagination. My youth spent in Florida was filled with stories told by people who had visited it as tourists before the Revolution and by refugees after the Revolution who remembered it as their lost homeland. I always had a very vivid image of the island in my mind. My short visit there both confirmed, and contradicted that vision. Now, in my mind there are two Cubas-the Cuba imagined or remembered from stories, versus the Cuba seen and experienced. The tension between the two, finally, forms a theme for this series of paintings.