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
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
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
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.