A Look at Cuba Photographs and some thoughts by Bruce Edwards

I intend no pretense here. My words are meanderings, a glance, as was my path through Cuba. I was a photojournalist for 30 years. The photographs should be regarded as the product of a journalist but what you read is more a reflection of some reading, some conversation and much observation over a week's visit to a limited region of Cuba, that being the city of Matanzas, trips to Havana and time spent in the Santa Cruz del Norte coastal area.--Edwards

I didn't know what to think about Cuba. As Americans, how could we? Would there be hostility for ignoring and neglecting them for nearly six decades? Would they be defensive as a means of protecting themselves from whatever idea they may have of their looming neighbors to the north? Having just returned home, I get the sense that America's feelings toward Cuba is a concern for them not out of any sort of fear but rather the desire we all have of just wanting to be liked.

If you've seen more than a few photographs of Cuba you've likely seen 1950s-era American cars adorning the streets. These are not just a few show pieces. These cars are in abundance in the cities and along country roads and villages. Few of these cars have the vintage motor, the original being swapped out for a diesel engine to take advantage of cheaper diesel fuel. Here, a Chevy rolls down the streets of Matanzas, Cuba.
Dominoes continues to be a national past time in Cuba. The games can appear to be intense, having more of an atmosphere of poker than a casual matching game with pieces slapped to the table with purpose. Walking along the streets in the cities and villages you might hear, as I have, the sounds of domino games from the open windows of apartments above. In the photos top and at right, multiple tables of players and observers are in action in Parque La Marina in Matanzas. At left, a group of young men in their teens or early twenties balance a table on their knees along Calle 75 in Matanzas and sip on bottles of beer kept at their at their feet as they play..

Cuba has been a tough one. We haven’t played well since Fidel and his cronies swept in during the revolution in 1959. And then there’s the Bay of Pigs invasion that didn’t go well for America. I love our country and democracy and wouldn’t live anywhere else. But that’s not the way it went in Cuba. It’s not the way it has gone in a lot of countries around the world. Protecting human rights is essential but if we shun countries because of contrasting ideologies, our lives will be more isolated, and we will miss out on so many benefits of interacting with other cultures and people that add diversity and contribute to our world.

A vendor on a bicycle cart slowly plies the streets of Matanzas. Individual goods are sold in this fashion with the vendors calling out their presence as they make their way through the streets.

My wife and I visited Cuba the first week of 2017. We are both educators, my transition to teaching was after 30 years as a photojournalist. We spent a week in a hotel setting where the staff was expected to be hospitable, but we found the Cuban people to be genuinely warm and gracious. This feeling extended beyond the walls of the hotel. The Cubans have been hosting international visitors for many years with tourism now being one of Cuba’s leading industries. Cuba isn't resisting the new American invasion, tourism. The Cuban government seems to be welcoming all visitors, tourism being a part of their plan to rebuild and re-energize both their economy and their image to the world.

Above, Cuban facades and doorways such as these in Matanzas are painted in colors common in hispanic countries. Below, a 1950s-era American car in Matanzas is still a part of the culture despite having seen better days.

Immersing oneself in a culture, even to the limited degree we did, is an effective way of lowering barriers. We didn’t go to Cuba with any preconceptions of the people. Any walls that exist between American visitors and the Cuban people seem to be shorter from the Cuban side. Whenever I’d venture to extend a plea to take a photo with stumbling Spanish, “Me permitte sacar una foto?” (one line in Spanish I learned from the internet and practiced on the flight) the reply would almost always be “yes” regardless of their humble setting. My Cuban photographic subjects were generally curious about where I lived. My reply would bring a surprised smile to their face and they would attempt an enthusiastic dialogue in Spanish I was unable to continue.

Matanzas is known as the Athens of Cuba for its poets and culture and is also famous as the City of Bridges for the 21 bridges spanning the waterways off the Bay of Matanzas. The colonial architecture of Cuba would have been spectacular in its heyday.

A week’s visit to Cuba has left me with the feeling that President Obama’s initiative to open relations with the country is the right one. The Cuban people have suffered long and deeply if my observation of their housing conditions and transportation needs among others is accurate. They have suffered from American sanctions, from the withdrawal of the Russians in the '90s and from their own form of government. They have suffered for generations and will suffer for generations to come. The Cuban people are another example of how an innocent people suffer from the decisions of a few.

The streets of Matanzas are busy with bicycles, pedestrians and motored vehicles as well as onlookers. The prominent display of the Cuban flag is a reflection of a strong sense of nationalism.

Can you go? Should you go? Yes, with the understanding that the U.S. government requires you to make a statement of your reason for travel and that you must qualify from a list of 12 possible categories of travel under a general license.

Here’s verbage from the Treasury department pertaining to who can go to Cuba--

Travel-related transactions are permitted by general license for certain travel related to the following activities, subject to the criteria and conditions in each general license: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and certain authorized export transactions.

Top--Propped with an unlit cigar, an elderly man accepts tips from tourists in Havana if they are offered. Bottom left, a neighborhood cafe looks as much like an Italian or Spanish village as it does Havana. Bottom right, there's no shortage of postcards bearing images of Che Guevara or Fidel Castro.

There are many flights from airlines in America going to Cuba on a daily basis. That’s a lot of Americans going to Cuba every day. For many, their stated reason for going is for educational purposes or professional research. But be aware, you must have a reason for travel as mandated by American law. Be prepared to show evidence proving your time in Cuba was spent fulfilling that purpose for five years after your trip. That’s the hard line. In reality, the Cubans will not stamp your passport and there can be little evidence you ever made the trip to Cuba.

I enountered a high frequency of young ladies celebrating their quinceanera, a coming of age event when girls observe their fifteenth birthday. Above, a local girl is primped for photographs to commemorate the occasion in a hilltop park in Matanzas..
A high-fashion look is captured for a quinceanera photo collection in a doorway in Havana.

What will you need to visit Cuba? Three things--you’ll need to state your reason for travel, you’ll need a visa (also known as a travel card). Ours was provided on our flight from the airline) and, thirdly, the Cuban government officially requires you to have medical insurance (purchased in Cuba) in the event you need medical care while in-country or in the event you need medical evacuation back to the United States. Their insurance is a bargain at about $3 per day. We were never asked to show proof of the medical insurance nor did we see evidence of the office in the airport where we anticipated buying the insurance.

Above--I saw this lady sweeping up piles of construction debris along the street in front of her home in Havana. Upon asking her permission to photograph her, she smiled and hurried to unlock a door revealing a makeshift shrine to Fidel Castro. "Fidel es mi padre," she exclaimed. I told the story to a taxi driver who assured me that Fidel is padre to many Cubans. Below left--A Sunday afternoon procession of aging military men and trucks bearing Cuban flags carrying youth and led by police escort is met with cheers from citizens along its path in Havana. Flags bearing "26 Julio" or July 26 echo the date of the revolution. Below right--The architecture in colonial Havana rivals European capitals.
The bus station in Matanzas finds the hustle of Cubans amidst the smell of diesel exhaust in the air. Transportation seems to be one of the country's greatest problems with the population having limited ability to travel to work or from city to city. Crossroads along country road find gatherings of Cubans hitch hiking to and from work. One of my taxi drivers revealed that hitch hiking is Cuba's second national sport. "Everyone practices it," he says.
For many, making a living in Matanzas is the result of practices rarely seen in the United States. Above, a man pushes a makeshift cart loaded with freshly baked loaves of bread through a lower income neighborhood. Left, shoe repair is done on a board balanced on his lap serving as a workbench as he repairs an athletic shoe. Below right, a man sells cards loaded with telephone credit minutes out of his doorway.
An early 1950s Chevrolet is both personal transportation and a business for a man in Matanzas.
A 1955 Dodge has become a taxi for a Matanzas resident. The owner is a mechanic and has added air conditioning and replaced the motor with a diesel engine to take advantage of cheaper diesel fuel

Cuba is a beautiful country. The people were extremely cordial in our experience and a trip there will broaden your life experience and bring down some barriers between our countries. Yes, I recommend you go to Cuba.

The cell phone and other handheld devices have come to Cuba. Children can be seen playing games on these devices in the city squares.
Above and below--Traffic moves quickly through the streets and squares of Matanzas, Cuba.
One taxi driver admits "Cuban people have many problems," he says, "but the Cuban people are happy."
Created By
Bruce Edwards

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