Will Americans “ruin” Havana?
Ten minutes after I’ve entered Havana’s Almacenes de San José, an indoor marketplace on the southern end of Old Havana offering kitschy souvenirs and erotic art, my expression has hardened. A dozen women, seated on stools, shout “hola!” from every direction, hoping to draw my attention to one of their many wares: Che Guevara ashtrays, wooden ocarinas, Havana Club T-shirts, leather engravings of Hatuey, the Taíno chief who was burned at the stake for resisting the Spanish.
I stop and look at a miniature sculpture of Hatuey. Even though he’s roughly nine inches tall in this rendition, he is heroically muscular, with proud, high cheekbones and defiant eyes. This is a familiar, orientalist interpretation of Native Americans, one that perpetuates the myth of the “noble savage.” Or—given the physicality of their real lives—maybe the Taínos were truly ripped.
Hatuey is considered Cuba’s first martyr. After being driven away from his native Hispaniola (today’s Dominican Republic and Haiti), he beat the Spaniards to Cuba, where he attempted in vain to warn the locals about their fate. Instead he was driven to the hills, captured, and set on fire. With the flames at his feet, Hatuey was asked to convert to Christianity in order to reach heaven, to which he responded, “If heaven is where Christians go, then I would rather go to hell.”
While all countries have their share of drama, Cuba feels especially tragic. With its abundant charm and natural beauty, the country has historically been on the brink of greatness. And then abandoned, like a jilted lover.
These days Americans are in love with Cuba—again. To tell by the recent onslaught of press, this poses a particular problem, not least of all for the Cuban people, who seem to welcome the limelight. The real problem—judging from the American press—are Americans themselves.
Being one, I decided to go to Cuba and see what trouble we might cause. I didn’t say that at customs. The suggestions made by blogs and luxury travel magazines I read in the weeks leading up to my trip all stressed one point: Americans were going to ruin Cuba.
This idea of “ruining,” or really, “changing” Cuba, felt condescending and arrogant, erasing the Cuban people from their own narrative. Since the founding of the United States, when Thomas Jefferson’s “candidly confessed[ed]” his desire to colonize the island nation to the moment when Americans “celebrated” Cuba’s independence from Spain—and then proceeded to exploit the country’s natural wealth for half a century—we’ve treated Cubans as minor players in their own story.
I know there is no “understanding” Cuba. There is no understanding most places, but Cuba is especially intimidating. Wherever my mind went in search of an answer to one of the country’s many challenges, I was smacked down by bureaucracies, mythologies, and the perpetual realization that I had been raised with the privilege of exercising agency in my own life. In Cuba, agency—voice, spirit, self-expression—is, to put it diplomatically, enigmatic.
I stopped trying. What can be understood, to some degree, are its people, an unbelievably warm, understandably desperate tribe. In the ominous calm of Centro Habana, where there are few streetlights but countless idlers, resignation hangs in the air.
In public, the Cuban people I met would make strange, coded remarks about their society. “You like Cuba?” asked Ramiro, a capricious, handsome former medical student handing out flyers for a paladar, or private restaurant, in Old Havana.
“Si, me gusta. The people have been friendly. Music everywhere,” I responded naively. I wanted to say more complicated things, but, limited by my elementary Spanish and an awareness of certain conversational restrictions, I couldn’t.
Instead of patronizing me, he replied, “Yeah, lots of music, very happy outside. Pero inside, at home, maybe it’s very different. But I don’t know. You watch movies? I love American movies.” The conversation pleasantly flowed to the state of independent cinema, George Clooney’s humanitarian efforts in Africa, how to properly cook pasta al dente.
Whenever I spoke with a Cuban, I was less surprised by their voracious curiosity for the outside world—information being a rare commodity here—than I was by their intuition and generosity of the mind. Two men, previously furiously working on a car, stopped to engage me for nearly half an hour on the dietary habits of South Asians. “They are smart to avoid eating cows and pigs,” one said, presumably lumping Hindus and Muslims together. “For us the former is a luxury, and the latter has become so constant, it feels like a punishment.”
Despite the frequency of such conversations, I knew neither it nor my own eyes were going to be valuable in a country where moderate paranoia is the norm. With my camera, I tried merely to document a moment in time, and then, perhaps later, to reflect on its meaning. For the casual photographer, Havana is an embarrassment of riches: candy-colored Chevys, the impressionistic dilapidation, and the rumba of daily life. But in each photo, however banal, I carried the words of John Berger: “the degree to which I believe this is worth looking at can be judged by all that I am willingly not showing because it is contained within it.”
And so when Americans go to Cuba, the prevailing concern should be, What are we not seeing? I was hesitant to reach political conclusions not for fear, but for the realization that most of what I did see was practically authorized by the government. Tourism has replaced sugar as one of the Revolution’s most lucrative sources of income, and as such is sanctified. The existence of two currencies—one used locally and another, more valuable one for foreigners—serves as a fitting metaphor in some regards for the parallel universe that exists: one an escapist fantasy, the other a far more complicated and dangerous reality.
Shona Sanzgiri is a writer and photographer based in California. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in ADULT, GQ, Vice, and Interview Magazine. His photography can be seen at Proof of Experience.