This is my 14th & final…for now…posting about Cuba.

The one word that I would use to describe my experience traveling in Cuba is compelling. As I hoped, the opportunities for photography were everything I expected. My plan was to immerse myself, albeit briefly, with people to gain a perspective & document their way of life. The narrow glance I observed was insightful & rewarding. Somewhat unexpectedly I opened a window to personal introspection that will resonate with me for a long time.

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The one word that I would use to describe my experience traveling in Cuba is compelling. As I hoped, the opportunities for photography were everything I expected. My plan was to immerse myself, albeit briefly, with people to gain a perspective & document their way of life. The narrow glance I observed was insightful & rewarding. Somewhat unexpectedly I opened a window to personal introspection that will resonate with me for a long time.

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My decision to avoid Havana was helpful in minimizing cliché images & experiences. The smaller cities were more open to personal interaction. With few exceptions I easily engaged people with just a smile. In conversations thru my interpreter, politics was seldom a topic. My curiosity eclipsed any preconceived ideas I had about their day-to-day lives.

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I saw typical differences between young & old, city & rural, men & women even professional vs blue collar. What surprised me was a disparity of standards of living. Communism in Cuba is far from the theory Marx had advocated. I didn’t witness anything I would describe as poverty or affluence. However, I saw a comfortable cohabitation between those with more opportunities & a more comfortable way of life than others. I also recognized a discrepancy with access to & use of technology. Most of the digital divide coincided with age.

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Cuba has the natural resources of climate, beaches & tropical waters that attract tourists. Since the mid 90’s non-US tourism has provided a significant percentage of hard currency to the economy. The Cuban government owns most hotels. There are a few International chains but uncertainty has stalled investment. I find it difficult to believe that trinkets, restaurants & service jobs to the tourist industry can provide both a long term & broad based impact on the overall economic well being of the people. This is especially true if the government continues to keep restrictive oversight on commerce.

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The topography of the Cuba is diverse. Their are 9 UNESCO sites, 8 National Parks & 7 Biosphere reserves in this nation roughly the size of PA. I only took time to briefly explore 1 Bio reserve, which was impressive. There are numerous examples or environmental programs including organic & self-sustain farming. I got the impression many of these were out of necessity rather than altruism. However, the one dominant fact is that surrounded by water, it is easy for the government to control access on & off the island.

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The majority of people I interacted with have only known life under Communism. Some challenges they face have roots that go further back than 3 generations since the revolution. The Cuban people are far from illiterate or in ill health. Education & health care have been priorities of the Castro brothers & now economic reform has become a goal of Raul. Change is happening. However, over the past 5-10 years the pace is faster than it has been the precious 4 decades.

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For many Cubans on meager pensions & low paying government jobs their lives are Spartan. Food is rationed at Bodegas at subsidized prices with proportions determined by age & gender. I visited Orlando Zayas, my guides’ grandfather, in his 400 sq foot apartment. The space fronts a busy street & he rents a few square feet to enterprising merchants. He is content & fortunate that family lives close & visit frequently. He enjoys watching baseball & complained that boxers today were nowhere near as good as Joe Louis or Kid Chocolate. Talking about his life he said, “Communism does not work”.

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My primary goal was to photograph individuals & document their lifestyles. Generalizations can be dangerous but I can confidently say I was warmly greeted buy a population that is easygoing, resilient & enjoys life. Lacking commodities we take for granted Cubans make the best out of the situation they are in…even if they have to bend a few rules. Daily life is simpler & slower. Personal interaction is routine. No doubt there are problems but the people I met were upbeat. When I asked what made people so happy I was told, “We laugh at our problems so we have lots to laugh about”.

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I believe an individual’s work ethic is a reflection on their character. I saw many examples of confidence, problem solving, & a resourcefulness to work with what they have without complaining. Although the tempo of work isn’t equivalent to our expectations, Cubans have few distractions & a persistence to get the job done. They are proud of the work they do with their hands & find happiness in their accomplishments not their possessions. I have deep respect for what Cubans have archived with only the basic resources.

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The elements of culture are common. Art, music, literature, religion, food, architecture & fashion are things I observe when I travel. The details of these expressions make people & places unique. I have had very little exposure to Latin American. The rich culture of Cuba was a wonderful new vista. I observed a flair for painting that was cultivated after the revolution when national schools of art were created. In contrast to the many examples of architectural decay, the diverse art was a peak into the bright light of the soul of the people. In a society with few outlets for expression I sensed a passion in their demeanor for artistic freedom.

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Children give us examples of how we can enjoy life & accomplish more when we cooperate with each other. When I observed children I thought about my friend Mark Zinnoni. His mother fled Cuba’s oppression & he wasn’t happy I was going there because he felt it diminished the possibility of freeing Cubans from oppressive Communist rule. I respected his opinion & looked forward to sharing what I saw & experienced when I returned. Unfortunately he passed away before I departed. I like to think he would have enjoyed my perspective of the Cuban people. Amid the hardships there is a joy for life & hope for the future…emotion & optimism that were part of Mark’s character.

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Like most people when I read or hear about a place it is impossible have a deep understanding. Our perspectives, no matter how broad, lack the important element of a personal connection. Although many individuals I only met briefly, they will be a touchstone to my understanding of our neighbors. During my trip I was formed a deeper relationship with my guide Lidear. On my last night there he invited me to his “humble home with his family for a simple dinner.” For me it was an honor & a wonderful epilogue to my trip. As hurricane Irma was striking Cuba it was him and his family that were in my thoughts. I wish nothing but the best for him, his family & the people of Cuba whom I now know just a little bit better. I hope that my blog postings have opened the curtain just a bit to allow you to see the Humans of Cuba.

I would greatly appreciate any feedback or comments on this or any of my postings about Cuba.

The content of these postings are based upon my observations, conversations with my guide, interviews with people interpreted by my guide & interactions I had with people I met. Any mistakes are entirely mine with no intention to mislead.

Motivated by Curiosity, Understanding & a Friend

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The previous post about my Cuba Photo Essay explained my shallow knowledge of this nation. In this post I explain how curiosity blended with extraneous experiences, including becoming friends with Mark Zannoni, evolved into a motivation to explore & understand a culture, which is rich in character.

Snippets I read about Cuba revolved around Spain, galleons & the slave trade. It was a cursory foundation of historical knowledge. Their path of independence seemed irrelevant. Roosevelt’s involvement in the Spanish American War veered my attention towards US involvement in other parts of the world.

Growing up in the 60’s I knew Cuba was a communist country & Fidel Castro lead the revolution. With a teenager’s perspective, I knew Cubans risked prison, torture or even death. Freedoms of speech, like those protesting in the US, were not allowed in their country. Because of where I was born, my life was much freer. I couldn’t grasp life under communist rule but yet I was curious about the lives of people on this tropical island.

I had empathy for anybody risking their lives on overcrowded boats to escape tyranny & admired the courage to liberate their lives. Leaving family, homeland & your culture is a hard decision. To risk death is an entirely higher level of determination.

In 1986 I peaked behind the Iron Curtain in Moscow during the Goodwill Games. In many ways my eyes were opened. I learned “Evil Empire” didn’t apply to everyday people. I could tell from the demeanor, posture & expressions of Soviets they had little joy in their lives. I questioned if I had the durability to survive in their society. I recognized that even with hardships in the Soviet Union, it was their home & had been for generations. I wondered if tenacity fueled a pride in their culture & heritage.

After the Berlin Wall came down Communism in Europe was collapsing. Cuba depended on the USSR for 30 years & totalitarian control in Cuba was sure to fall like other Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. But that didn’t happen. Why? From my time in Moscow I knew people living under Communism needed strength. This tenacity must also be part of Cuban society. Had hardships evolved into a determination for survival?

Compassion is one thing but I still lacked understanding.

From the perspective of a Freelancer I appreciated opportunities Cubans couldn’t even dream about. My career allowed me chances to work in a medium built on the foundation of Free-Speech, I worked Independently with clients, & truth be told…cameras & TV equipment are fun tools to make a living with & I enjoyed my trade.

In the 90’s I became friends with Mark Zannoni, a fellow freelancer transplanted from Chicago to Southern Florida. I remember him translating at a restaurant in FTL. Since I’m ignorant in any language except English, I was curious how a kid from Chicago named Zannoni knew Spanish.   He told me his mom escaped from Cuba & he learned it from her. I now had a connection to Cuba.

Over the years I picked up bits of information from him. As with many of Mark’s opinions, he was adamant about complete change of government in his mother’s native land. When he told me an Uncle was part of the Bay of Pigs Invasion I began to understand his emotions. It was personal to him. A perspective I lacked but respected.

In 2008, when Fidel handed over power to his brother Raul I asked Z if he would consider visiting Cuba. As I mentioned, he was adamant…”No! Raul is even more vicious than his brother.” They both must go before he would ever visit his mother’s place of birth. The reality of government oppression was close to him & many others. The community of expat Cubans was a generational stew of emotions.

So all of these things were percolating in my mind. As I approached retirement I wanted to reward myself with a trip. I also knew I wanted to rekindle my enthusiasm for photography. The drastically different way of life in Cuba along with the US’s evolving relationship was the chance to do both.

I want to see & experience to better understand the culture of the people in Cuba.

Just before retirement at Super Bowl 50 I was playing dominoes with Mark. He is the kind of friend you can have a good disagreement with & remain close. I explained my plan of a Photo Essay. His questions revolved around “Your just one person. You can’t change things.” My response was “I want to experience the people & the culture”. He felt I was supporting the Castro’s but was interested in learning about my trip. I don’t know if our conversation distracted him but I won 5 games of dominoes to his none.

In October of last year, at 49 years of age Mark Zannoni passed away. I miss him & grieve for his family & many friends. I’m sure that throughout my trip he will be in my thoughts. Z’s spirit for life motivates me to capture the soul of the Cuban people.