The Painters

    When I first traveled to Cuba, I thought, like many people I suppose, that every building on the island was losing its battle with gravity, that all of the motor vehicles on the streets had been abandoned by US citizens fleeing the 1959 revolution, and that every Cuban spent much of each day searching for enough to eat.

    Those things are partially true, of course. Especially during the so-called “Special Period” after the Soviet Union dissolved and was no longer Cuba's economic patron, food shortages, nightly rolling electrical blackouts, and the lack of other basic necessities were common. Rationing remains a fact of life for many Cubans today. The island is full of vintage Chevrolets, Fords, DeSotos and other Detroit iron left behind in the exodus depicted at the end of one of my favorite movies, Havana, starring Robert Redford and Lina Olin. But I think that there are far too many for all of them to have been left behind in the exodus, and they are accompanied by a large number of Ladas and Moskviches that the Soviets left behind. And while building collapses due to lack of maintenance have been common in Havana for several decades (the latest one killed four people just two days before I wrote this) many, especially in Habana Vieja, have been restored to their former colonial glory and state of safety.

    I now know that Cuba is a much more nuanced and complex place. I would like to think that the hundreds of thousands of tourists who are flocking to the place right now understand this as well, but I doubt it to be so. Most have only a few hours ashore from their cruise ships to take a walking tour through the touristy part of the city, then queue up for a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio where Ernest Hemingway drank one day.

    But even though these tourists get a view of Cuba too superficial to permit them to understand the place well, they are adding value in one way: by spending money on those mojitos, Che berets, and other tourist offerings. Some of that money is allowing the reconstruction of Havana to slowly make its way out of Havana Vieja and into other parts of the city. This photograph is evidence of that revitalization.

    We spent a morning on my most recent trip walking through the Centro Habana area, interacting with and photographing la vida de la calle, or life on the streets: ordinary Habaneros going about their business, the cacophony of poorly-mufflered vehicles, the smell emanating from shops selling ham sandwiches, sensations that the tourists down in Habana Vieja cannot experience.

    As the sun rose higher and the morning grew warmer, we turned north out of Centro toward the malecon, taking refuge under the portico of an office building. From that shady perspective we watched two painters slowly lowering themselves down the side of a building, applying a tropical shade of green to the wall as they descended. A few years ago this activity in this part of the city would not have been seen, so maybe all of those cruise ships do have some redeeming virtues.