Is the writing on the wall for Cuba?
On Avenida 54 in the heart of Cienfuegos, a fiery-looking Che Guevara looks down from a huge hoarding at a bronze statue of velvet-voiced singer and local legend Benny Moré. It’s a peculiarly Cuban juxtaposition: the bearded foreign hero of the revolution and the dapper gent in a Panama hat, who stands for all the home-grown style and exportable glamour of Cuba before Castro.
There is little else to clutter the view. No advertisements. No highrises. No malls, no “donut” joints, no flagship stores, no chain coffee shops. There are hardly any cars either – and the few I do see are either Seventies Ladas (for Che-minded drivers) or vintage Buicks and Oldsmobiles (ideal for Benny). Cienfuegos is a beautiful, Unesco-listed city, very much on the island’s main tourist circuit – yet I can’t see any major hotels, tour groups or air-conditioned coaches
You have to wonder how long this ordinary corner of provincial Cuba will survive. Since December 17 2014, when Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced that they would restore diplomatic ties, the island has seen a huge influx of American visitors. While ordinary tourists are, in theory, still banned, they can visit under the guise of 12 different “educational programmes”, approved in January.
Many in the American travel trade expect the regulations will soon be relaxed to allow beach holidays. American, Delta and United have all expressed an interest in operating flights to Cuba and, since early July, Jet Blue has operated a weekly charter from New York’s JFK to Havana – the first major airline to do so since restrictions were lifted. Last week, the massive Carnival cruise company announced that it would operate cruises to the island from May 2016 – the first time American cruise ships will have moored in Cuba since the Sixties.
All of which makes now a fascinating time to visit. Are we on the cusp of a cultural revolution? What will Americans make of this muchmythologised, much-maligned nation 90 miles off the Florida coast? And
As US tourists descend in droves, Chris Moss savours the art of the communist Caribbean before another revolution takes hold
will an American invasion change everyone’s experience of the island, including European visitors?
There are many ways into Cuba – food, music, cigars, rum. I chose art, because I suspected it would take me beyond the official narratives and iconography and into the lives of ordinary Cubans. In Havana, my route to local artists was art critic and curator Sussette Martínez Montero, who has played a prominent role in the city’s famous biennales and seems to know everyone in the contemporary scene.
On a drive around the suburbs – in a red 1954 Chevy (because some clichés are better than others) – she helped me to decode the official monuments, political slogans and street art. We took in the memorial to José Martí – national hero and symbol of Cuba’s liberation from Spain – and the huge Che Guevera face on the Plaza de la Revolución. We saw an official graffiti protesting against the US blockade – “The longest genocide in history” – and, less angrily, the Art Deco figurines on the old Bacardi building.
We parked in a poor district being gentrified with art thanks to a project led by artist Alexis Leiva Machado, better known as Kcho (pronounced “Cacho”). His work was on display in a smart new space called the Laboratorio para el Arte.
Large installations made from boats, breeze-blocks, oars, cork, landing nets and all manner of flotsam explored the theme of emigration as experienced by so many Cubans. “He used to be considered polemical,” said Sussette, “but he is now very much a state-sponsored artist. I think the government adopted him because it was easier to do that than take him on. He’s a sort of safety valve. In return, Kcho now likes to say that he was ‘always inspired by Fidel’.”
Not everyone is as diplomatic as Sussette. At his smart, modern apartment in the leafy neighbourhood of Miramar, 31-year-old artist Reynier Leyva Novo showed me a drawing of Kcho erupting from Fidel’s backside.
“I’m not a fan,” he said, grinning. “I think art is a way of life, not a job.”
Novo was kicked out of the statesponsored Instituto Superior de Arte, and continues to rebel against what he regards as the “stale, academic” establishment. He belongs to a
A classic red Chevy, above; and a poster of Chávez, Castro and Mandela with the slogan, ‘The fatherland that grows’, right