Cuba, by Andrew Moore (2012)

Road-Tripping the Revolution

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Since I was a child I can remember the touristic slogan “Get to know Cuba first, travel abroad later,” although it has never been my thing to trek through my own country. I know people of all ages who’ve barely left the capital.   We habaneros have our own saying: “Cuba is Havana and the rest are green fields.”  Apart from Havana and those residents of the “green fields,” another fifth of the population resides beyond the borders. Under these conditions, we Cubans are always living elsewhere– and yet whether residing in the city, the country, or in exile, we are, like the snail, wanderers who at the same moment are immobilized.

My childhood was poor and happy in the Sovietized Cuba of the 1970s. My first cameras were always Made in USSR: ultra-heavy machines that didn’t cost much in Cuban pesos in the state stores.   When I was barely 10 years old, in 1980 —during the mass exodus of 125, 000 Cubans to the USA through the Mariel port (I lost dear classmates as well as my ideal girlfriend),– I was supposed to travel to Santiago de Cuba to take photographs of an older cousin’s wedding. While I was able to capture well its most “significant” moments, the fact that I had so few rolls of film (black and white Orwo: Made in GDR) prevented me from taking even a single shot en route to the wedding. Each leg of the journey consisted of more than 24 torturous hours of Cuban landscape, and it’s likely that I inherited my resistance to taking pictures of the Cuban countryside, my green-phobia, from this experience.

During the decadent 1990s, in the depths of the crisis that almost destroyed our social system, I often dreamt of charting Cuba from tip to tip, a pixel to pixel map of the archipelago. In some way, I think of myself as having been the never recognized inventor of Google Earth that was first used to create a road movie of the on-going Revolution.  As I conjured up this exhaustive but intimate atlas, which was also a collage of my emotional memories, the accompanying film had to be slowed down on account of the overwhelming details. But even then some parts of it were rendered invisible on account of the tourists’ relentless flashes. It was a Cuba that cried out to be rescued from the indolence that demolished its art-deco architecture (through the art of deconstruction). An island afloat in the ruins of its colonial splendor, adrift in the nostalgia of its republican fantasies, drowning in the retro rhetoric of an authoritarian pragmatism, all set to the tempo of Revolution.

By the 2000’s, my dreaming about capturing the total Cuba has become as paradisiacal as it is nightmarish. My imagined film goes beyond being a simple puzzle in past perfect in order to embody our precarious but paradoxically perpetual present. The 21st Cuban century is one of Cubanesque, Cubartoonesque shadows.  All epics were left behind, even before I was born back in 1971. Today we inhabit the Parnassus of a proletariat without class commitments. The desert that formed out of the end of utopia threatens to turn into Apocubalipsis: Hiroshimabana, mon amour. Because of this, I sense that only a silent film (still embracing our exorbitant national colors) would have music capable of expressing the soul of an inconceivable Cuba, already on the point of a catharis.  At this point, I wake up startled and with a dry throat, anguished by the silence that emanates from so many images, astonished by this quiet after decades and decades of the grandiloquent speeches of our leaders.

These days, in my waking practice, I am indeed a very promiscuous photographer. I portray my city whether or not I’m inspired, whether or not I’ve dreamt about it, or whether or not I am bored by the subject: that is, I take the pictures of things that others request of me. Then I publish everything immediately on my site Boring Home Utopics, without hierarchizing the artistic or merely documentary quality of the images, floating out photographs that I generally don’t print.  That virtual diary–between discipline and delirium–is the context for the biography that almost without even wanting to I inhabit in solitude: my friends far away, my forgotten loves, my dead father.

Nevertheless, now I know that the day of awakening is imminent and that it will be more collective than individual. Esthetic epiphany, ethical apotheosis. The testimony of a 1001 transitions will accelerate the lights and shadows of my country. The masses will stop being amorphous in this era of “we,” which without the forced collective voice of a Soviet brand, will be a “we” with individual faces.  No shutter speed will be fast enough to capture the mare magnum of simultaneous events happening in Cuba, nor any camera’s aperture be able to miraculously focus this deluge of chaos and meanings into that which is called future.

Then the desert sands of a Guantánamo of lime and salt will get mixed up with the aromatic sands of the tobacco plantations in Pinar del Rio, and both, at the same time, with the first world sands of Varadero beach. Then the stale olive-green of the uniforms will inhale the new breath of the mountains, its reptiles, its birds.  The red of the industrial nickel will be indistinguishable from the tiles forged throughout the past century and millennium.  The absolute blue of the Cuban skies will not have borders with the claustrophobic line of the sea, where the rivers resign themselves to die. The kind yellow of the zenith sun will cure the sad yellow of the sick.  The ochre of the abandoned facades will tattoo the naked skin of newborns and will always be the sensational sepia of our dusks. The endless black of the insular night will shine on the mestizo gaze of the citizens, and only then will the silent “H” in Habana, as if through the art of magic, stop being a mute star and explode into stellar island.

It will then be impossible to dream behind closed doors (homes will be like prisons for creation). One will have to travel on foot the long and narrow geography of a half-asleep caiman from the Caribbean. The slogan “Get to know Cuba first, travel abroad later” will stop sounding so false and Havana will be founded on the same fragile and eternal shell of a snail where city, country and exile will become One, like at the beginning of the Universe.

American photographer Andrew Moore began photographing in Cuba in 1998, and over the next fourteen years he made ten further visits, working to reveal the many facets of the island’s unique character and life. In 2002, he published some of this work in Inside Havana, which is now out of print. This new edition includes many of Moore’s older classic images but reconceives its predecessor with a new layout and finer, larger reproductions. 

Cuba also features many older photographs never previously published, as well as new photographs made specifically for this edition. The afterword was especially commissioned for this edition from Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, one of Cuba’s leading independent bloggers.

Working with a large format camera, Moore insightfully records the shifting fortunes of Cuba, in superb photographs full of painterly light and dynamic color. His images span a tremendous variety of subjects, ranging from humble interiors to magnificent modernism, as well as portraits and landscapes. One theme introduced in this revised version is the contrast between the frayed patinas of Cuban homes and the great, unspoiled beauty of the island’s nature. Cuba is a stirring portrait of a country isolated from the globalized world, overflowing with its own remarkable riches.

The photographs of Andrew Moore (born 1957) are represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Library of Congress, the Israel Museum, the George Eastman House and the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

In These Times, Febrero 2021

Cuban Dissidents Log On

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

In a neighborhood of Old Havana, whose name I do not care to remember, a blogger lived for some time. After years of exclusion, defamation and violent, arbitrary arrests, he escaped from the Island of Utopia to the citadel of capitalism on March 5, 2013.

It was me, one of the founders of Cuban digital dissidence. A text-based (more than an action-based) movement, we were freelance journalists who hoped to democratize the ancien revolution, that living fossil from the Cold War.

I wrote in the December 2009 special In These Times issue, “Inside Cuba, Voices from the Island”: Though their work generates controversies and awards worldwide, Cuban bloggers are largely unknown here. With Internet access in Cuba restricted to the very few, the nation’s bloggers function as a kind of guerrilla underground. They work as independent agents whose existence heralds a civic re-activation that will modulate the Revolution’s Realpolitik—or is that Raúlpolitik?

In just the past two years, when least expected, that 2009 assessment has become obsolete: Cubans are now allowed to pay in hard currency for slow (and closely monitored) internet access. But that access was enough for younger generations to speak up, challenging the guardians of the old orthodoxy, aware that the world is now their witness in real time.

An action-based (more than a text-based) collective then began to organize in a neighborhood of Old Havana, the name of which I do want to recall: San Isidro. Despite the attacks of the official press (owned by the Communist Party) and the recent accusations that they are “mercenaries” of Donald Trump promoting a sort of “soft coup,” the group Movimiento San Isidro (MSI) has expanded its cultural influence to beyond just the eight members listed on its website to promote freedom of expression in Cuba, among other things.

Of course, these activists will not topple Castro’s military model. No American citizen, regardless of their personal views on U.S.-Cuba policy, should imagine that MSI intellectuals will do (with a couple of mobile phone recharges from abroad) what Pentagon hawks couldn’t (with billions of dollars).

But in 2020, in response to the Cuban government’s authoritarian approach to Covid-19, many Cubans joined MSI’s provocative campaigns. The campaigns were aimed at the heart of Cuba’s drama, which is not the affairs of its northern neighbor but the frustration with a fundamentally conservative single-party regime.

Susan Sontag once dismissed Communism as “Fascism with a human face.” In 2009, like a Don Quixote who dreamed the Plaza de la Revolución was his windmill, I wrote: The State has not yet passed specific laws against a phenomenon as new as blogging, although the habit of accusing critical voices of being “capitalism’s use­ful idiots” or “mercenaries of enemy propaganda” can serve as a brake on free expression. … There are also legal warnings issued for “peligrosidad predelictiva,” or “dangerous inclination toward criminality” that has been used to arrest and harass, but not yet convict.

Today, the Cuban regime’s laws are being manipulated to charge the members of MSI with crimes. On November 11, the rapper Denis Solís was summarily sentenced to eight months in a maximum-security prison for “contempt.” Solís first ran afoul of the state after publishing his 2018 protest song “Sociedad Condenada” (“Condemned Society”) online. This time Solís called a policeman who had entered his house without a warrant a “chicken in uniform,” an encounter he captured on his phone and posted on social media, for which he was incarcerated.

The government’s treatment of Solís helped spur hundreds of peaceful protesters to gather outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana on Nov. 27, 2020, all day long until midnight. The campaign, calling itself 27N, came together to demand respect for independent cultural spaces, as well as to stop all censorship and coercion against Cuban citizens. A delegation of demonstrators was reluctantly received by Vice Minister Fernando Rojas, and promises were made in exchange for clearing the crowd.

The next day, however, that verbal agreement was broken on national television by Rojas himself, who ridiculed MSI and threatened to prosecute its members. The leaders of the Cuban Revolution never respond to the pressure of public opinion. Instead, they demonize dialogue as a sign of weakness. Consequently, the harassment has intensified—including the illegal confinement of MSI members in their homes, who are now detained if they attempt to step outside.

I am proud knowing that what bloggers tried 10 years ago has been taken up by MSI. But I also fear that the new generations might be forced to “commit exile,” as I was. Small “d” democrats have a moral duty to engage. Otherwise, efforts like MSI and 27N―whose desires defy despotism and whose poetry challenges power―will collapse under the repression of the Western Hemisphere’s most undemocratic government.

Intocados por el totalitarismo

A los mártires del Raúl Cepero Bonilla

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo


        La noche en invierno cae de golpe. Como un trancazo.
        Sobre todo cuando empieza diciembre y se acerca otra vez mi cumpleaños, como ahora.
        En el exilio, esa es la hora más terrible de sobrevivir.
        Una hora frontera entre la luz que ciega y las sombras que iluminan. Es la hora en que en Cuba yo regresaba de la escuela.
        Del Pre. Así a secas.
        El Pre, una sílaba que no necesita tanta explicación.
        Los cubanos saben.
        Caía la noche temprano y sólo nuestros uniformes vírgenes brillaban.
        Éramos como extraterrestres, cubanos caídos de otra galaxia.
        Todo el resto del mundo metido de cabeza en sus casas. Cocinando, deteriorándose. Envilecidos por la falta de coraje, amor y belleza. Enfermos sin solución.
        Y nosotros saliendo del Pre a la caída de la tarde. O la caída de la noche. Da igual. Cada día más jóvenes y más llenos de libertad y deseos.
        Cubanos libres.
        Cubanos recién llegados del futuro.
        Intocados por el totalitarismo.
        De ellos (es decir, de nosotros), sólo yo sabía que nunca me iba a olvidar de aquellas escenas. La belleza me goteaba por los poros y me obligaba a ser siempre un solitario.
        Era tan hermoso estar vivo que uno sentía que aquello no podía durar para siempre. La belleza como anunciación de la muerte.
        Me era imposible estar del todo presente allí. Porque desde el inicio yo sabía que estábamos viviendo en una memoria inolvidable, de esas que serían después recordadas exclusivamente por mí.
        ¡Estaba vivo de remate y ni siquiera tenía a quién confesárselo! No tenía a quién decirle que estábamos aquí y ahora (es decir, allí y entonces) sin que la escena se nos desapareciera para nunca volver. Se nos diluyera en las palabras del Orlando Luis ya delirante a sus quince o dieciséis años.
        Desde sus cinco o seis años, quizá.
        Estas noches tempranas de diciembre siento el mismo olor a oscuridad, el mismo aroma a La Habana de invierno, la misma humedad de la saliva que se asomaba a los labios de las adolescentes al sonreír.
        Yo nunca pude del todo serlo, un adolescente.
        Hablábamos y hablábamos, pero nunca nos decíamos nada.
        ¿Para qué decir? Si todo era tan fácil como tragar agua. O dejarla escaparse entre los dedos desnudos y las faldas mostazas de los uniformes.
        Daban deseos de correr y bailar todo el resto de la noche y toda la madrugada.
        Y deseos de no crecer.
        Y de nunca prestarle atención al lenguaje adulto y odioso de los demás.
        Estábamos o éramos. Da igual. ¿A qué más aspirábamos?
        A esa hora, los jazmines comenzaban a oler.
        La noche en invierno abría sus constelaciones de golpe. Los astros, por supuesto, también reían. Como en una vieja canción de Fito, que entonces era de estreno.
        Se acercaban diciembre diez y mi cumpleaños, como ahora.
        En el exilio, esta es una hora escalofriante. La hora de volver como mansas palomas, vivos y muertos, al grupo que salía en un estado de casi inconsciencia de nuestro Pre.