Trapped: Exploring An Alternative Art Museum & Life In Cuba According to a Cuban

Trapped: Exploring An Alternative Art Museum & Life In Cuba According to a Cuban

It was Friday night in Havana and since I would need quite a few mojitos before I was confident enough to hit the Cuban dance floor, I decided to start the evening at Fabrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory). A few years ago, they converted an abandoned cooking oil factory into a mixed use art space filled with unusual photography, film and dance studios, music venues, restaurants and bars. It was an absolute maze… when I thought I had seen it all, I turned a corner and a whole new section opened up.

Factoria del Arte Cubano.

Factoria del Arte Cubano.

Exploring the Art Museum with A Local
After my initial survey of the area, I decided to break for a $3 baguette to pass time until performances started and I struck up a conversation with the Cuban guy who was behind me in line. He was just starting his first year of university as civil engineering student. Most of his family lived in Washington DC and he was hoping he could join them some day, but in Cuba, you pay for higher education with two years of working for the government then men are obligated to serve a year in the army so it would be a long process.
After eating, we decided to wander around together and seeing the museum through his eyes was a completely different experience. He brought me to a short animated film, where a girl continuously failed in her attempts to leave the island where she was marooned. She tried to make a boat out of a bucket but the bucket quickly filled with water and sank. She tried to use two palm trees as stilts in an attempt to call for help but the trees fell over. She tried to climb a flagpole to send a signal but the flag blew away in a sudden gust of wind. I interpreted it as a klutzy girl, unlikely to be a finalist on Survivor. He looked me in the eyes and solemnly said, “That’s us. We’re in jail here” referring to the situation of his county, his people.
He took me to some of his other favorite spots in the museum. This included a collection of newspaper clippings from the 1950s about all the lies the government told the people, inciting fear of nuclear power, Chinese immigrants taking all the work and praising the strength of the Cuban currency. He took me to his favorite piece… it looked like an amateur photographer spilled a random collection of photos (mostly strange things and naked people) on the table. One photo included a sign of a bar that told people they were free to blaspheme and criticize the government. He said something along the lines of, “if only such a place existed”.

Classic Car on the Malecon in Havana

Classic Car on the Malecon in Havana

Visiting Communist Cuba
With Obama easing travel restrictions in Cuba, there were countless articles encouraging Americans to visit to see the country “before it changes” or before it’s ruined by the onset of Americans. Admittedly, I’m guilty of coming for exactly that reason. There’s some evidence of progress, like people hunched over their phones in wifi hotspots around the city and some modern taxis with air conditioning and even mini movie screens to watch music videos, but when people say visiting Cuba is like traveling back in time, it’s absolutely true. The cab driver who picked me up from the airport drove a car from 1956 and commented, “all the tourists say ‘your car is so beautiful’ but I’d trade this car in an instant a modern American one”. The Cubans maintained cars from the 50s and 60s because with the embargo, they had no other option. Now, the cars are UNESCO protected national treasures, often being “Frankensteined” combinations of parts from other cars within the body. Outside Havana, most taxis are horses with carts or bike taxis. It’s inspiring to see how Cuban ingenuity made the best of a bad situation but how long should we let this go on?

Fidel propogranda during the dance party.

Fidel propogranda during the dance party.

It’s still a visibly communist country. When I waited in line at the bank to change money, I was entertained by a slide show of photos of Fidel Castro. In Vinales, I went to a disco party in a cave and they interrupted the evening for a 30 minute photo slideshow with songs dedicated to Fidel. Practically speaking, options are limited, even as a tourist. It’s hard to find markets or even places to buy snacks, non-Cubans can only travel with one bus company and Internet access is restricted primarily to controlled hotspots. Products are limited too- the market ran out of big water bottles when I was in Vinales. My Havana tour guide joked that in Cuba, you don’t go to the market with a grocery list, you see what’s in the market and you figure out what you can cook.

More propaganda around town.

More propaganda around town.

While it’s interesting for outsiders to experience for a couple weeks, it’s heart breaking to think about how Cubans are trapped within their country, with almost all of them separated from friends and family abroad. My free tour guide said his grandma still loves Fidel Castro since in her generation, women could only be servants or prostitutes. Fidel saved the country from becoming a “sin city” filled with casinos and bars and gave them other opportunities. I don’t know how it technically works but it seems like when anyone in Cuba gives me a phone number, it’s to their “mother’s house” and the women is operationally in charge (I’m not sure whether the properties are technically owned by the females). Much of the propaganda around the country seems aimed at women with claims such as “women are the pillars of the revolution”.
Many of the young people don’t like how the government strictly limits their access to resources, information and opportunities. I can’t count the times that I’ve heard locals comment about how the government tries to “keep them poor”. When visiting a tobacco farm in Vinales, 90% of the tobacco goes to the government and the family can only keep 10% for potential profits. I read somewhere that the joke is the revolution was good for healthcare, education, sports and culture but bad for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
When researching for this trip, I saw several bloggers complain about, “where are the friendly Cubans everyone talked about?” and even one of my offline Cuba apps wrote that, “Vinales is the only place where Cubans seem happy”. Besides the slightly obnoxious taxi drivers looking for business (which happens everywhere), I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with the Cuban people. Unless you want to splurge on a hotel, the majority of accommodation is in “casa peculiares”, essentially a rented room in someone’s house (they invented AirBnb before it existed in the US). All my experiences have been extremely positive with families who are generous, helpful and professional so I’m not sure what these bloggers are complaining about.

Horse taxi... the other way to get around in Cuba

Horse taxi… the other way to get around in Cuba

Shifting into the perspective of the locals, I can’t imagine watching all the tourists freely explore the country, coming and going with exotic products that can’t be bought in Cuba (ie a couchsurfer I talked to asked me whether I could bring him a karate suit since he’s been practicing for over a decade but can’t get a kimono in Cuba) while they are separated from family and friends who it may be difficult, if not impossible, to see again.
Overall, Cuba’s been a fascinating place to visit and certainly the timeless quality of it is one of its biggest charms. I don’t know enough about the current political situation to know what’s in store for the Cuba but change may not be a bad thing. I highly recommend traveling here- it’s cheap, safe, beautiful, fascinating and the music is amazing but please, don’t be ignorant of the current situation when you come.

If YOU want to visit the FAC: The FAC is open Thursday to Sunday nights from 8 PM to 3 AM. The entrance is 2 CUC (~$2 USD) and there’s no money exchanged inside so they give you a card which is stamped when you buy food or drinks and you pay on your way out. I didn’t realize until too late that its right next to the 1830 Club, which is known for its live salsa (including offering lessons- just don’t go on a Monday night). It might be good to visit both in one evening!
Song of the Moment: Quiéreme– Jacob Forever (because its filmed in Havana and I heard it a million times when I was there) & Gozando En La Habana– Charanga Habanera (interesting lyrics about someone who moved to Miami and they have everything but aren’t happy like when they were in Havana)
Book of the Moment: The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba by Julia Cooke & Cuba and the Cameraman (Netflix Documentary)
Documentary of the Moment: Cuba Libre (I actually haven’t watched it yet but I’ve heard it’s one of the best about the Cuban situation so as soon as I have access, I plan to)

Be Sociable, Share!

1 Comment

  1. Lauren Foote
    Nov 30, 2017

    Katie, Great to have you back blogging. We enjoyed this post, learning about the reality of communism is a good life lesson for us all. USA has its problems but we have freedoms which are like few places on earth.
    We love you, xo Mom

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *