Ninety miles from America and roughly the size of Pennsylvania the totalitarian communist state of Cuba is home to more than eleven million people. A multiracial society with a population of mainly Spanish origins and Catholic faith, Cuba boasts one of the best health care systems in the world with the average life expectancy comparable to the UK while it's average monthly salary is only $20.00. Prolonged austerity and the state controlled economy's insufficiency in providing adequate services and goods have forced an estimated 40% of Cubans to turn to the black market in order to obtain necessary clothing, food and household items. Historically, Cuban law subordinates it's people from freedom of movement, speech, assembly and the press. However, efforts by the government for economic and social reform have recently loosened some of the constraints on travel, real estate and business creating a mixture of excitement and trepidation in the Cuban people.
He hits the worn small ball with the butt of a stick he's found on the side of the road and calls to his friends to join him for an evening game of baseball. Down the street three girls master handstands against a crumbling building while two others are engaged in a hand clapping game that moves so rapidly I'm unable to grasp even one Spanish word. There is not a cell phone in sight. The flashing light I see through the open door of the home three boys just spilled out of is coming from a 10" black and white T.V., displayed prominently beneath a backlit Madonna standing two feet tall. The stench of garbage emanating from an overflowing dumpster doesn't deter an elderly man from digging through it's refuse in search of a hidden treasure. A tethered pig the size of a small pony walks obediently alongside it's master, pausing only to inhale the smell of two lumbering oxen hauling a cart down the center of a dirt road. And a mere 90 miles from Florida, where a ribbon of taillights are gridlocked on a super highway, 1950s classics, bicycle taxis and horse drawn carts compete for the road on equal footing.
The simplicity is intoxicating and a momentary rush of grief washes over me as I tally my own country's loss of innocence from the scenes that are playing out before me. I realize this simplicity comes at a price, however. The woman I see sitting behind a ten foot wrought iron cage that frames a window of her home, is a poignant metaphor, not lost on me. These are Castro's People, after all. Demonstrative, engaging and resourceful people. People who dream and hope and despair just like everyone else on the planet. They just do it under the watchful eye of communism and an average salary of $20.00 a month.
My photography leads me down the back roads, into questionable areas I might not risk in the U.S. It takes me into the home of a tobacco farmer who proudly shows his (government owned) fields and then insists I share a cup of coffee on his porch. It elicits dinner invitations, smiles, skepticism, curiosity and conversation. It prompts me to contemplate the notion of happiness and what it means to be free.
It makes me wonder what I don't see…..and makes me grateful for what I do.
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