JUST A FEW YEARS AGO, YOU COULD EASILY IMAGINE THAT CUBA WAS A MARVELLOUS EXILE, ATROPHIED LIKELY, AND CUT OFF FROM THE REST OF THE WORLD. CUBA, LIKE SOMETHING OUT OF A DREAM, WAS OUT OF TIME AND OUT OF STEP AND BRILLIANT FOR IT. DANCING ITS OWN DANCE, CUBA WAS BRAZEN AND SHAMELESS AND VIVIDLY JOYOUS. PHOTOGRAPHER KEVIN SLACK HAS BEEN VISITING CUBA AND WORKING IN CUBA FOR OVER TEN YEARS. ABOUT HIS WORK AND HIS PERSPECTIVE OF CUBA, KEVIN READILY ADMITS: "I KNOW IT WAS AN ILLUSION. AND I KNOW IT WAS SELFISH TOO."
After President Obama announced the normalization of relations with Cuba and the United States in December 2014, Kevin was eager to get back quickly. But before he could, Beyoncé and Katy Perry and Mick Jagger and Rihanna and Vanity Fair and Floyd MayWeather and Conan O'Brien and Anthony Bourdain had already trod the streets of Havana. Finally, in October 2015, Kevin Slack returned to Cuba.
"I did not get out of the airport unscathed," Kevin Slack comments about his latest voyage to Cuba. "Customs had X-rayed my luggage and tagged it with a notice that I was bringing in 3 cell phones. And on my tourist form, I had claimed that I was bringing $65 of gifts into the country. I got to keep my gifts and my cell phones and a laptop that I intended to give away; but it took 3 hours to get out of Jose Martí and I had to pay the significantly surly customs agents $100, a gift tax. I was happy to do it at that point, or close enough to happy to call it happy, just to get out of the airport and away from the officious surliness."
Cuba had already changed of course in the past five years while Kevin Slack continues to return to the island. Kevin shares: "It used to be that my Cuban friends shared their restlessness, shared their quiet codified complaints - a gesture stroking a beard indicated Fidel, a two finger tap on your own shoulder signified police, that sort of code - among themselves and with me about the government, about the lack of opportunity. There were already more markers of capitalism too: so many more paladars, privately-owned restaurants, and so many more little kiosks in front of homes selling bootleg DVDs and CDs as well as plumbing equipment and household articles. And houses for sale too. And people, models and friends, were already leaving, or planning to leave. That was all happening before Obama's announcement. I had returned and on the surface of it, Havana looked the same - as if Dorothy had at last returned to Oz and had worried herself into anemia that the sepia plague had ruined Munchkinland but found it still in Technicolor. But I quickly felt and saw and understood that Cuba was altered, more altered, below that familiar surface."
"Cuba is being pulled back into step and back into time. It's inevitable and it should be better," Kevin continues. "Everybody, of course, has the inalienable right to want to make their lives better, to pursue happiness. But capitalism, especially new socialist-converted capitalism, is often ugly and sometimes obscene too. A Cuban friend explained it to me: right now we have the worst of socialism and the worst of capitalism too. I applied that explanation to many things I saw including the brand new Jennifer Lopez boutique on the famous Calle Obispo, selling shiny things that nearly no Cuban could possibly afford."
Since 2010, sloganeers with the tourist industry have been marketing Cuba as authentic: Cuba es Auténtica. Authenticity, in Cuba, is a brand, authenticity is a product. How do you keep something authentic if you sell it as authentic? The tourist industry sells the beaches and the scenery and the Yank tanks as authentic. And, surely, tourists, most tourists, don't want authentic anyway. They want escape and illusion, swim-up bars and all-inclusive drinks. And what is the authentic Cuba anyway? Kevin: "This time more than any other, I had the very deeply unsettling impression that everything was just a bit false. While Havana labors to preserve the facades of ruined buildings like polishing rotten apples, while Havana invests so much money gentrifying Havana's docks - no doubt for a new generation of cruise ships -, everything felt, yes, a little false. The Malecon girls, wearing Saturday night dresses on a Monday night, as I walked to Havana Vieja from Vedado, were more calculated and much more aggressive. Over mojitos, the band played - but the song and the dance and the joy felt manufactured instead of genuine. I had the impression that they were acting like and singing like and dancing like what they thought tourists thought a Cuban band should act like and sing like and dance like. I've never had that feeling before."
"I worried that I was putting something on Havana that was not there. Who was I to say?" Kevin confides. "So I went to my Cuban friends and asked them about the changes I thought I saw. Eduardo told me that 'Havana in particular is impatient and restless and maybe even panicked too'. Tito told me that 'Havana is a mad frenzy right now as we stand with 60 years of waiting behind us and, in front of us, uncertain but inevitable change'. Victor said that 'Cubans, or at least Habaneros are already spending that change before they have it. Like a child spending his father's inheritance while the father still dies in his bed'. And Norge told me that ' Havana is a product now, a market. And the people know, or they are coming to know, that they are part of that product and part of that market. And it is a crisis you can see and feel'. And most of them said how they intended to leave. Even friends who never dreamed of leaving before - with the familiar refrain: I love my country. But I need to leave."
Jorge Luis, Kevin Slack's long-standing muse, is a monument of man and of Cuba too. One of his favorite models, favorite Cubans, favorite friends, Jorge Luis has already left Cuba. It was only by accident that they were in Havana at the same time, and found a moment to work together for one more last time: "And here I leave him, my Captain Cuba, my muse photographed in the museum."
There is, right now, a sharp broken rupture in Cuba, especially in Havana. Nearly 60 years of embargos and blaming the United States, nearly 60 years of dull waiting and deprivation too are behind it or not quite behind it. Everyone looks forward now, like that ubiquitous photo of Che Guevara by Alberto Korda, to a future that is just around the corner, just out of reach still and just out of sight still, even though nobody really knows what it is yet. More a riot of impatient expectation than a riot of influence. "Nostalgia is selfish and harmful too," Kevin admits. And, yes, of course, the crisis of change is another kind of authentic. And the crisis of identity is authentic too. Cuba, and Havana in particular, are ready to make a new identity and to make a new path. And there is nothing to do now but to bring it on. Bring on money and Starbucks and Best Western. Bring on Internet access and free press and freedom of speech. It's better. Of course it's better. But maybe not quite yet. –BM-
Story by BeautifulMag and Kevin Slack.
KEVIN SLACK | BEAUTIFULMAG