BooksWeekend

Cuba at the Cusp

The images that foreshadow the turmoil of the Cuban Revolution jar you back to the precariousness of our times.

Teenagers dancing, Marianao Beach, with El Casino Español visible in the background, Havana, 1956 (Panchito Cano/Bohemia magazine; all images courtesy The Monacelli Press)

It’s already been more than three years since the Obama administration announced that diplomatic relations would be restored between the US and Cuba. It’s been about as long since official policy on American citizens traveling to and doing business in or with Cuba shifted dramatically in favor of increased openness and exchange.

And it’s already been more than two years since Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, which made him the first sitting US president to visit the island since the revolution in 1959. For many Americans and, I imagine, many Cubans as well, it was an event that was both shocking and promising. Relationships were changing for the better, it seemed, even if it was also clear that many of the changes would still take time.

The Trump administration, however, wasted no time in attempting to reverse several facets of those policy changes. Now it is the US whose commitment to maintaining friendly, even merely functional diplomatic relations with nations the world over has been called into question.

Indeed, also called into question, perhaps more with each passing day, is America’s commitment to maintaining the functionality of its very own democracy. Political trends here and abroad have served as stark reminders of how little it can take for apparently robust democracies to slip, bit by bit rather than with revolutionary swoop, into one form or another of authoritarian rule.

As such, there has been no shortage of discourse of late about how autocracies and de facto autocracies are on the rise. See: Russia. See: Turkey. See: China. See: The Philippines. See: Nicaragua. See: Hungary. See: Venezuela. See also: many another. Hang a map. Throw a dart. You get the gist.

If you happen to hit the US, it’s worth considering that freedoms and rights once considered sacrosanct can be easy to limit, and that once limited they can be easier to revoke. It’s worth considering that some limitations might seem quite minor until they become major. It’s worth considering that checks and balances might at some point check out of the balance.

To be sure, it’s worth considering that not too long ago, it would’ve been hard to imagine a tit-for-tat scenario in which the US is denounced by the United Nations for treating migrant families inhumanely, followed by the US withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council while recycling the old argument of the Council’s alleged anti-Israel bias. At the time of this writing, this scenario is a fresh reality. And unfortunately, developments such as these are no longer hard to imagine.

A visitor contemplates mortality in the potters field (Miles)

It’s easy to assume that the adage about ‘learning from history’ means something along the lines of ‘learning from what was bad in order to veer towards what is good.’ But we all know that different people take different things from lessons. We also know that some people don’t pay attention to them, or they spin them into convenient opposites of truth.

One lesson that perhaps everyone who’s been alive long enough has learned, at least personally if not in some way collectively, is that sweeping changes can come all at once, and that being prepared for what might come next is much easier said than done.

I trust I’m not alone in saying that it’s hard to get much of anything done these days without bearing in mind a great deal of the above. And so it was that I began casually flipping through a handsome new book I had recently received. It was immediately transporting, and while it cleared my mind of those thoughts for a while, it also brought them back full circle.

Pedrito Rico, the Spanish-born singer, actor, and teen idol, peering through a belly dancer’s coined hip belt (Armand Studios)

The book in question is the wonderful new edition of Cuba Then, by Ramiro A. Fernández, with a foreword and poems by Richard Blanco. It speaks, in ways blatant and specific, to many of these contemporary trends and discourses while relating a history that is both unfamiliar and, in part, quite familiar. First published in 2014, then significantly expanded and released anew just last month, Cuba Then now includes more than 300 beautifully reproduced photographs and related ephemera selected from Fernández’s personal collection which, comprising around 8,000 such items, is considered the largest Cuba-centric archive of its kind outside of Cuba.

The culling now presented in Cuba Then is indeed remarkable. Nearly every image is utterly captivating. The history this expanded volume recounts, in visually sumptuous and thematically rich layers, is the one that some of us have seen or heard less of — namely, the history of pre-revolutionary Cuba, a place Fernández describes as “a hedonistic international playground.”  The images pertaining to that place are the immediately transporting ones. The images that jar you back to reality and the precariousness of our times are those that foreshadow the turmoil and turnover soon to come to Cuba; the handful that depict the revolution do so with stunning candor.

Through splendidly reproduced photographs, daguerreotypes, postcards and advertisements, Cuba – Havana in particular – is seen as a somewhat swinging, open-to-all cosmopolitan hotbed of entertainment, elegance, and boundless cultural production. The images themselves, and the sometimes surprising details revealed in their caption notes, do most of the storytelling. The pages of prose are few yet effective; they become truly evocative when they feature also Blanco’s poems.

A Pan American World Airways promotional photo of Carnival highlights the international tourism campaign at midcentury, Havana, 1955 (Pan American World Airways Latin American Division)

The photos of course feature a number of relatively unpopulated beaches, landscapes, boats, piers, and lighthouses, and there are some unpeopled advertisements, posters, and postcards as well. Yet what you’ll mostly find in Cuba Then is people. All kinds of people. You’ll encounter scores upon scores of movie stars, athletes, and performers of various sorts — celebrities you might never have heard of, but whom you’ll soon be looking up to find out more about.

You may also wish to see them in action or hear their music. For instance, I found myself so enthralled by a 1960 photograph of a certain singer named Fredesvinda “La Freddy” Garcia Valdés, captured somewhat casually in a moment of apparent calm and glowing beauty, that I couldn’t resist the urge to immediately find out more about her and hear her voice. To be sure, I was also prompted by Fernández’s cleverly succinct caption about her: “A captivating, androgynous-voiced singer who enjoyed a brief but intense life and career. She recorded only one album of boleros.”

And oh my, what a voice, I soon learned. And what a life cut far too short. I also learned that she passed away only a year after that photo was taken.

Lázaro Plá, known as Manteca, was a master bongosero who first rose to fame in the 1940s when he was a featured attraction with the great pianist and composer Ernesto Lecuona and the renowned Cuba Boys

There are many such possibly unfamiliar, certainly intriguing characters in Cuba Then. There are also others who might attain a kind of indirect intrigue and familiarity by bringing to mind some of their more or less contemporary peers in movies, sports, and performance. The bongosero Lázaro Plá, for example, reminded me so much of Zampanò, the character played by Anthony Quinn in Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954), that I had to find out more about this master bongo player known also as “Manteca.”  Another image that resonated with me in this way is one portraying “singer, actor and teen idol” Pedrito Rico who, although his face is partially obscured — because he’s peering through a belly dancer’s coin-festooned hip belt — is very easy to mistake for Prince. After looking him up, I learned that he looked much more like a hybrid of Prince and Elvis.

It is surely an interesting image, but what makes that photograph from 1958 so profoundly compelling is its exact placement in the book, for on its facing page to the right is an image of a very different sort. The other, dated 1961-62, shows Fidel Castro looking through the sight of an MK51 Director for an anti-aircraft gun. He looks through the artillery sight and straight at you. From the facing page, Rico, also peering through an object situated in front of his face — the belly dancer’s hip belt — almost seems to be looking over at Castro. Their juxtaposition is such that when you close the book, their faces are atop one another.

In terms existential, spiritual, historical, and even performative, it’s hard to imagine these two images expressing further extremes from one another. Between their instants of capture was the revolutionary takeover of 1959.

Fidel Castro peering through the sight of an MK51 Gun Director for a 40mm anti-aircraft gun, c. 1961-62

Cuba Then is full of such noteworthy juxtapositions — some of them socio-historically riveting, others doubly felicitous. It’s also full of a great many anonymous protagonists: kids dancing, factory workers, street performers, peddlers, idle loiterers, families, phantom sitters, tourists, sharks and camels, horses and oxen, a choice iguana, soldiers.

There are also huge piles of bones you won’t soon forget. A couple of gold-touched daguerreotypes from the 1850s will sear into your mind. “Pico, the English Grotesque Clown” will haunt or amuse your dreams. And you’ll find Ernest Hemingway with his cinematic double, and Winston Churchill perhaps tearfully ecstatic over some cigars.

These images will do what many photos, perhaps particularly older photos, do: stick with you. What might also stick with you is a certain recurrence of images of storms and floods; it’s as if rains were falling and waters rising to wash one reality away to make way for another.

On that note, there is a most remarkable photo of Castro in 1963. At this point he’s the leader of what is now a socialist state and ally of the Soviet Union. It’s not long after the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the photo, he’s not shown marching or standing. He’s not speaking or sitting. He’s not in his customary uniform. He’s not surrounded by a crowd or in a meeting.

Instead, he is almost completely underwater.

Fidel Castro snorkeling with his security detail, Varadero Beach, 1963 (NANA Foto)

He’s out for a bit of a swim, as it were, with his security detail. His head and shoulders are just above the water’s surface, and his face is mostly obscured by a snorkeling mask.

Circling back to some of my opening thoughts, we surely have plenty of political whirlwinds to pay attention to these days, at home and abroad. And the storm fronts just keep sweeping in.

Be very wary of rising waters. Hurricane season is on the horizon.

Cuba Then: Revised and Expanded (2018) by Ramiro A. Fernández is published by The Monacelli Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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