“¿Que bolá Cuba?” - “What’s up Cuba?” - announced former President Barack Obama in a Tweet sent shortly after his arrival at Havana’s Jose Marti airport in March 2016. “Just touched down here,” it continued, “looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people.”
Despite the typically understated cool of Obama’s message, his visit was wholly unprecedented - momentous, even. This was, after all, the first time a US President had set foot on Cuban soil in almost a century, and the first since the revolution. Fifty-seven years of bad blood and broken ties finally appeared to be drawing to a close. As Obama stepped down onto the Havanan tarmac, only a few miles away Fidel Castro was playing out the final months of his long and illustrious life (he would finally pass in November of that year).
As such, the Presidential visit not only represented the culmination of two years’ worth of diplomatic wrangling - aimed largely at ending the US embargo - but also, in a way, encapsulated the passing of one historical era and the beginnings of a new one for Cuba. As one door was slowly closing, another was fast opening - or so it appeared.
Shot in the late spring and summer of 2016, in the intervening time between Obama’s visit and Castro’s death, the images collected here present an intimate, visual essay of a nation and its people. As such, ¿Que Bolá Cuba? takes us on a journey, tracing a path across and around the island: Havana to Baracoa; Cienfugos to Santa Clara; Santiago de Cuba to Matanzas; and from Trinidad to the Valle de Viñales.
Although appearing highly-crafted and cinematic in style, such production values belie the fact that the images were taken spontaneously and without any previous experience of the island. The effect is a kind of fleeting, impressionistic visual diary; a shot-from-the-hip travelogue incorporating elements of street photography, portraiture, landscape and documentary into its wider narrative.
This journey across Cuba takes in the physical remnants of the island’s tumultuous past, the hypnotic contours of its landscapes and cityscapes, the ethnic diversity of its inhabitants, the vagaries of Cuban street life, the bold explosions of cotton-candy colour. Guided as much by an idea of what Cuba should look like as they are by what Cuba actually does look like, what emerges across these images is a portrait at once both recognisable and distant.
The flamboyant colonial architecture, the Deco hotels and pleasure palaces, the Castro-era, modernist tower blocks all begin to look equally redundant here; it’s as if they were all part of some abandoned film set waiting to be torn down and replaced. Similarly, the Revolutionary slogans and wall-stencilled Che Guevara’s, their colours and message already beginning to fade with time, now compete with the emerging symbols of capitalism: the American flag, iPads, gaudy Western consumerist fashion.
One of the most familiar and enduring symbols of Cuba’s isolation are the battered, vintage, and mostly American cars seen caroming around the island’s roads. On one level, the 1950s Chevrolets, Buicks and Plymouths serve as a metaphor for a nation travelling out of the past towards some kind of new, but as-yet unknown, destination. On another, they stand as testament to the tenacity and perseverance of the Cuban people who’ve re-painted, re-engineered, re-tuned and maintained them way beyond their normal lifespan.
There’s also a certain paradox attached to the fact that these dream-machines, once such an extravagant signifier of American post-war aspiration, became an equally potent symbol of Cuba’s own rejection of it. Perhaps the fact that the cars remained a constant on Cuba’s streets throughout the Castro years meant that, for some at least, the dizzy promise of the American dream never truly vanished.
The focus here isn’t so much on the cars themselves though, but rather on their drivers and passengers. Appearing as if entombed within the vehicles’ outlandish, hulking frames, we are lured into the cars’ murky interiors and the subjects’ own private worlds. Lost in thought and bathed in warm, transfiguring washes of shadow and light, they seem momentarily elevated above the contingencies of time and place.
Throughout the images in ¿Que Bolá Cuba? the camera returns time and again to the island’s people. In their faces, gestures, clothing, as well as in their immediate surroundings, we cannot help but look for clues relating to wider questions of existence in Cuba. Particularly in the older generation of Cuban’s we find a dishevelled weariness, a sense that their lives have been largely determined by forces way beyond their control. But there is resilience and dignity here too, a deeper instinct for adaptation and survival that endures beyond either capitalism and communism.
The promise of the changes heralded by the Obama visit were left unfulfilled in the wake of Donald Trump’s shock ascendency to the presidency. However, while Cuba’s future might remain uncertain, it seems only fitting that the series should end with a group portrait of a collection of young Cuban students. Having not experienced the struggle in its entirety, only the increasingly impoverishing effects of decades of isolation, they are less weighed down by its history than previous generations were. Here they seem eager to embrace the reforms ushered in under Raul Castro and, subsequently, by Miguel Díaz-Canel. Ultimately, it will be left to them to decide how best to carve out a new role for themselves and for Cuba within the wider global community. Relaxed and westernised in appearance, perhaps they are better equipped than anyone to answer Obama’s original question.