CUBA LIBRE

 

CUBA LIBRE

 

2016 could well be a historic year for Cuba: President Obama came visiting in late April and, a few days later, The Stones gave a free concert for over half a million Cubans.  All signs that Cuba is clearly going through a period of transition. This book of photographs, with its documentary and conceptual intent, aims to give a reflection of Cuba in a time of change.

In 2016 Eddy Verloes and some Cubans spent a few weeks travelling  around the island by taxi. He wanted to see with his own eyes how much ground free initiative (that is: capitalism) had already gained within the socialist model and the extent to which we might expect a Caribbean variant of the Arabian Spring.

Verloes stayed mainly in “casas particulares” to maintain closest contact with the local inhabitants. Havana and Baracoa impressed him the most. There he visited not only the classical “tourist traps”, but also schools, hospitals, rest homes for the elderly and reintegration projects for ex-convicts in order to form as diversified a picture of the island as possible.

Cuba is a mass of contradictions, and that is what the photographer tries to evoke in his images. The crumbling edifices that still bear witness to a long-gone colonial past contrast with new construction projects mushrooming out of the ground. On the one hand Cubans want to keep the traditions, have enormous respect for their past but, on the other hand, they are eager to make economic progress, seeing the United States as the partner of preference.  Their main question and overriding concern is: "what comes after Raúl Castro?" Will their country be inundated by and lose its soul to Western consumerism, or will it just be business as usual? In his conversations with Cubans Eddy Verloes pauses and considers systems such as communism and capitalism.  That his guide, a trained engineer, should display such great respect for the history of his country and was unable to make a secret of his admiration for "superstars" such as Che Guevara, Fidel and Raúl  Castro, is comprehensible once you realize that education and health care are still free for Cubans, and that you should therefore be grateful for the chances given you. The vast majority of the population still supports the revolution; the challenge is to (continue to) motivate the younger generation, because they are keen to improve their situation as soon as possible.  The embargo imposed on Cuba by the United States since 8 February 1962 gagged Cuba economically and financially; the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the collapse of the Soviet Union then combined to drag Cuba into an unprecedented economic crisis.  Cubans, however, are survivors, a proud, ambitious people, because - looking to the example of their national hero and freedom-fighter José Martí - they want to guarantee their future.  Even in the knowledge that their system is not perfect, they will defend their country tooth and claw.  Westerners tend to label citizens from communist countries  as birds born in a cage who think that flying is unnatural.  Eddy Verloes took this idea of the (bird)cage as the leitmotiv for his Cuba project.  He came across it everywhere he went, especially on (the fronts of) houses; one blue frontage was totally covered with birdcages.  It doesn't get any more symbolic than that.

Another recurrent theme in his photos is the many (container) waste bins on the street.  In many “streets”, especially in Havana,  they lie around filthy and broken into (sometimes with dangerous holes!), but nowhere else has the photographer ever seen quite so many street-cleaners.  The street is the Cuban's second home: it is used as a playground for footballing or boxing children and youths, as an open garage for oldtimers,  as a place where solidarity and creativity rule (art, music, dance, sport).  People live literally and, very often, also figuratively on the street, the only sometimes separating the outside from the inside world being the bars  through which people - especially the old - look out with a certain melancholy, cherishing memories of how things used to be and wondering what “they” are doing to their country.  One of the major frustrations for Cubans is that they have practically no access to modern means of communication.  Admittedly, mobile telephones are now allowed, but internet penetration is very low and, for the average Cuban, who earns around 20 euros per month, an hour on the internet is unaffordable and, usually, inaccessible in any case.  No digital revolution any time soon then.  Many of them will tell you that you will have to be quick if you want to enjoy the real Cuba while it lasts, because there is a fear that there will soon be a Mc. Donald’s on every street corner.

In his powerful images Eddy Verloes describes the reality of Cuba anno 2016 in a poetic and confrontational manner, with the necessary symbolism, often spiced with that touch of humour that has now become a trademark of his photography.  His photos tell a tale, a story in time, but also so much more than that.  Every now and again - like Hitchcock - he will cast his own shadow in his pictures.  One of his challenges was to overcome the "cliché images" we have about Cuba; and yet, Cuba without those same "cliché images" would not be Cuba any more, because there is a fine line between kitsch and art. What  Eddy Verloes brings with his Cuba project is deeply human and shows sincere respect for the people of Cuba and their past.

 

Sven Gatz, Minister for Culture, 01/09/2016

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