Under the Radar

An exploration of Havana in black & white

Near the end of last year, when the governments of Cuba and the United States began a process of restoring diplomatic relations, many Americans (and Cubans, for that matter) wondered what our trans-Caribbean relationship might mean moving forward. How it might affect divided families, travel and tourism, real estate, business, baseball.

We — you and I — we wondered about the cars, those relics of Michigan puttering around a sea-salted island decades removed from the rest of the world. Chevys and Fords and Packards and Buicks and Studebakers and Plymouths and Pontiacs; the gang’s all there. All of them kept afloat with immense pride, freaky innovation, and not a little git-r-done, however you say it in Spanish.

There used to be plenty of Americans in Cuba to go with all the American cars; hundreds of thousands of us traveled there in the 1950s. But by early 1962, when President Kennedy issued a permanent embargo, what remained of America to the people of Cuba was our old stuff.

Sanctioned educational tours began in 2011, when the U.S. first eased travel restrictions, and several companies offer tours with full but semi-strict itineraries that take groups all over the island and put them up in the many “tourist friendly” areas. And Cuba still is a tourist destination — the rest of the world has never stopped vacationing there.

Sanctioned tours aside, there have always been other ways for Americans to enter Cuba. Which is where I found myself in April 1999, when I went to Havana for a brief five days.

I’d been traveling throughout Central America with various cohorts for several months. On and off the “Gringo Trail,” we went to the next place when it was time, stayed there as long as we wanted and then we went someplace else.

I don’t even remember who suggested that Cuba be the next place, but five of us agreed it should be, so we went. The “how” is not so important, except to say I had never been on a jet that felt so old, and it unnerved me as we ascended from Cancún.

The whole trip unnerved me, if we’re being honest, as I generally don’t violate the law, and I certainly don’t support brutal communist regimes. But I went for two very different reasons:

I am 1/8th Cuban. It is the highest concentration of any single ancestry I have in my melting-pot blood. I met my great-grandfather Jose once, when I was 3, and somewhere there is a photo from that day, four generations of Segebien men.

Also, I was 23, as stupid as I would ever be in my life, and I wanted to see it with my own eyes. I had little more than a backpack and a camera — my first “real” camera, a 35mm Canon — plus several rolls of Ilford HP5 and Agfa APX black-and-white film. After traveling around Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras, I’d shot thousands of photos and was comfortable with the controls, so I felt prepared to shoot in Havana.

I was not prepared, it turns out, because Havana was a far different place than I expected, a place that still weighs on me, long after returning to my comfortable American life. What I hoped to capture with wide young eyes and my first real camera was a snapshot of the people and their world. That it happened to be populated by some great old cars was just a happy coincidence.

Up on Blocks

What I’d heard in Mexico before we left was that the people of Cuba wanted Americans to come there. They wanted us to see their country and their culture. In those pre-Google days, I simply had no idea how heavily old American cars played into that culture. There are plenty of “fully functional” ones around Havana, along with an assortment of diminutive Ladas and Moskvitchs (plus the occasional Beetle), but all require constant tinkering, and cars parked in some state of disrepair are an ever-present sight. With no parts support of any kind, most owners fabricate spares in a kind of crude mechanical alchemy or else borrow from the sources they have at hand: Diesel tractor engines are not uncommon substitutes under the hood.

Symbols of Cuba

We visited the Partagás cigar factory. Like the rest of Havana, it was posted with images of Castro, Che Guevara and socialist propaganda. On the factory floor, a worker ushered me into a stairwell. There he produced a box of cigars from inside his jacket. “Ten,” he said. His eyes flashed up and down the stairs and through the small window that led to where we’d just been. I gave him $20, which was all I had, and as I tucked the box into my backpack, he sneaked back to his seat. In a country where the average worker makes $20 per month, I couldn’t imagine how useful that extra money might be. I didn’t want to imagine what would have happened had he gotten caught.

Everyday Life

The area where we stayed was populated with many policemen standing on various corners, just watching. Not me, not us, particularly, but everyone and everything. Just watching. They carried no guns, and we asked a local about them. We were told they knew everyone, where each person lived and belonged. Cubans had ID cards and were occasionally asked by the police to produce them. I remember seeing someone being escorted into in a small van, and the whole thing was very civil, come with me, sir. But what I discovered in Havana confirmed what I’d heard in Mexico: That despite living under a system that simultaneously supported and failed them, Cubans were indeed incredibly proud, and they were happy to share their country with me.

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