Archive for Wednesday, February 20, 2008

In Castro’s shadow

Photographer tells about his love of Cuba and life under its leader

Cuban President Fidel Castro speaks in Havana in this Feb. 3, 2006, file photo.

Cuban President Fidel Castro speaks in Havana in this Feb. 3, 2006, file photo.

February 20, 2008

<strong>Editor's note: </strong>Journal-World photographer Richard Gwin has traveled to Cuba every year since 1990. Here are his reflections on the country as it prepares for its first change in leadership in nearly 50 years.


Fidel Castro steps down as Cuban leader

Cuban leader Fidel Castro announced his resignation on Tuesday after serving almost 50 years as the country's president. 6News reporter Cory Smith talked with one local Cuban-American who lived under the Castro Regime - and fears that little will change under the new leadership. Enlarge video

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Until my first visit to Cuba in 1990, all I knew about the tiny island country I learned during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the weeklong event I witnessed in 1962 on a fuzzy, black-and-white TV in western Kansas.

But during a trip to Jamaica I saw an advertisement for flights to Cuba, and I was intrigued.

Being a journalist, I was able to legally get into the country. The next day I was in Havana.

Havana is a beautiful city of 2 million people. I have fallen in love with its architecture, its history and the mystique of the old days of casinos and the Mafia. Before the revolution in 1959, it was what Las Vegas is today.

I've had the opportunity to see and travel throughout Cuba like few other Americans have. I have visited the sugar cane plantations and small towns, documenting my experiences with my camera. I've also seen the spectacle of the Baltimore Orioles coming to play the Cuban national team in 1999. It was the first time in 40 years that a major-league team played in Cuba.

During my first trip to Cuba, I remember seeing long food lines and rationing and a lot of old Russian and U.S. cars. Now, you see a lot of new cars - mostly Toyotas and Mercedes. Several countries - not the U.S. - are investing in Cuba. Cubans are making money, and food is not as scarce as it once was. Every year I see a lot of new construction, stores, five-star hotels and Canadians drilling for oil.

Cuba also is environmentally conscious, investing in wind energy and solar power.

The families I have visited are just like any family I have known in western Kansas. Everyone is wonderful to me. If I'm late for a visit, they are as worried as if they were my mother.

I look like the Red Cross when I arrive in Cuba. I bring all kinds of supplies for my friends. I've known the Real family in Havana Veja (Old Havana) for nearly 16 or 17 years. I've watched the children grow up. I used to bring them toys and bicycles and medical aids and Harry Potter books. I also brought them Pine-Sol. That was after I saw the mother wash the floor with diesel fuel.

I once saw Fidel Castro speak at a rally. It was the one night that I didn't have my camera with me; I will never do that again because I missed a wonderful opportunity. He has a great rapport with people. For years he has been able to inspire people to support him. For the initial years after the revolution, it was easier for him to rally people. But as property took hold, and food, housing and money got tighter, Castro had to spread the wealth through benefits such as better health care and education.

I met Raul Castro, Fidel's brother, during a May Day celebration. We shook hands, exchanged pleasantries and I had my photo taken with him.

Raul is a hardline military man, more hardline than Fidel. Fidel keeps the people interested in his revolution by giving them a piece of the pie, like the time I saw a truck full of new refrigerators and light bulbs being dropped off at homes in a neighborhood. I don't think that's Raul's style, but it will be interesting to see if he can normalize relations with the United States.

I'm planning another trip to Cuba this spring. I'm interested to see how the country will change in the next two or three months.


jeremyhay 9 years, 11 months ago

The "Land of the free" - and you need to be a journalist before you can legally visit Cuba? The US seems to be imitating the former East German regime.

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