In December of 2014, President Obama and his administration announced the return of two United States citizens held in Cuba as prisoners in exchange for three Cubans convicted of espionage; this was originally going to be a prisoner exchange, but this was used to also open up embassies again in both countries after over 56 years.
Cuba is economically poor, but rich in the arts and humanities. Charles “Chas” and Ellen Lierk were able to experience this culture first hand on a recent trip to this island nation located 90 miles from the Florida coast. They were part of a trip organized by Humanities Nebraska (HN). Chas shared what he learned about the arts in Cuba at a recent meeting of the Box Butte Art Society Feb. 16. The group gets together to decide upcoming events and features some sort of entertainment within the realm of art for those in attendance. This month featured the Lierks vacation to Cuba.
The trip to Cuba was made possible due to President Obama’s decision in 2015 to greatly expand legal Cuba travel opportunities for Americans. His Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued regulations allowing nearly every American to visit Cuba without applying for a license. “You still can’t go as a tourist of the United States. You have to meet certain criteria. You have to have an itinerary, you have to have an agenda; you can’t just go as an individual to Cuba.”
Relations between Cuba and the United States have been historically close, tense, broken, misunderstood, and distant. During the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations the US embassy closed, trade sanctions were implemented and a travel ban for Americans going to Cuba was put in place in response to decisions that were viewed as hostile to American interests made by Fidel Castro following the successful revolution he led in the late 1950s.
In addition to the thawing of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, Ellen’s involvement on the Humanities Nebraska Board resulted in this travel opportunity. One of her fellow board members Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, assistant vice chancellor for Student Affairs and Latin American Studies Professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha, had travelled to Cuba multiple times in the past 30 years. He had organized more than a dozen student tours and offered to build an itinerary for HN Board members and supporters.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba, and I can’t tell you why — it’s just been one of those fascinations that I always wanted to go,” Chas conveyed. He enjoys photography and knew that Cuba offers many interesting subjects. He explained what cameras and lenses he took. “Between Ellen and I, we took over 2,000 photos.” He shared some of the pictures with the group to give them a taste of Cuban life and artistic expression.
The Lierks were impressed by the commitment to the Arts. They toured the National Academy of Ballet. More than 400 students ranging in age from five years through high school study ballet, dividing their time between academic subjects and dance. They can continue study in college and perform with the national ballet company. The school is located in an architecturally beautiful building that showed the Spanish influence on Cuba.
In addition to dance, Cuban music added to the travelers’ enjoyment. The 32nd Annual Havana Jazz Festival was ongoing while the Nebraska group was there. Chas stated, “We enjoyed listening to Jazz legends like Chucho Valdez and Omara Portuonodo and watching the local Cubans’ excitement as their favorites took the stage.” Music is ubiquitous on this island. Live music was played in the plazas and in the restaurants. One combo even played Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” for the Americans.
Jazz and Salsa music is the heartbeat of Cuban culture. Music from Europe and America are also enjoyed even though Castro tried unsuccessfully in the early ‘60s to discourage young people from listening to groups like the Beatles. The group’s guide shared, “Each family was given a Russian radio and they would pick up the Miami stations. We loved the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s!” In fact, there is a bronze statue of John Lennon in one of the Havana parks.
The Revolution brought many changes to Cuba with the introduction of the Communist system. The government owns the means of production and most Cubans work for the government for an average salary of $25 a month. Housing, healthcare, education, and food vouchers are provided to each citizen. Raul Castro, the current president, has loosened some of the rules and allows some private enterprise such as restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and tour guiding. The Cubans are looking forward to growing tourism as a way out of their economic distress. “People are friendly, speak English, and the food is great, so tourism has potential,” Chas stated.
Castro showed his commitment to the arts when he took the Havana Country Club from its owners (it was so exclusive even President Batista was not allowed to join) and turned it into the University of Arts. Chas showed a picture to the arts group showing the one-time golf course that now provides college level training in visual arts like oils, water color, and print making along with ceramics, sculpture and metal works.
The Museum of Fine Arts displays many examples of Cuban art. Lierk was not allowed to photograph inside the museum. The curator gave the tour and shared that he did not feel censorship. He said, “Art doesn’t have boundaries!” Street artists sell their creations in the plazas. An impressive neighborhood filled with mosaics was created in the ‘70s by artist Jose Fuster. Chas showed slides of the creative way this ceramic artist’s neighborhood has embraced his art. An American agent makes Fuster’s art available in the U.S.
Also, impressive were the number of American cars from the 1950s and earlier that are used as taxis. Due to the embargo, no American cars can be sold in Cuba, so resourceful Cubans have kept the classic cars running using ingenuity and parts from other countries. “The cars are still there, they have redone them. You’ll see a ’56 Chevy, and you’ll open up the hood of the car, and it’s a Toyota engine in it. They makeshift anything and everything,” explained Chas.
Another surprise the Lierks experienced were the beautiful churches. Although Castro suppressed religion and expelled priests and ministers, he did not have the church buildings, nor their art, destroyed. Under Raul Castro, the Cuban people are allowed to openly practice their faith. The religious art in the Cathedral is classically beautiful, stated Ellen.
Lierk closed his presentation by encouraging the art society members to visit Cuba. “As our Cuban tour guide emphasized: our people are not enemies, but neighbors. It is good to get to know one another.”
Evan Mehne, Alliance Times-Herald
February 22, 2017