What Obama’s Cuba Announcement Means

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
Earlier today, President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro held press conferences announcing that they have been involved in secret negotiations for over a year with the end goal of beginning to normalize relations between the two countries, which have been embroiled in a Cold War-like diplomatic deadlock since Fidel Castro took power more than half a century ago.

The changes President Obama outlined (see the full video here) are sweeping, and they are historic. But as the initial euphoria wears off, people are starting to ask what, exactly, the changes mean.

A Pastors for Peace Bus in Havana, Cuba in 2010. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
A Pastors for Peace Bus in Havana, Cuba in 2010. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Here’s a quick summary:

1. The embargo is still in effect.
President Obama cannot unilaterally strike down the embargo. Though aspects of the embargo are being described as being “eased,” the embargo remains in effect for the foreseeable future. If you don’t know what the embargo entails, it’s worth reading the highlights here.

2. That means that you can’t just book a trip to Cuba tomorrow.
Unless you fall into one of the 12 categories of US travelers who are authorized to visit Cuba, you still can’t travel unimpeded to Cuba– at least not legally.

3. But if you DO fall in that category, it seems like travel IN Cuba is about to become much easier.
For those of us who can travel to Cuba, spending money to get to Cuba and spending money IN Cuba sounds like it’s going to become much easier, thanks to a bilateral agreement that will permit Americans to use debit cards in Cuba. Can I tell you how thrilled I am about this? I hated dealing with cash only.

4. And we’ll be legally permitted to spend money in Cuba.
One of the trickier restrictions imposed on Americans traveling to Cuba is that we technically weren’t permitted to spend money there. I was on a White House conference call about Cuba this afternoon, in which we were informed that Americans will be allowed to return to the States with up to $400 worth of goods. $100 of that $400 can be alcohol (Havana Club!) and cigars (Cohiba! Romeo y Julieta!).

5. I predict that the restricted access to US travelers (imposed by the US government, not the Cuban government) will be the next domino to fall.
And believe me when I tell you that there are dedicated staff members at all the major air carriers, hoteliers, etc. who will be ready, willing, and able to get you to Cuba as soon as they’re legally permitted to do so. Any major player in the market has a Cuba Plan just waiting in the wings. In the meantime, if you’re American and you want to travel to Cuba, you can read my SATW-award-winning article about how to do so here.

6. Cuban Americans can now send more money–a lot more money–to family members in Cuba.
This is one of the most interesting changes and one that’s likely to have a considerable impact.

7. President Obama has charged Secretary of State Kerry with reviewing Cuba’s status as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Also a big deal.

8. The US will establish an embassy in Havana.
This has been touted as really big news, but I’m not sure it is. There’s already a “Special Interests Section” in Havana that is staffed by Americans and does embassy-like functions. What I’m still wondering is whether we’ll get a functioning Cuban Embassy in the States. The Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. is a largely ineffective quagmire where no one ever answers the phone and US policy has made it extremely difficult for Cuban Americans with Cuban passports to complete basic transactions. I speak from firsthand experience.

9. The US will support major telecoms expansion.
What this means exactly isn’t totally clear yet, but given all the recent exposes about USAID (see: Zuzuneo and attempt to manipulate thought via Cuban hip hop), I’m going to withhold speculations and judgments por ahora.

10. Cuba will release 53 political prisoners indicated as such by the US.
Big deal? Yes. But questions remain about Americans who exiled themselves to Cuba and whether/how they will be affected by the diplomatic thaw. Among them are Black Panther members, such as Assata Shakur.

11. The US will expand commercial trade with Cuba.
Many Americans aren’t aware of this, but the US has had trade with Cuba for years. Still, there are some significant changes under the new policy, including the removal of restrictions that affect third countries engaging in trade with Cuba. Previously, for example, cargo ships that made ports of call in Cuba were not allowed to come to the US within six months of docking in Cuba. It was a lame but effective attempt to compel other countries to go along with the US embargo of Cuba.

A complete list of the changes as issued by the White House can be found here.

Now Showing in NYC: “Drapetomanía: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba”

Text & Instagram Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
No critical commentary to accompany this announcement… just a quick note to say that I took a turn through The 8th Floor’s latest exhibit today and it’s worth a visit.

Six of the works included in the "Drapetomanía" show.
Six of the works included in the “Drapetomanía” show.

“Drapetomanía: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba” is a show that focuses on work that was made between 1978 and 1983 by Afro-Cuban artists and/or with African and Afro-Cuban/Caribbean influences. The exhibit includes pieces by some of the most recognizable names of the period, among them Manuel Mendive and Rene Peña, as well as others who have largely been forgotten in the years since.

The show, which pulls many of its pieces from the collection of the Rubins (again, showing just how wide-ranging their taste and knowledge of art are), was curated by Alejandro de la Fuente, author and Harvard professor. Francisco and I met de la Fuente back in 2006, when he presented his book, A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in 20th Century Cuba, at the Brooklyn Public Library; this show is a compelling extension of his long course of study on Afro-Cuban issues and ideas.

“Drapetomanía” opened on March 7 and will continue until July 18. The 8th Floor is located at 17 West 17th Street in Manhattan, and is open Tuesday-Thursday from 11am-6pm and on Friday from 10am-5pm.

Ending Soon: Steven Daiber’s “Aqui en la Lucha” at The Center for Book Arts

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**

It had been ages since I’d visited The Center for the Book Arts, a small and lovely space in Chelsea where, among other activities, books are made. I’d all but forgotten about the spot, which hosts workshops, classes, and exhibits, but a question about book preservation prompted me to stop by last weekend.

Images from "Aqui en la Lucha," an exhibit that runs through March 29 at The Center for Book Arts in New York City.
Images from “Aqui en la Lucha,” an exhibit that runs through March 29 at The Center for Book Arts in New York City.

Coincidentally, the Center was showing an exhibit about Cuba called “Aqui en la Lucha.” If you’ve been to Cuba, you’ll likely recall this phrase, a refrain of daily life that means, more or less, “Here in the struggle.” When someone asks, “How are you doing?”, a Cuban is apt to respond, “Aqui, en la lucha.”

The exhibit, which runs through March 29, is a project of Steven Daiber, an American artist who has been traveling to Cuba since 2001. There, he has taught book arts to professional artists and in art schools in Havana; the exchanges he has had with Cuban artists led, in 2007, to the development of a project that resulted in this exhibit, which consists of several handmade books containing images made by silkscreen, lithograph, and woodcut. Each book is organized around a theme; though fairly predictable in nature (ie: the same social and political themes that are explored in most Cuban artwork shown in the U.S.), some of the images are really striking, including “La llama,” which shows a trio of paper airplanes suspended by a string, hovering between flames surrounding them on both sides.

The exhibit is small but engaging, especially for those who enjoy Cuban art or have a general interest in Cuba. “Aqui en La Lucha” runs through March 29.

Now Open in Cuba: English-Language Bookstore, Cuba Libro

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Image: Courtesy of Cuba Libro
**

Cuba Libro is the island's only bookstore specializing in English-language books.
Cuba Libro is the island’s only bookstore specializing in English-language books.
Because my husband is Cuban and because I’ve visited Cuba nearly a dozen times over the past decade, I get lots of travel questions about the island. I can’t answer most of these questions, as I tend to stay with my mother-in-law and I’ve never experienced Cuba as a tourist; I end up directing inquiries to my friend Conner Gorry, who has lived on the island for longer than I’ve been visiting. Her blog and her travel app are as much intel as you’re going to get without moving there yourself.

Conner just sent word about Cuba Libro, an English-language bookstore and cafe in Havana… the island’s only English-language bookstore and cafe. It just opened this week. Here’s everything you need to know about it, straight from Conner:

This island is unique in so many ways (both good and not so) and one thing that has always struck me is that Havana must be one of the only – if not the only – capital city where you can’t get an English-language newspaper or novel. The reasons are complex (what isn’t in Cuba?!) but it means literature lovers have to beg, borrow or steal books in English or bring their Kindle well-loaded.

Located on a terminally shady corner in the desirable Vedado district, this ‘café literario’ is bringing the bookstore/coffeehouse concept to the island. All books and magazines pass through the ‘Conner filter’ (if you find a Harlequin Romance on the shelves, you get a free espresso!): I guarantee if you’re in need of quality reading material or conversation with interesting, creative Cubans, you’ll find it here.

In addition to featuring monthly shows by talented local artists – August showcases over a dozen captivating images by photographer Alain Gutiérrez – Cuba Libro offers many services travelers are after: water bottle refills; postcards, stamps, and mailing; a cultural calendar (so you won’t miss that hot concert or polemic play); and expert travel tips. This is an ethically-responsible business that offers a lending library for those who can’t afford books, a collective employment model where the entire team benefits, and an environmentally-friendly approach. Like Cuba itself, Cuba Libro strives for equity and a healthy, culturally-rich atmosphere.

This is also a regguetón free zone – we listen to real music at Cuba Libro! Come early to snag a coveted hammock or hanging chair in the garden.

Open Monday-Saturday, 10am-8pm.

The Human Gaze at Guantanamo

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
It’s easy for us to forget about Guantanamo— and the fact that people have been incarcerated there without charges for more than 11 years– until capital B, capital N “Big News” crosses the Straits and floats into newspaper headlines.

Such was the case last Sunday, when The New York Times published an op-ed by a detainee who is among the hunger strikers at Guantanamo. Other outlets picked up the story, bringing the ethical, moral, and human rights concerns of America’s offshore detention center back to our national consciousness.

No matter how much we read about Guantanamo, though, it’s hard to get a sense of what, exactly, is going on there and what it’s like. There are only a handful of journalists (The Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg is the only one who comes to mind immediately) covering Guantanamo news coherently and consistently… and by that, I mean being there. And there are even fewer visual references; I don’t know of a single photographer who covers Guantanamo as a photojournalistic beat (That doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist; I’m just saying I don’t know one.).

I was able to visit Guantanamo Bay in 2008 on a journalist visa, and it occurred to me that the photos I’ve got stored away might actually be of interest to those of you who give a damn about what’s going on at Guantanamo.^ Moreso, you might be interested by the process that governed the taking and sharing of these photos. More about that below.

I filed one piece about Guantanamo for a major outlet (a science research piece for Scientific American), but didn’t find any other takers for Guantanamo stories, despite the dearth of articles that cover Guantanamo outside the scope of legal proceedings. So let’s dust off these images and talk a little bit about them in context.

The Joint Task Force (or JTF) facility is just one part of the US military's installation at Guantanamo Bay, though it's become the most notorious due to the detainee situation. When I visited in 2008, Camp Delta was one of the facilities where detainees were housed.
The Joint Task Force (or JTF) facility is just one part of the US military’s installation at Guantanamo Bay, though it’s become the most notorious due to the detainee situation. When I visited in 2008, Camp Delta was one of the facilities where detainees were housed.
Rules governing photographers' activities at Guantanamo Bay, especially behind the fences of the detention facility, are quite strict. Images of detainees were not allowed, nor were images of officers taken without their knowledge and permission.
Rules governing photographers’ activities at Guantanamo Bay, especially behind the fences of the detention facility, are quite strict. Images of detainees were not allowed, nor were images of officers taken without their knowledge and permission.
Not being allowed to take photos of people--detainees especially--produces images that are, by their very nature, "constructed." There's a sense of disembodiment, dislocation, and sudden abandonment of place--where are all the people?
Not being allowed to take photos of people–detainees especially–produces images that are, by their very nature, “constructed.” There’s a sense of disembodiment, dislocation, and sudden abandonment of place–where are all the people?

A press officer reviewed photographers' images and video at the end of each day to ensure that no compromising shots had been captured. Technically speaking, this shot could have been deleted by the press officer.
A press officer reviewed photographers’ images and video at the end of each day to ensure that no compromising shots had been captured. Technically speaking, this shot could have been deleted by the press officer.

One of the most difficult things to understand about Guantanamo is how--or whether--the US justice system is operating. During 2008, hearings were held in this room, but they weren't (and still aren't) governed by the same kinds of laws that govern detention and legal proceedings on the US mainland.
One of the most difficult things to understand about Guantanamo is how–or whether–the US justice system is operating. During 2008, hearings were held in this room, but they weren’t (and still aren’t) governed by the same kinds of laws that govern detention and legal proceedings on the US mainland.

Being at Guantanamo, whether as an officer or as a detainee, can feel incredibly isolated, both geographically and, in the case of detainees, culturally. Even though news comes in from the outside world, it's not passed along to detainees without being subjected to the censor's black permanent marker before it's made available in the library.
Being at Guantanamo, whether as an officer or as a detainee, can feel incredibly isolated, both geographically and, in the case of detainees, culturally. Even though news comes in from the outside world, it’s not passed along to detainees without being subjected to the censor’s black permanent marker before it’s made available in the library.

To see more of my photos from Guantanamo Bay, please see this gallery on Flickr.

To follow developments at Guantanamo Bay, follow journalist Carol Rosenberg on twitter.


^The latest report out of Guantanamo Bay is that almost half of the detainees–77 of 166– are currently on a hunger strike.