Photographers' Blog

Home sweet (furtive) home

By Desmond Boylan

People in Havana refer to migrant workers from eastern Cuba as “Palestinians.” They arrive in Havana and its outskirts to work and make an honest living, and stay. Many of them have no choice but to secretively build a home in the bush to settle into.

SLIDESHOW: CUBA’S ILLEGAL HOMES

I watched and documented one of these constructions from the ground up and learned many things I had no idea about. I saw the use of several extremely simple but efficient building techniques dating back centuries, and met some very interesting people for whom I now feel great admiration.

The story began with Edelio Suarez, a migrant from the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. Edelio, a strongly-built migrant laborer, said jokingly about the nickname put on him in Havana, “Fidel Castro and Raul Castro were the first ‘Palestinians’ to move to Havana in 1959, so why shouldn’t we?”

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his brother, President Raul Castro, are from the village of Biran in the Eastern province of Holguin. In 1959 they moved in on Havana at the end of combat in the final phases of the Cuban Revolution. Thousands of migrants have since moved from east to west, working and establishing themselves in and around Havana.

Restrictions on people’s movements in Cuba until last year made it very difficult for migrants to move freely around the country. They still can be sent back to their province of origin if stopped by the police, especially if they cannot prove they have a job. Raul Castro has relaxed those rules so migrants can move more freely now if they have relatives already in or around the capital, but they still they must seek jobs and work within the law.

Cockfighting in an anti-aircraft bunker

By Desmond Boylan

In Cuba, it is legal to own fighting cocks, it is legal to train them, and it is legal to put them to fight, but one detail –  all forms of betting and gambling are strictly forbidden since 1959, when the Cuban Revolution started.  And the sole reason to fight cocks is to bet on them. It is an activity so popular among Cubans that stopping it would pose a huge challenge for the authorities and would be counterproductive.

I spoke to a man named Yurien, who said, “President Raul likes cockfighting, our commanders Ramiro and Guillermo also like it, and we like it. Cockfighting is a part of Cuba so we do it with order and discipline. It is unstoppable. There are also a few legal arenas set up by the state, and even in those betting exists, but in a quiet and discreet way.”

The most impressive site used for illegal cockfighting I visited was a military anti-aircraft shelter built into the side of a hill on the outskirts of a Cuban city, reachable after a short trek through thick bush. It struck me as a place in the middle of nowhere. The site was full of people enjoying an afternoon with their favorite pastime, cockfighting. As I arrived a man quickly came over with the entry tickets, in a highly organized manner. The fights were on and the cocks were safe, very safe, in the shade of the underground bunker.

The Cuban gazelle

By Desmond Boylan

A mixture of gazelle and human is the impression Dayron gave me when he took off from where I was standing on the training grounds and jumped the first hurdle. He became tiny in the lens very fast, and when he was running towards me there wasn’t much time to shoot until he filled the frame.

Dayron Robles is the main sporting figure of the moment in Cuba. In his specialty event of the men’s 110m hurdles, he won gold at the Beijing Olympics and is the current world record-holder.

You would not think this when you speak to him. He is humble, reserved, down-to-earth, gentle, agreeable and easygoing, but at the same time there is a distant look in his eyes.

Another day on the job

By Desmond Boylan

Imagine a job that runs from Monday to Monday, starts at 5 am every day and does not end until 9 pm if all goes well and according to plan. No days off permitted.

The basic description is: A job to be filled by a person capable of performing a variety of skilled activities throughout the day starting at sunrise, a quick 3-mile hike each morning over rugged terrain, and several more long hikes each day under the hot Cuban sun, in pouring rain or any given meteorological conditions. The job involves collecting, packing, carrying and processing produce necessary for the proper development of the business assets. The pay is 500 Cuban pesos per month, around $20.

The person who was selected for this job 25 years ago is Bienvenido Castillo, nicknamed Lilly, a 74-year-old Cuban farmer, animal breeder, cow herder and tree climber. Whatever agriculture-related task you can imagine, he seems able to do it, easily.

Guilty of tourism

By Desmond Boylan

Recently I was at the beach on a very hot and sunny day in the province of Matanzas, east of Havana, when a group of tourists arrived in a bus. As I watched, two of them sneaked behind a bush, stripped to their underwear, slipped their clothes to their companions, and had a quick dip in the sea. They were obviously nervous, watching out so that they wouldn’t be spotted by their minders. I realized that they were Americans, and that by taking a swim and committing an act of tourism, they were breaking the laws of the U.S embargo. They were breaking the law in their own country, and they knew it.

United States citizens are now allowed to fly in directly to visit Cuba under a cultural program bound by strict conditions, the main one being that they are not allowed to practice tourism. By following the rules they will not be breaking the 60-year trade embargo imposed on the island under U.S. law. At last U.S. citizens are allowed to visit this forbidden country, listed by the U.S. as a sponsor of terrorism along with Iran, Syria, Sudan, and North Korea, but they have to behave themselves.

The sneaky swimmers spoke in a nervous whisper, twisting their mouths as if someone could read their lips from the distance. As they glanced over their shoulders, it was like a massive crime was being committed with a long prison sentence as punishment for being caught. There were rumors among them that minders were infiltrating their groups and posing as one of them. If it were true, anyone could be a minder reporting back to the U.S. congress on illegal tourist activities engaged by American travelers with the aim of stopping these tours and tightening the embargo once again.

A photo blog without photos

By Desmond Boylan

Absolutely no choice. This photography blog post has no pictures. (Part 1)

I was recently driving towards Havana on a small, quiet country road in central Cuba. As I came onto a long stretch there was a truck moving slowly ahead of me in my lane, that suddenly stopped on the right side. I approached slowly knowing that in Cuba there are big potholes, very scarce and slow moving traffic, and cows, horses, hens and even children crossing the roads at any time, always without looking.

I put on the indicator to overtake the truck, but I noticed there was some unusual movement off to the right among some people beside some small country homes.

What happened next was an extremely intense situation.

I suddenly saw two women, one of whom was holding a newborn baby still attached to the other by the umbilical cord, and both were yelling for help. I will never forget the expression on their faces. They had tried to climb into the truck cabin but were unable to. They looked at me, screaming for help. Before I could stop the car completely, the three passengers in the back seat of my car had already jumped out and helped in the mother of the child, followed by the other woman holding the baby. The woman holding the baby turned out to be the other’s mother, so I now had three generations of a family in crisis in my backseat. Dangling between them was the umbilical cord with the baby turning purple. I am not a doctor but common sense told me that there was no time at all to lose. I put the car in first gear and before the doors were closed I accelerated down the road blowing the horn and flashing the headlights continuously. I reached 120 kilometers per hour in a few seconds, and kept it there.

Monster smoke

I live in Cuba, cigar country by excellence, and I do like the smell and taste of burning cigars. I like the look of cigars, I like their tan color, and I like the way bugs and mosquitoes keep well away from me if I am smoking one. I like holding a cigar, I like the smell left inside empty cigar boxes, and I even like collecting the empty boxes. I really like giving good cigars as presents to friends who appreciate them.

In the rest of the world there is always an air of indoor exclusivity, mysticism, complicity, conspiracy, luxurious pomposity, deep conversation, relaxation and a feel-good atmosphere around cigars. In Cuba, cigars mean something very different; they are a celebration every day, all the time. Apart from the ever-present feel good and cool factor, cigars are a normal part of daily life, can be found everywhere and are accessible to everyone. Here, they are not exclusive, and can be acquired for any price from a few cents to around $25 apiece.

Years ago I once carefully packed my suitcase in Havana with over three hundred hand-rolled, fresh Creole cigars, the ones typical Cubans smoke regularly. These are the type sold without the nice wooden boxes and rings, with a slightly rustic look but wonderful taste. I flew from Cuba through Europe, half way around the world to Asia, with the cigars for my own consumption and as gifts to friends who loved them as much. I calculated that in my suitcase there were around 45 meters of cigar if I laid them end to end, and I thought that was a lot.

Cuban “extreme” agriculture or extreme sport?

Cuban pruner or “desmochador,”  Omar Aguilar, carries his ropes on his shoulder as he walks through thick bush in a forest of Royal Palm trees. He is cool, walks slowly like a tiger looking for prey, but he is not hunting for animals.  He is hunting for a plant to feed pigs with. His job is to climb Cuban Royal Palms, the tall, majestic, hurricane-proof tree, and carefully lower its fruit to the ground.

Omar Aguilar, a pruner or "desmochador", walks in a forest looking to climb a Royal Palm tree to cut branches of berries on a farm on the outskirts of Havana February 17, 2011. The Royal Palm Tree, is also known as Cuban Royal Palm, and its berries are commonly used to feed pigs and produce oil.  REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

The Cuban Royal Palm grows wild all over the island and offers food for animals, berries to produce palm oil, fiber to make waterproof roofs, strong rope, hardwood and even brooms to sweep floors.

Omar Aguilar, a pruner or "desmochador", prepares his rope to climb a Royal Palm tree to cut branches of berries on a farm on the outskirts of Havana February 17, 2011. The Royal Palm Tree, is also known as Cuban Royal Palm, and its berries are commonly used to feed pigs and produce oil.  REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

Omar looks up to the high trees to spot the branches with ripe berries. When he locates a worthwhile one with at least three clumps, he hugs the tree with a short rope stretched between each hand, adjusts his grip with his right knee and left foot and, as if it were the easiest thing in the world, he starts climbing the trunk step by step.

Ultimate proof of life: Photographing Fidel Castro’s re-appearance

Nobody in Cuba or elsewhere believed the international press would be photographing former Cuban leader Fidel Castro again, in 2010.

Since 1959 and even before, he has been killed and buried many times by rumors, reports in the media, his enemies and circles of opponents to him.

“He is dead”.

“He has been mummified”.

“He died and the government is not announcing his death just yet”.

“He is dead long ago and the pictures are just photo tricks”.

“He is dead and he has a double”.

Constant rumors, hopes, plans, talk and wishes for his demise, have even been occasionally echoed by some mainstream media, triggering Fidel Castro’s death celebrations in Miami among right wing circles and the hardcore Cuban exile community.

A picture from both sides

There was great interest in the visit to Mexico by Cuba’s foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque, especially since Mexico’s previous President Vicente Fox had broken off diplomatic relations with the island nation. Adding to the expectation was the fact that the minister’s first attempt to visit Mexico this year was canceled when Cuba was hit by a hurricane.

Perez Roque’s trip was finally reconfirmed with a packed agenda, with one event closely following the next. The first was a visit to the monument to Cuba’s independence hero, José Martí, followed by a visit to another monument to Mexico’s own hero, Benito Juárez. The monuments are not far apart, but because of the tight schedule most photographers assumed that Perez Roque would be driven between them and they went ahead to take an early position. To the surprise of a few, including myself, the minister decided to walk the distance.

Cuba’s Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque walks during a visit to the Benito Juarez monument in Mexico City October 20, 2008. REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar

As I was running alongside the Cuban delegation, between them and other colleagues that had taken up a position on the sidelines, Perez Roque suddenly turned to me and said he’d like to take pictures of us for a change. He asked me for the camera I was carrying in my hand, exactly the one with the short zoom that I needed to shoot him from so close, so instead I offered him my second camera equipped with a longer zoom.