In September 2011 I photographed the Notre Dame Magazine story “Rome of the Americas.” The magazine’s associate editor, John Nagy, and I accompanied a group of graduate students from the School of Architecture as they did research. I was pretty sure it was my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit Cuba.
Surprise! In October, the Institute for Latino Studies, along with faculty and students from the theology department, gathered in Havana for a colloquium on Pope Francis’ theology and his visits to Latin America generally and Cuba specifically. I was invited to tag along and take photos and video for a feature on the University home page. In the five years between my two visits, U.S.–Cuba relations have moved a bit more toward normalization. I wondered what would be similar and what would be different from 2011 to 2016.
The similarities: Cuba remains a warm, friendly place with stunning visuals. Everywhere there’s color, texture and of course the classic cars.
The differences: Right away I noticed one big change: They stamped my passport! The next thing I noticed is a little detail that perhaps only I would notice: They changed the license plates on the cars from the U.S.-shaped plates to a more European style. I kind of preferred the old way, but … progress!
Though the U.S. has re-established a proper embassy in Cuba, the trade embargo remains in place. I noticed several instances of signs and graffiti calling for the end of the embargo, or “bloqueo” in Spanish, which I didn’t see in 2011.
But the biggest difference by far was the evidence of modern communications, specifically smartphones. In 2011 I hardly saw a cell phone of any type, but now everyone is heads-down in a screen. Internet access has come to the public, but thus far only in a limited way. Clusters of people sitting on curbs were an unmistakable visual cue that you had come to a Wi-Fi hotspot.
If or how these changes will continue with the election of Donald Trump and the death of Fidel Castro will be interesting to watch. I’m glad to have seen the Havana before and during this transition, and I’ll jump at the chance to return in another five years, or even sooner.
Near the end of this most recent trip I saw a street art mural of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara and remembered being in the same spot five years earlier. Che had faded … literally but also, perhaps, metaphorically.