Not My Father’s Cuba

Haunted by her CIA father’s anti-Castro views, Leslie Absher travels to Cuba to discover it for herself.

photo essay by Leslie Absher

The CIA was more of a calling than a job for my father. He was passionately anti-communist. His first assignment had been to monitor intelligence reports during the Cuban Missile Crisis, so I grew up worrying about the dangers of Fidel Castro. Later, my politics became my own and far more liberal. Maybe this is why I wanted to travel to Cuba, to shake my father’s Cuba from my mind and to see it for myself.

My wife and I arrived in Cuba the day before Obama’s visit, just as the sun was setting. During the cab ride into Havana, dark city blocks stretched along crumbling avenues. I asked the driver, a man in his early 40’s with serious eyes and impeccable English, why there was so little foreign investment from countries not part of the embargo. He tried to explain. He said the Cuban government didn’t make it easy for foreign investment and that there were too many rules. He told us that he was born on the island and would probably die here, but even he didn’t understand his country. A quiet enveloped the three of us. When we arrived at our casa particulara, a privately run bed and breakfast, he got out and lifted our bags from the trunk. He stood solemnly beside the car, straight backed, and shook our hands. Then he gave us some parting advice. He told us to have a good time and to enjoy ourselves, but said, “Whatever you do, don’t try to understand Cuba.”

As I walked Havana’s streets, I saw lots of evidence of the Cold War, from faded Cold War slogans to empty store shelves. But I also noticed resistance, enigmatic street art that found a way around the government censors. There were elements of capitalism too, newly opened private restaurants and street vendors who refilled disposable lighters. Proof that my father’s Cuba was gone was there each time I opened Granma, the state run newspaper, and saw pictures of Obama shaking hands with Raul Castro or another Cuban official. It was also there when I saw American flags on balconies or people’s clothing. The Cold War seemed relegated to the history books.

Everyone I spoke with seemed hopeful about the thaw in Cuban and U.S. relations.

Still, I was affected by the crumbling structures and the way people lived within them or alongside them. There was an ache that permeated everything; the way people walked the streets as they did errands. It lurked inside abandoned buildings and playgrounds. I even sensed it at street carnivals, where performers danced on stilts in bright satin costumes, their faces distracted. I missed my father sharply as I walked the streets of Havana. I felt as if we were seeing it together, as if he were walking beside me. Would the dilapidated state of the country have moved him the way it did me?

If emptiness is an opening, a place for something new to begin and take hold, then this is the ache I felt in Cuba.

Even now, as I write this, I feel the ache of an island country ground down by 50 years of isolation, the ache of a people who have suffered under the unforgiving policies of two governments for decades. Will this suffering die with Castro? Will it continue with Trump?

In my CIA father's version of Cuba, there would be no American flags in Havana. I was surprised to find them everywhere.
In my CIA father’s version of Cuba, there would be no American flags in Havana. I was surprised to find them everywhere.
I expected to see images of Fidel plastered everywhere but instead I found Che Guevara watching over all of us.
I expected to see images of Fidel plastered everywhere but instead I found Che Guevara watching over all of us.
People queue for shops with empty shelves.
People queue for shops with empty shelves.
A caped crusader, Old Havana.
A caped crusader, Old Havana.
Private enterprise: a vendor refilling disposable lighters.
Private enterprise: a vendor refilling disposable lighters.
When I strayed from refurbished tourist plazas, Havana crumbled.
When I strayed from refurbished tourist plazas, Havana crumbled.
Cubans walk with purpose.
Cubans walk with purpose.
Shopkeeper keeps watch.
Shopkeeper keeps watch.
Street carnival on Calle Obispo.
Street carnival on Calle Obispo.
D sea pool
The sea pool at the Hotel Copacabana in exclusive Miramar, built just before Castro came to power.
Empty swing sets under a blue sky.
Empty swing sets under a blue sky.
Some taxi drivers told us everything while others said nothing.
Some taxi drivers told us everything while others said nothing.

 

 

 

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Leslie Absher is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Oakland. She writes about travel, women’s lives and growing up with a CIA father. Follow her on Instagram @lesabsher and read her articles at leslieabsher.com.

All photographs in this submission are the property of Leslie Absher. They are protected by U.S. Copyright Laws, and are not to be downloaded or reproduced in any way without the written permission of Leslie Absher. Copyright 2015-16 Leslie Absher All Rights Reserved.


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