What do you think of when someone says, ‘Cuba’?
Cigars, vintage cars? Smoky bars and Havana jazz? Gloria Estafan? T-shirts printed with the face of Che Guevara?
Perhaps, in light of recent events, Chanel? Or Khloe Kardashian?
It is fascinating to consider how, over the course of the last four decades, Cuban culture has been appropriated to American pop culture. All whilst its citizens remained in isolation under one of the most oppressive regimes the modern world has seen.
Off the back of this week’s Chanel 2017 Cruise Collection show in Havana, social media has been overrun with snaps from celebrities and the fashion elite reveling in the novelty of, well, being in Cuba.
But perhaps it was Khloe Kardashian’s poor show on Instagram yesterday that really raised eyebrows: posing seductively underneath a Fidel Castro monument in Havana. As in, Fidel Castro, dictator.
South Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said to People Magazine, “Another day in Cuba seems to bring another selfie in Havana for the Kardashians. While Khloe is taking photos with a sign that says Fidel, she should have at least some awareness that Fidel would have prohibited a Kardashians-style show.”
Hammer, meet nail. Nail, meet head.
“More than anything it’s disappointing that someone who exercises her free speech right in the U.S. is blind to the lack free speech when she takes a selfie glorifying a serial repressor.”
Havana ???????? A photo posted by Khloé (@khloekardashian) on May 4, 2016 at 7:26pm PDT
Kardashian is in town with sisters Kourtney and Kim, filming their new season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. They arrived on Tuesday night, one day after a U.S. cruise ship touched a Havana port for the first time in 48 years; and one day before Fidel Castro’s grandson Antonio walked the runway for Chanel.
What a time to be alive.
Also in Cuba on the Chanel bankroll were Tilda Swinton, Vin Diesel, Vanessa Paradis, Gisele Bündchen, Alice Dellal, Caroline de Maigret, and Langley Fox Hemingway, who rubbed shoulders with the Castro clan during the show.
Their online photos show the colourful street parade in full swing: beautiful vintage cars, dancers, Cuban bands, colourful costumes, and the chintzy new Chanel collection. Hey, it looked like fun!
But it’s what we didn’t see, that was the real problem.
Hidden behind security barriers and peeking out of windows were the citizens of Cuba.
“Tight security prevented anyone without a coveted invitation from getting too close,” reported CNN, “but local residents packed balconies along the street to catch a glimpse of some of the stars and the show.”
Chanel was quick to highlight their very deliberate selection of Cuba for the parade, citing their choice was to draw global attention to the long-isolated nation.
(Interestingly, Karl Lagerfeld hadn’t even been to Cuba before the show, with the approval for the parade only being approved March of this year.)
It’s certainly the most excitement Cuba has seen since 1965, when Castro came to power and private industry was banned as Cuba turned to communism.
Thankfully, in recent years Castro’s younger brother and current President – Raul Castro – has slowly allowed more capitalism to enter the economy and a consumer culture has again emerged from the shadows.
Last year, the US and Cuba re-established diplomatic ties, with president Barack Obama being the first president to visit Cuba in almost 90 years.
It’s all good news, people.
And yet – something doesn’t quite sit right about Chanel, and the Kardashians, seizing upon the troubled region for their own publicity benefits.
Everyone I know who has traveled to Cuba describes it the same way: it’s the four day affect.
The first day, you’re loving it. The vintage cars and Instagram-worthy street scenes are divine, and the booze is flowing fast and cheap. Second and third days are spent exploring, and by the fourth day, you are beginning to understand what life under a dictatorship is really about.
Your initial naivety is met with the reality of day to day life in Cuba: poverty, isolation, dishonest government, and terrifyingly restricted freedoms.
A friend of mine who visited Cuba late 2015 was shocked at the outrageously skewed news stories the Cuban people believed. She said she was constantly in awe at how little most Cubans knew of the outside world, and how much they believed of the propaganda the Castro government is still publishing.
Jose Garcia, who grew up under the dictatorship, describes his childhood. “Children were constantly asked to sing socialist songs and show our respect to such icons as Fidel or Che Guevara,” he says.
“Politics was an unavoidable fact of life, and you were expected to voluntarily get involved in the ‘building of communism.’ I became very aware from a very young age, probably 7 or 8 years old, that I had to play the game or suffer the consequences and be considered an anti-revolutionary or a traitor to the motherland.”
For years, the Cuban government had major restrictions on its citizens leaving the country. It was only two years ago that they lifted their travel restrictions. Even now, should a citizen remain out of Cuba for more than 24 months, then their status would change to “Cuban Resident of the Exterior” and they lose all privileges.
Food remains on a communist rations system.
“After the 1959 revolution, Cuba adopted a socialist food production and distribution system that ensured a survival level of heavily subsidised food for everyone…with extra rations for children and the elderly.” (The Guardian)
The system continues today. Every Cuban family registers with a local supply store, where they can use a libreta or ration book. This typically provides a limited amount of rice, white sugar, brown sugar, cooking oil, eggs, coffee, chicken, buns and salt.
Things like milk, beef, spices, and potatoes are next to impossible to find.
Make no mistake, the reality of life in Cuba is hard.
So is Obama gonna visit the REAL Cuba, like this neighborhood in Havana? Will he be able to talk to the REAL Cubans, like the people in this picture? Obviously not. If no changes occur in Cuba after this new relationship with Cuba (“reconciliation”), if people continue being oppressed, if political prisioners are not liberated, if the fugitives Cuba is harboring from the US are not turned in, then that means the US agrees and supports the Castro government. Unfortunately, I do not foresee any of those changes from occurring. Furthermore, I foresee us returning Gitmo and paying the Cuban government billions of dollars in “reparations” for the 55+ year economic embargo imposed on Cuba by the US. Who cares about the millions of dollars stolen by the Cuban government when the Cubans fleeing the island had to leave everything behind? Or when private businesses, including hundreds of American-owned businesses, were confiscated by the Cuban government? No one really cares, except the old Cubans who left the island in the 1960’s, the ones who paved the way for the rest of the Hispanic immigration in Miami. In other words, the Castros are once again victorious. I hope to God my predictions are wrong. Time will tell. ???????????????? #cuba #usa #havana #raulcastro #loscastros #obama #historicvisit #therealcuba #bullshit #judas #lies #mentiras #hipocresia #hypocrisy #politicalprisioners #libertad #freedom #democracy #cubalibre
In her interview with People Magazine, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen draws attention to this ‘unglamorous’ side of Cuba.
“I know it’s cool for celebrities to go to Cuba, but the Cuban people don’t experience the glamorous Havana that is featured on social media,” she said.
“Far from photo shoots and fruity drinks, everyday Cubans experience a different, sad reality. Now, the Kardashians are parachuting into the island to tape their vapid TV show. Haven’t the Cuban people suffered enough?”
It feel trite to slam Karl or Gisele or Chanel. It even feels trite to slam the Kardashians (there’s something I never thought I would say!). You can clearly understand that their intentions were probably good – Cuba is reopened, and ready for business. They love the attention these types of visits bring.
But the question remains: are the right conversations being had?
Entertainment Tonight covers the Kardashian’s Cuba trip. (Post continues after video)
Chantal Fernadez sums it up perfectly in her article for Fashionista:
“It’s been a milestone week for Cuban international activity: on Monday, the first American cruise ship docked on the island with 700 tourists.
And while these visitors, along with Chanel’s team of guests, models and editors, will bring valuable tourism dollars to Cuba before their picturesque vacations are over, the government will reap the benefits, not the Cuban people.”
Chanel, Karl, and the Kardashian circus are just figureheads for modern America. I mean, no sooner had Cuba warily opened its front gate to the world, they were trampled by the capitalist stampede of people and brands ready to leverage the novelty for their own publicity.
As disappointing as this initial rush has been, let’s hope this is the start of a new chapter in Cuba’s history.