Splendor Amid Poverty: Gallery Nights With Cuba's Gilded Elite

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A photographer's inside look at the secret lives of Havana's super-rich, just down the street from its many poor, are a reminder that this supposed communist paradise is anything but equal.

HAVANA, Cuba -- On a recent, dark Havana night, the breeze blew the ocean spray over a crumbling sea wall along the city's seaward road as New York photographer Michael Dweck took a seat across a dockside table from Alex Castro, one of Fidel's sons. Alex is balding and solid; in Dweck's photos, part of a larger project to document Cuba's upper crust, the young, hulking Castro sits with his chin in his hands.

Dweck had arrived at the restaurant, a small open air patio with bare lightbulbs hung from buoys, after several wrong turns through the blackened streets of a western suburb. It was a private sort of place, the kind with no signs and several bolts on the front door, popular with "the family," as the Castros are called around here.

"My father," Alex told Dweck in an interview, "is an artist with words. Very good words." He himself is not so verbose. Dweck hunched a little nervously as Alex flipped through a book of Dweck's photos that captured Alex's friends and family in various intimate arrangements. "It's the first time he's seen these," Dweck told me. Waitresses brought out rounds of seared tuna, sushi, and ceviche between bottles of chilled white wine. Alex cruised through the pages, lingering on the shot of his brother's ex-girlfriend posing semi-nude, flipping past the interview quoting him saying that in Cuba, "everyone can better themselves, even without financial resources."

In the photos, models with martini glasses laugh in the back of an open convertible, women play mini-golf at the yacht club where Hemingway used to fish, the Castro boys smoke cigars. The glossy black and white images document Cuba's most privileged -- artists, musicians, models, and filmmakers -- portraying lives of splendor in one of the poorest countries in the world. This was Dweck's eighth visit to Cuba, this time for the opening of his show, Habana Libre, for which his shots of Havana's elite were displayed at the Fototeca de Cuba Museum. Dweck is the first American photographer to have a solo exhibit in Cuba since the embargo began 52 years ago. "I've had the chance," he said, "to see what most Americans, most Cubans for that matter, will never get a chance to see."

"I've had the chance to see what most Americans, most Cubans for that matter, will never get a chance to see."

He didn't just mean his intimacy with the communist leader's family, although that's been a part of it. Dweck has talked with Alex about visiting Dweck's house in Montauk, and Fidel is said to display, hanging over his bed, a portrait of a nude woman from one of Dweck's previous projects. In Cuba, taking pictures of the ruling family or reporting on their personal lives is prohibited; in the Press Freedom Index, Cuba ranked 167 out of 178. This is a place where social capital can be a stronger currency than the peso, and you have to know the right people to see this side of society.

As Dweck says, he "was lucky to get lucky." He stumbled into his entrée after a chance meeting his very first week in Cuba in 2009, when a well-connected British expatriate invited Dweck to a lavish evening affair. "I wandered into the party," Dweck said, "and by the time it ended at 3 a.m., I knew I had stumbled into this hidden world." Dweck wound up renting an apartment in Havana, a 13th floor hideaway with wrap-around terraces in the last modern building built in Cuba, a stacked tower finished in 1960. Camilo, Che Guevera's son, lived several floors down. Dweck made friends quickly (who doesn't like being told they're interesting and beautiful?) and threw two dinner parties, where he continued to meet Havana's well-heeled crowd. Before long, it was as if he was one of them.

•       •       •       •       •

Havana's reigning social scene is remarkably welcoming, even to an American. This city is perhaps one of the last places where upper-crust bacchanalia of this sort are open to whoever shows up; although Cubans are some of the warmest people in the world, the hospitality here is mostly because you don't hear about these parties unless you're the kind of person who would already be invited.

My first time in Cuba, I was not that type of person, and neither were the Cubans I met. I arrived in Havana on an old Russian Yakovlev, a plane with springs sticking through the seats and duct-tape holding up the paneling, and stayed at first in a concrete, barracks-like building with a family whose 14 year-old son had vacated the room so his parents could collect rent on it. The father, who holds an engineering graduate degree from Russia, makes $20 dollars a month and is saving up in hopes of one day sending his son away.

Later that week, in January of 2010, I hailed a 1954 Chevrolet taxi, literally held together in places with wire and twine, and set off across the city looking for farms. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the loss of its sugar subsidies brought the Cuban economy to its knees. On the island, the early 1990s are now referred to as the "Special Period," a bleak time when the average Cuban lost 10 pounds. The country's cats suffered far worse, and a native species of anaconda was eaten into extinction. Urban farms, often considered a liberal idea, were introduced on the island not out of ideology but out of grim necessity.

I found one of Havana's largest urban farms in a neighborhood of Centro Habana that had the bombed-out, worn-down feeling of a war zone. Crumbling concrete apartments loomed over slender rows of baby corn. A stray chicken foot lay sprawled in the dirt near the carrots. At the Ministry of Agriculture, a spokesperson told me that in the early 1990s, the government created a system to renovate rundown buildings (of which there are plenty) into arable plots. The produce from these 3,810 city farms is subsidized and sold locally -- the only way many people can afford vegetables.

A Cuban governmental official spoke with me on the condition of anonymity. She told me the salary of the average Cuban, under $20 U.S. dollars a month, is almost impossible to survive on. I had no idea then that, a few miles away, people were living with original Matisse prints in their bedroom.

Cuba's newspapers have trumpeted the Arab Spring as sister revolutions ("Together we will triumph!"), but there's been no mention of Occupy Wall Street. Since 2008, President Raul Castro has cautiously introduced some pro-market reforms -- people can now own their own homes, small businesses, and even employ other Cubans who are not their relatives -- but, so far, the masses remain poor and the elites removed. A one-legged man hawking CDs to tourists on a street near the Fototeca Museum where Dweck's photos were displayed said he didn't believe Cuba, or the fates of the rich, would ever change. "They say about us, if we eat, we eat," he said of the ruling class. "If we don't, we don't." That he was willing to say such a thing to a foreigner at all speaks volumes about how much Cuba has opened.

"There's very little the privileged class has that everyone else doesn't have, except money."

Nevertheless, in a country supposedly founded on egalitarian ideals, the Cuban select is as gilded as ever. At the Biltmore Yacht Club, where Ernest Hemingway (known around here as El Papa') used to fish, I spent a lazy afternoon drinking mojitos on lounge chairs, while Toby Brocklehurst, Dweck's initial contact, expounded on the low price of lobster in Havana and the stupidity of the U.S. embargo. "Cuba is harmless," he told me between drinks. "What are they going to do, attack you with cocktail sticks?"

In fact, the relative paucity of resources in Cuba (and the divisions between rich and poor) was evident long before I reached the island itself. Back in the Miami airport, people pushed mountains of luggage wrapped in lime-green anti-theft plastic slowly toward the check-in desk. It would be wrong to call them bags, per se; on my flight, there were boxes labeled as medicina, tires, spare engines, 33 inch LCD TVs, fishing rods, and an electric guitar. Just getting to Cuba is "una misión" as the woman behind me in line told me, and one not taken lightly. For families still in Cuba, these American relatives can be a lifeline.

•       •       •       •       •

How, you can almost hear Karl Marx asking from the grave, did an ostensibly communist country become so riven by disparity? The simplest answer may be that Fidel Castro's struggle for power was never truly a "peasant revolution."

As a young man Fidel actually joined the Partido Ortodoxo, an anti-communist political party. The CIA told the U.S. Senate in 1959 that "we believe Castro is not a member of the Communist party," and, as late as 1961 American political scientists were still arguing over his status as a communist. Castro himself repeatedly denied an affiliation throughout his rise to power; it wasn't until after U.S. President Eisenhower refused to support Castro's presidency that he began to develop a relationship with the Soviet Union. Although a half-century of politically charged rhetoric and rhetorically defended politics have obscured this history, Fidel Castro's interest in politics was never really Marxist.

Before taking power, Fidel referred to nationalization as a "cumbersome instrument," and pledged to not nationalize the sugar industry. He even wrote in Coronet Magazine in 1958 that he was fighting for a "genuine representative government." But after taking power, it didn't take long for Castro to change his tune. Immediately after U.S.-backed President Fulgencio Batista fled, Fidel, apparently worried about consolidating his position, arrested some of his most important former comrades-in-arms. Castro's former brother-in-law, Raphael Diaz Balart, said of Castro's motivations at the time: "He was just in that moment an opportunist leader who wanted to promote himself."

•       •       •       •       •

Half a century later, the Castros are still here, firmly at the top of the ruling class. Looking at Dweck's photos, it's clear the glorious revolution left Cuba's classless society with a few people on top of the pile.On the evening of Michael Dweck's grand opening, Alex Castro, as well as Che Guevara's son Camilo, wandered upstairs with a few armed bodyguards, where his own photo was waiting to stare back at him. Later, another of Fidel's sons, Alejandro Castro, joked to Dweck, "Thanks for making me famous."

The translated title of the show was "Free Havana," an irony that had a few of the patrons chuckling to themselves. But Dweck insisted his project was never meant to be political. As an artist, he says he wants to pursue the seductive, and as anyone clued into the tropes of Havana nights could tell you, Cuba is a sinuous, sexy place. Dweck captured scenes of nostalgic romance, a simplified glimpse of an aristocratic world that, as anyone who has watched the Edwardian-era English aristocrats in Downton Abbey knows, can be disturbingly easy to glorify. Perhaps it was Dweck's sincerity in this process that enabled him to win the friendship and trust in the high places that he did. (A more cynical take would be that the Castros are just happy to finally have a little good publicity.) But in a country where most people refuse to go on record disparaging the regime for fear of retaliation, a project like his can't escape politics.

"The well-off Cuban artists I met and photographed seemed the embodiment of the hopes of their poorest neighbors," Dweck wrote in a recent op-ed in the Huffington Post. "I know what you're thinking, that'd be like calling the Kardashians 'signs on the road to America's recovery.'" This is different, Dweck says, because his subjects show what the island could be, which in some ways is all the more tragic. "It shows Cubans who are talented and privileged," he said. "It gives them something to be proud of." Although lauded in the art world, Dweck's book has attracted criticism for the conspicuous absence in its pages of the "real" Cuba, where, as one Amazon reviewer put it, "no one is free."

At the crowded opening, after waiters handed out 700 rounds of gazpacho shots and many more of liquor, the lights flickered off in one of Havana's frequent blackouts. The party continued in darkness, undisturbed. "Eso sea Cuba," someone laughed. "This is Cuba." The subjunctive tense, used in Spanish to connote uncertainty about the future, was unmistakable.

Viviana Limpias, deputy representative of the United Nations Children's Fund in Cuba, told Dweck in an interview, "There's very little the privileged class has that everyone else doesn't have, except money." After the gallery closed, everyone retired to a four-story penthouse after-party. Men in linen suits and white crocodile-skin shoes gathered around the billiards table. Jack Bruce, the bassist of the 1960s British rock band Cream, found the hors d'oeuvres (I wanted to ask, but didn't, if he knew that Fidel had once outlawed the Beatles). The models piled into a velvet-lined hammock. By the time the black-tie clad waiters served the second course and we lit another round of cigarillos, I wasn't so sure Ms. Limpias was right. As Dweck himself would tell you, part of framing a shot is knowing what to leave out.

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Lois Farrow Parshley

Lois Parshley is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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