On the day that Oscar Elias Biscet, today’s most prominent Cuban political prisoner, received the Medal of Freedom, I spoke to Ramiro Fernandez, whose collection of photographs makes up a unique book called I Was Cuba. Fernandez’s book looks at Cuba’s past through off-beat photographs of the island taken from the late nineteenth century up until the mid-1960’s.
Many of the photographs are of the 1950’s Godfather II era of full-bodied bathing beauties, rumba dancers, and casino performers. Just a few photographs of Fidel, one of Che, and one chilling shot of toy-like tanks rumbling past a poster of Lenin and Camilo Cienfuegos (a mysterious young revolutionary who disappeared in 1959) permeate the pages of the collection. It has taken Fernandez twenty five years to collect the photos which make up his recently published book, drawing on experiences as widely different as his family life, and his work as a photo editor for People and People en Espanol.
Fernandez came to America with his family in October 1960. His father, who had been a pharmaceutical manufacturer in Havana, ran a grocery store when he first arrived in this country. Fernandez started his photo collection when he was working at a temporary job at the Museum of Modern Art. A dealer showed him the work of noted 19th century Cuban photojournalist, and he purchased an album of 20 photographs of cityscapes and rural scenes.
“I always loved photographs. My mother was an amateur photographer.” Two of his mother’s photos are among the collection, including one of Alina Fernandez Revuelta, Fidel’s daughter. “My mother was a close friend of Naty Revuelta,” Revuelta was the Cuban socialite who became Castro’s lover.
When asked whether his family supported the revolution, he replied: “Everyone did at first. Middle class people thought there was going to be real change. But we realized fairly quickly what was happening. My family left exactly twenty two months after Castro took power.”
Although the book includes some post-revolution photography, Fernandez says, “Most of the photography since the revolution does not interest me. In the book, I try to show the diversity that was Cuba, the ethnic diversity, the cultural diversity. Yes, there were always problems in Cuba but there was a lot of life then. But photographs of the 70’s and 80’s in Cuba –what would you see? Collective farms!”
He says he also tried to cliché-proof the book — which means “not a single picture in the of a 1959 Chevrolet”– the kind that currently fill the streets of Havana.
Courage in Cuba
Hernandez said he was pleased that Biscet, a devout Christian who founded a human rights group and has been in jail under harsh conditions for over seven years, was finally receiving attention for his courageous actions. He is serving a twenty-five year sentence in a high security Havana prison.
He is a hero. I wish the world-wide media was paying more attention to those who are in prison in Cuba. And the Christian pipeline to Cuba is very important. Churches send in money and medicine that is very needed and very helpful.
Hernandez has been back to Cuba just once since he left it as a child. Of it, he says:
When a Cuban visits Cuba it is very difficult. You get drawn into the life, and for the people there the life is a daily struggle. Everyone worries about what is going to happen to them in the next twenty four hours, how they are just going to get through that day and the next.
He goes on, “You cannot believe what anyone tells you. A guy will say they still support the revolution and then six weeks later you find that he is in Miami. Maybe five people really still believe and I don’t doubt that even they have doubts.”
His favorite photo in the book is of modernistic X-shape streetlights, blurred along side the ocean, taken in the 1950’s. “I remember those lights from the time I was a child driving toward Varadero beach. I thought they looked like space invaders and when I was unhappy I wanted them to swoop down and take me away to someplace else.”
For Fernandez and for so many others, loving Cuba and leaving Cuba remain poignantly intertwined.
– Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness — and Liberalism — to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.