The 17th of December, 2014, began like most other days in Havana. The morning was warm, the people were vibrant, and the buildings, whether in a state of decay or renovation, were beautiful to a photographer’s eye. When I set out that morning to photograph the city, I did not know that in the preceding months there had been secret talks aimed at reestablishing diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba. But there had been, and at noon the secret would become world news as Barack Obama and Raul Castro made simultaneous announcements of their intention to restore diplomatic relations. The news would sweep through Havana like a current of electricity.
Relations between the United States and Cuba were severed in 1961. For the brief background to this, read “Why Did the U.S. and Cuba Sever Diplomatic Ties in the First Place?“. And while today would bring the big announcement, the actual restoration wouldn’t occur for another seven months, on July 20, 2015. But today was historic, the kind of day when history isn’t stale on a page but animating the air around you.
These 20 photos were taken during my meanderings around Havana and are in chronological order, starting at the top with the Teatro America, which opened in 1941. Only two are directly related to the announcement; the others are simply meant to show a glimpse of Cuba’s capital at this brief moment in time.
I had passed the Teatro America on my way to a cafe for breakfast. Dana, from Germany, and I had stayed at the same hostel earlier in the week and she had recommended this place, called Cafe Arcangel.
After breakfast, I walked along the seaside promenade called the Malecon and stopped to watch a man rub a pigeon against a woman’s body. He then killed it and tossed it into the sea. This is a practice in the Afro-Caribbean religion called Santeria. The animal is said to absorb the evil in the person it is rubbed against.
Turning now into the heart of Old Havana, I crossed the street and, as I often did in Havana, imagined being run over by a 1950s car and then appearing in the opening scene of an episode of Cold Case, the television show where they try to solve crimes from long ago.
Still alive of course, I saw myself in a mirror and documented myself.
Likewise, when I saw a Cuban man bicycling with a cigar, I documented it.
This too called for a picture: ongoing infrastructure development and renovation in Habana Vieja.
I departed the Muelle Luz terminal in Old Havana, traveling by ferry to a neighborhood across Havana Harbor called Casablanca. In this picture another ferry is also leaving the terminal, bound for the neighborhood of Regla. The Russian church in the background is Our Lady of Kazan Orthodox Cathedral, opened in 2008.
From the dock in Casablanca, I walked uphill toward Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro, a historic fort at the entrance to Havana Harbor. It was during this walk, or perhaps while on the ferry, that Obama and Castro broke the news. Not being near a TV or many people, however, I would come late to the announcement. On the walk I stopped at the base of the 66-foot tall Christ of Havana sculpture and met a woman from Canada. She was in Cuba on a short vacation.
A few minutes later I walked past the wing of an American U-2 reconnaissance aircraft shot down over Cuba in 1962. It was on display with other Soviet-made Cold War relics at La Cabana fortress, part of a public exhibition recalling the October Crisis in 1962.
Now atop the lighthouse at Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro, looking at the entrance to Havana Harbor, I made a joke: What did the one old bald horse say to the other old bald horse when talking about their youth? Remember the Mane! (Get it…“Remember the Maine”?)
This gregarious Cuban man, when he spotted me walking nearby, waved me up to the harbor master’s office, and it was through him that I finally learned about the historic announcements made by the Presidents of Cuba and the United States three hours earlier. He draped this American flag over the cabinet, thinking it might make for a good picture. Here’s a video clip:
From the harbor master’s office I walked to La Triada shop at Parque Morro-Cabaña, home of the world’s longest cigar, by which I mean a cigar that is 268 feet and 4 inches (81.80m) long. I didn’t see the cigar, but I did watch some television news about the announcement (here’s a video of that, in case you’d like some audio to this still).
By the way, I just googled this cigar business and discovered that the cigar roller, Jose Castelar, broke his own record since I was there, creating earlier this year a 90-meter (295 feet) cigar to celebrate Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday.
I retraced my steps to the ferry, walking past the entrance to La Cabana de Che Guevara, a museum located at a home where Che once lived, and past the Christ of Havana sculpture, which Che too would have also seen since it was inaugurated only two weeks before Fidel Castro took Havana.
At the Christ of Havana statue I watched the late afternoon sun over the Havana skyline. It’s the same sun people vacationing in Key West, 105 miles away, would have been looking at as well.
On the ferry from Casablanca to Habana Vieja, a Cuban man gave a thumbs-up to an American photographer.
The Muelle Luz ferry terminal in Habana Vieja.
From the terminal it was a short walk to Plaza Vieja in Habana Vieja. It’s been an open space since 1559, and was recently restored.
It was a bit further of a walk to Centro Habana, where the family whose home I had been staying in were decorating for Christmas. In the dining room is Iliana Recarey Rodriguez, who is the point person of this casa particular. I would find out a few moments after taking this picture that she was inscribing the back of a poster for me with a beautiful message. I was moving to another location later this night, and so we were about to say goodbye. I loved this family.
After dropping off my backpack at the new home, which was also in Centro Habana, I walked back to Habana Vieja to a nice restaurant to celebrate this historic — and also my last — day in Cuba with one of my favorite dishes: lobster. And as I ate, I’d look up from time to time at this curious piece of art on the wall, strangely warmed by all the unexpected things this day had offered.