Two years ago, President Obama made history when he reestablished relations with Cuba - a country the U.S. had embargoed since the Cold War. What once was forbidden territory for most Americans has now become a tourist destination.
Photographer Randy Bronkema has experienced both worlds. He traveled there in 2013, before the embargo was lifted, and again last March. Bronkema says Cuba has changed a lot since the U.S. renewed ties:
“It made them look at their own society and say, ‘We need to do something.’ Because they couldn’t own a business - it wasn’t legal. When I was there in 2013, taxi drivers were common. Today it’s full of shops. Full of businesses - a lot of restaurants, a lot of souvenir shops. Most people live upstairs and then the downstairs is like a hallway where they set up shop.”
At the August Art Hop in Kalamazoo, Bronkema’s photo exhibit Window to Cuba shows how the Communist-led country is changing - but also what parts of it have stayed in the past.
It’s this contrast between old and new that make Bronkema’s photos interesting. A man looks at his smartphone near a freshly-painted vintage car. The paint on the buildings behind him are peeling off revealing bright shades of pink, blue, and orange. In another photo, a man casually walks by graffiti of Che Guevara - one of the architects of the Cuban revolution.
Bronkema says Cuba is starting to rebuild itself:
“Today they’re getting investors to come in and build new hotels, to improve the streets, to even make new homes for people so they’re not living in something that was a relic from the revolution. Because that’s really what they lived in. And now they’re improving that, they’re painting the outsides of their homes. They’ve really come a long way.”
Even so, Bronkema says, some things haven’t changed since Castro’s revolution in the 1960s:
“They still have rations. So you can compare…you and I could go to a restaurant there and order pretty much what they had on the menu. But a Cuban national - you may go to their home and they may say this well this is the chicken I got for the month.”
Bronkema says infrastructure and transportation are still not very reliable:
“There’s days when you may go to one part of the street. You were there yesterday and everything was great. You go there tomorrow and they don’t have power. They don’t have water. I mean we laugh about it, my wife was in the middle of the shower - ran out of water completely. It was done. So what do you do?”
Despite this, Bronkema says he found Cubans to be hopeful and incredibly creative. In one photo, Bronkema captured a father and son going to play baseball - a favorite sport in Cuba. Both the man and boy are sharing the same bike. The son sits on the crossbar while his dad pedals.
“The ingenuity of Cubans is not like anyone else in the world anywhere. If it’s broke, they can fix it and make it work with nothing,” he says.
Bronkema says he loved visiting Cuba. But says he’s unsure whether to tell people about some of the things he saw - like The Hershey Train, a railway that used to take Hershey Chocolate workers to and from the sugar cane fields. Today that train not only ferries people from city to city, but also helps transport packages.
“I would hate for the country to open up more and more people come. And everybody go, ‘Did you see the Hershey Train?’ ‘Let’s go ride the Hershey Train.’ And now it becomes…it would ruin these people’s way of life. They would have to come up now with another of moving their goods and getting back and forth from the communities that are along the tracks in the small villages that they depend on - because now it’s full of tourists,” says Bronkema.
Bronkema says he hopes that his photography will help Americans to experience a slice of life in Cuba. But also to respect it for what it is - a complicated country with an even more complicated history. You can see the new photo exhibit Window to Cuba at the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo office in the Epic Center during the month of August.