New Statesman (UK) | James Sparshatt
Helping the National Theatre get inside a Cuban cigar factory should have been easy for the photographer James Sparshatt. The only problem was, when they arrived on the island, the state-run factories had all been ordered to shut down . . .
It was New Year’s Day, the sun was shining and my mojito was perfectly chilled. I had spent the previous week leading a group of charity fundraising cyclists across Cuba. They looked blissfully happy as they splashed in the turquoise Caribbean waters. Life couldn’t have been better, and the week couldn’t have passed off more smoothly. We had dined on roasted pig in a rural home, been given an impromptu piano concert in a tiny village, and danced the night away with a society of scientists - not a stuffy shirt in sight. In fact, every day had produced a sublimely enjoyable unplanned experience.
I turned to Ernesto, my Cuban contact, to discuss my next job - acting as guide to the director Howard Davies and the set designer Bunny Christie for the National Theatre. They wanted to see inside a Cuban cigar factory, the setting for The President of an Empty Room, a new play by Steven Knight. Ernesto smiled, then casually said: “Oh, they’ve decided not to start work at the cigar factories again until 19 January.” The mint in my mojito visibly wilted. A call to Havana confirmed that, at a national level, the state-run enterprise that produces Cuban cigars would indeed be shut down for an extended period. The reason for Davies’s visit disappeared. No workers meant no ambience, no life and none of the indefatigable Cuban spirit to observe in action.
A few days later, I picked up a lone Christie from Jose MartI Airport. At least I would be able to show her what an empty cigar factory looked like. As we drove along the potholed roads, past the billboards announcing “Hasta la victoria siempre” or “Viva Cuba” (there is still no advertising here), my thoughts wandered back to my first arrival in Havana in the late 1990s. Tourism was just beginning to take off back then, and there was still a raw edge to it. It was not the most auspicious of introductions. After the laborious process of passing through immigration, I was intercepted on my way out of the terminal by two young officials in army uniform. “Would you accompany us, sir? We need to check your bags.” They took me to a small room, locked the door behind us, and then, with a serious look, one of them lifted my only bag. He shook his head and passed the bag to his colleague, who nodded in agreement before declaring: “Sir, your bag is overweight.”
“We will need to search it, and there’s a $200 fine.”
You chancers, I thought. Chatting and joking, they began to empty the bag of its contents until they triumphantly discovered a hundred rolls of film. “Sir, you do realise that there is a limit of five films per visitor? We will have to confiscate the rest, and that will be a further $300 fine.” I said I didn’t believe them and wanted to see a more senior official. They unlocked the door and we began to walk across the concourse until we were within 20 feet of just such an official. At which point I stopped, turned around and walked back to the little room. This time it was I who locked the door behind us.
“OK, so how can we resolve this?”
“We could reduce the fine to $100 and you can keep the film.”
I opened my wallet and withdrew $80, which was all the cash I had on me. They smiled, took the money, and handed me back $20. “You’ll need this for a taxi to town. Enjoy your stay.”
My experience was indicative of the difficult adjustment that Cubans have had to make to the arrival of tourism. When the Warsaw Pact collapsed in 1989, Cuba was left floundering in a very strong current and holding a very tiny paddle. A system that had encouraged the island to focus all of its energies on a few agricultural products was suddenly gone: ships no longer arrived from eastern Europe with all the other necessities of life, and man cannot live on cigars, sugar, rum and beef alone. In Havana, it was at times impossible to escape the attention of swarms of beautiful girls looking for “boyfriends” who would buy them dresses or give them money for their sick mothers. But at the same time, you could not help but be overwhelmed by the spirit of the place. Amid the crumbling masonry, it seemed as if there was always a party in full swing, music was everywhere, and doors were always open to friends old and new.
The increased US trade restrictions and sanctions only made things worse. Fidel Castro called it the “special period”, a time when the whole nation would pull together and struggle through, but thousands chose to abandon their homes and flee to the United States in whatever they could find that would float. The island needed a lifeline, and the one it chose to grab was tourism. In many ways, this has proved a good choice. Tourist dollars have paid for the renovation of large parts of Havana, joint ventures have built sparkling new hotels, and Cuban products - primarily cigars, rum and music - have been exported to a newly appreciative world audience for which Cuba is an exciting new destination: a place almost lost in time, full of beautiful cars from the 1950s, and free from commercialisation. In the past 15 years, the country’s music has re-established its presence on the world stage, the mojito has become the de rigueur cocktail, and Havana’s architecture has been rejuvenated. But still, for the Cuban people, it has been a difficult adjustment.
Christie and I drove from Havana to the town of Pinar del Rio to visit a small factory that I thought would be a perfect model for the play. It was working as normal when we got there. The factories may have been closed “at a national level”, but nobody had told whoever ran this one to shut down. So much for centralised planning. Here were all the things that Davies had wanted to experience. The workers sat in rows carefully hand-rolling tobacco leaves. Music, an ever-present part of Cuban life, played over crackling speakers. Girls carrying piles of sweetly pungent leaves moved around the desks with a rhythmic swagger. Everybody seemed to be talking and laughing at once; individuals would jump up from their desks to make an animated point or joke. I may have been standing next to Christie, but she couldn’t speak Spanish and so the female rollers were soon flirting with me. Individual workers came to the front of the factory and stood at a lectern to read poetry, or excerpts from the newspaper.
It may be strange, but the best way to describe a Cuban’s attitude to life is as an exhibition of freedom - the freedom to laugh, to express themselves, to enjoy whatever opportunities life throws their way. This in a society without the democratic, multi-party politics or free press that are supposed to ensure our freedom. The play at the National Theatre captures much of this - even the actors have commented on the spirit that has developed among the cast. This spirit is what draws me back again and again to Cuba. It is what I strive to capture with my camera. When a Cuban leaves this environment, as many have done in search of a “better” life, a part of them is lost and a part of the spirit of Cuba goes with them. Few Cubans are truly happy when not in Cuba. But for many, the allure of the outside world, a world in which everybody has a camera and expensive clothes and can go on holiday, seems just too attractive. Tell a Cuban there are 5,000 people homeless in London and he or she simply won’t believe you. The world outside is paved with gold: just look at all these tourists.
“A Good Cigar is a Smoke”, an exhibition of James Sparshatt’s photographs of Cuba, is at the National Theatre, London SE1, until 29 August. For this and more of Sparshatt’s work, visit [http://www.sparshattgalleries.com]
Howard Davies’s production of The President of an Empty Room by Steven Knight is at the National Theatre (020 7452 3000) until 27 August.