Cuba, young and free

To upload his latest album to his new SoundCloud account, hip hop and electronic music producer DJ Jigüe has to wake up at four in the morning, when he can get uninterrupted access to Cuba’s nascent wi-fi networks. If he goes later in the day, he says, he risks to get disconnected from a clogged network as dozens of Cubans can gather on public squares at the same time to connect to the internet. “It’s a real sacrifice, to be honest,” he says, laughing.

A dreadlocked 30-year old, Jigüe, born Isnay Rodriguez, is a leader in Cuba’s alternative music scene and one of the first to profit from the government’s recent volte-face in its internet policy. Millions of Cubans, like him, were finally able to connect to the internet last year, provided that they can afford the steep 3 CUCS (£2) that the state-owned telecoms company charges for a card, which gives one hour’s access. In 2014, the average salary in Cuba was just £15 a month.

The loosening of restrictions by the Castro government followed Barack Obama’s efforts to end a 50-year-old trade embargo, imposed by the US in the wake of the communist revolution in the Caribbean state. This tentative opening up has sparked a sense of hope in Cuba — especially among younger generations — and contributed to a new, but growing, cultural exchange between the island and the outside world.

Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city, hosted its inaugural electronic Afro-Cuban music festival this May. For the first time, American and European music producers, such as Nicolas Jaar, Plaid and A Guy Called Gerald were invited to share the stage with local percussionists, dancers, singers, DJs and conga players. A large number of Cuban festival-goers were only now discovering electronic music, the embargo and tight government restrictions on internet access having limited the infiltration of foreign cultural products.

The embargo has worked both ways, also affecting what was coming out of Cuba. “Manana festival is going to be the ideal platform to show the world what is happening right now in Cuba,” DJ Jigüe told a small crowd at a conference during the festival.

When you open a door, obviously both good things and bad things can come in, but you need to give the Cuban people the opportunity to clash with the world

Santiago de Cuba is a melting pot of Afro-Cuban influences, having created its own musical sub-genres infused with beats from the neighbouring Jamaica, Bahamas, Haïti, and the Dominican Republic. “This is not just about electronic music, but also all the other movements that have flourished since the 1990s,” Jigüe said.

Years of isolation have made it difficult for artists and musicians to find their audience outside the confines of the island, especially for those who did not fit the idea that foreigners have of Cuba — that of the cigar-smoking, panama hat-wearing Buena Vista Social Club, for instance.


Karl Lagerfeld turned Havana’s Paseo del Prado into a catwalk for Chanel’s Resort 2017 collection     ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images

For 28-year-old painter Alejandro Lescay, Cuba has been prevented from reaching its full potential. “At no point did the embargo ever make sense to us,” Lescay says, sitting in the Santiago house he shares with his mother. “When you open a door, obviously both good things and bad things can come in, but you need to give the Cuban people the opportunity to clash with the world.”

Manana is just one example of the new opportunities that are bubbling in the minds of young Cubans. Away from the festival, on the other side of town, many gathered to take photos of themselves cheering in front of the Adonia, a large American cruise ship that had arrived earlier that day, the first to anchor on a Cuban port since 1978.

The arrival of the cruise ship coincided with the visit of Karl Lagerfeld, who turned La Havana’s Paseo del Prado, the main avenue dividing the centre and the old town, into a catwalk for Chanel’s Resort 2017 collection. Guests were driven to the May 4 show in some of Cuba’s finest 1960s, colourful American cars — vehicles that are as cherished by tourists for their good looks as they are cursed by Cubans for their costly maintenance.

Lagerfeld also held a photo exhibition in the nearby Fábrica de Arte Cubano, an old electricity plant converted into an immense art centre, screening space, theatre, bar and club. Around the same time, film director Felix Gary Gray was shooting Fast 8, the eighth episode of the Fast & Furious saga, the first American blockbuster to get the necessary authorisations to shoot in Cuba in some 50 years.

Generation gap

For now, the warming of diplomatic relations between the two countries has remained mostly symbolic. For a real change to happen, the US congress must vote on lifting the embargo — something that lawmakers say they are not expecting to happen this year. But regardless of the outcome, something has been sparked in young Cubans, creating a tension between generations.

“The 1959 generation lived and remembers what life was like before the triumph of the revolution,” says Lianne Suzel, an economics teacher at the University of Santiago de Cuba.

Indeed, for many Cubans, Fidel Castro’s revolution meant a better education, including a highly successful literacy campaign. The new system created employment opportunities, especially for women, and made it possible to own a home — all luxuries that had been the preserve of the ruling class.

The 1959 generation lived and remembers what life was like before the triumph of the revolution

“My grandmother and all my aunts worked for a rich family and never got a chance to think about their future,” says Suzel, who at 40 years old finds herself right in the middle of this generational divide. “But my mother, the youngest child, was able to go to school and get an education.”

Suzel did not live Fidel Castro’s revolution, but she certainly recalls the better days, in the 1980s, when Cuba could import and export more easily as part of the Socialist bloc. Her and her friends, she says, support an economical and financial opening but tend to be more attached to “the Project” — Fidel Castro’s revolution — than their younger peers.

With the 1990s came the collapse of the communist system, which plunged Cuba into a crisis of scarcity and hunger. The Cuba of the mid-1990s, with its meagre food rationing and soap shortages; the Cuba in which today’s youth was either born or grew up in. It was a hardship that pushed hundreds of thousands of Cubans to migrate to the US, hoping to benefit from the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, which establishes special rights for Cuban migrants who once on the American soil are allowed to stay.

“In Cuba we have this stigma, when a plane goes by, everybody looks up to watch it,” says Alejandro Lescay. “A lot of my friends migrated,” he explains, talking about the meaning behind most of the paintings exhibited during the festival.

“My generation doesn’t believe in the projects that were once applauded,” he says. “A young person today cannot think of how important literacy was back then, we have other preoccupations.”

Today’s youth, he says, are increasingly connected to the outside world and believe that Cuba will be better off if it embraces and reflects that.

“Maybe this is what we have in common with the previous generation, at the end of the day we all want Cuba to be better,” Lescay says, “just in different ways.”

Main photo: ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images