A striking portrait of Cuba’s fading revolution

A striking portrait of Cuba’s fading revolution
Photographer James Clifford Kent reveals how ordinary Cubans are struggling to cope under the weight of economic crisis, US sanctions, shortages, blackouts, inflation and emigration.

Shortly after arriving in Havana, I was walking through the city’s historic centre and noticed a family clinging to plastic bags of their belongings. Tourists streamed past them as they sat on a curb of Obispo street, the old town’s pedestrian boulevard. They were disconnected from the world around them – the woman in floods of tears, her partner and their young son staring blankly into the distance.

It was emblematic of a further deepening in the almost permanent socio-economic crisis afflicting the Caribbean island and its population.

Creating new images of a country I’ve photographed over the past two decades suddenly felt very different. I was reconnecting with somewhere I’d become disconnected from during the pandemic. I had now become a parent and my “adopted” Cuban family had since left the island in search of a better standard of living.

Having been there during the boom of Obama’s final years and improved US/Cuban relations, and again after Trump and the post-lockdown slump, I was seeing things from a new perspective. Living conditions have declined for many as the Cuban economy and people’s hope has hit an all-time low.

The island’s harshest economic conditions since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s (known here as the ‘Special Period’) have induced desperation and the exodus of many Cubans. Widespread shortages, frequent power outages and soaring inflation have fuelled growing hopelessness. Numbers abandoning the country for the United States have rocketed in recent years, with a mass migration of over 300,000 people arriving at the US border in 2022.

My ongoing long-form project ¡No hay más na’! (There’s nothing left) captures people living on the margins of society in Havana. The project is far removed from the romantic portrayals of a tropical Caribbean island bathed in revolutionary chic. Instead, I have been photographing life in the hardest hit communities, documenting the marginalised Cubans struggling to put food on the table and keep their heads above water. This has meant developing connections with people, learning about their experiences, and witnessing their harsh realities. I wanted to create a visual record of this moment. With hundreds of thousands of people leaving the country in the rumbo al norte (the route north to the United States), I wanted to portray the struggles of those who remain.

Working on this project, I’ve learned a lot about these people’s resilience in the face of adversity. Doing this type of work is more than just firing the shutter and capturing an image that speaks to the situation. It’s about observing what people are going through, trying to do justice to their stories with dignity, and hopefully raising awareness.

Shortages have impacted communities in myriad ways, although women, young people and the elderly are arguably the worst affected. Mental health issues have been exacerbated by the desperate situation. Crime and delinquency are on the rise. Insufficient access to food, water, and medicine is having a direct impact on health and hygiene. Cuban education has been hit by the exodus of teachers and other highly trained professionals, who have left the island in search of a better quality of life for themselves and their families.

After dark, certain neighbourhoods where people previously poured out of popular bars and clubs in the early hours now resemble ghost towns. But in other more heavily populated parts of the city, such as Centro Habana and the old town, semi-clandestine communities exist where many families live on the margins. Internal migration from the poorer provinces has turned the capital into a departure lounge as people wait for their window of opportunity to obtain a passport, find a sponsor in the US, and apply for a visa.

Behind the façades of the city’s much photographed iconic buildings and romanticised ruins, there are spaces and buildings such as old factories, offices and gymnasiums which have been abandoned by the state and claimed by people looking for somewhere to live.

There are over 100 of these makeshift living quarters called albergues (abandoned buildings refashioned as temporary homes) and communidades de tránsito dotted around the Cuban capital. As they wait for the government to rehouse them, often for several years, they occupy buildings at serious risk of collapse – a not unusual occurrence due to an extreme combination of fierce sunshine and tropical rain.

Yaneli, 29, and and her three-year-old son William

Single mother of two Yaneli, 29, and her nine-year-old son Leovi moved to Russia in search of a better standard of living after Leovi’s father was killed in a fight in Havana. But then they were imprisoned. William was born in prison in Russia shortly before his mother was deported and he has no papers. In the eyes of the authorities, he doesn’t exist. Yaneli explains: “Es un niño fantasma.” (He’s a ghost child.) The father of her younger three-year-old son William fled the island for the United States and Yaneli receives no support from other Havana-based family members.

At the albergue on Corrales, where she lives with around ten other families, she told me: “Es una crisis total: agua, comida, higiene” (It’s a total crisis: water, food, and hygiene).

The water shortage in Havana – a result of failing water pumps and crumbling infrastructure – is the latest in a growing list of worsening challenges faced by Cubans. People without access to water are reliant on sourcing it through illegal connections to the public mains system.

Yaneli also showed me how they fetch water in buckets from the local fire station when firefighters allow it. Some of this water is conserved in an otherwise empty fridge to be used as drinking water and for cooking, with the remainder being used to wash clothes and her children.

“There’s a tense mood in Havana at the moment. The government say things are going to get worse and people are struggling to understand how that’s possible.”

A young Cuban artist

People living in these spaces feel rootless and therefore alienated from society. Walking around with a camera and interviewing people in locations felt very intrusive. But I found that people were open to being photographed. Shouting over the reguetón music booming from an old wooden speaker, Yaneli looked me dead in the eye and said: “You have my full support. Go and tell the people in your country about the situation and show them your photos.”

For decades, Cubans on the island have used phrases such as “aquí en la lucha” (here in the struggle) and “para atrás ni pa’ coger impulso” (don’t ever think about giving up). But the population’s famed ability to resolver (be resourceful) in the face of immense difficulties is being pushed to the limit.

Jesús

The pandemic had a devastating impact on young people around the world and Cuba was no exception.

I met 21-year-old Jesús on the street just after he had been fired from his job as a baker. Still covered in crumbs, he explained: “They ran out of flour, so what choice did they have? They fired me.”

He recalled life growing up in one of Havana’s toughest neighbourhoods in Havana’s 10 de Octubre municipality. He called it “one giant, violent albergue,” where people are regularly murdered. And he told me about his dreams of becoming a bread maker like his late father, who died suddenly when he was just 17.

Jesús began selling crack to survive shortly following his father’s death.

He told me about the significant increase in use of piedra, also known as cambolo (crack cocaine), among camboleros (crack addicts) in Havana’s poorer neighbourhoods. There’s a new strain of this substance called químico (literal translation: chemical), which has resulted in a surge in crime rates and numerous tragic deaths.

It wasn’t long before Jesús was arrested and ended up in juvenile detention at the height of the pandemic, before being moved to an adult prison at 18.

It was in prison that he discovered hip hop – “everyone from Tupac to Canserbero and Los Aldeanos” – and started getting tattooed by his fellow inmates, acquiring the nickname “El Mexicano” because of his resemblance to members of infamous international criminal gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (commonly known as MS-13).

Out of prison and supported by his partner, Jesús is determined to create a new life for himself. “I’m a fighter,” he explained. “I want to be a baker like my dad but when there’s nothing left you must make something out of nothing. It’s tough. You’ve gotta find ways of making ends meet and carrying on.”

Cary and her goose Axiuli

Another major challenge for Cuba is the accelerated ageing of its population. The mass exodus of young adults has the potential to worsen the demographic crisis.

Cary, 65, has lived at her home in Havana’s San Leopoldo neighbourhood since 1990.

She told me how the building used to be a laundry, run by Chinese immigrants who’d settled in Cuba in the late 19th century.

There are still signs of a once-thriving business that belonged to a period before the Revolution – Art Deco doors, neoclassical features and murals, and huge exposed iron beams where in a bygone era freshly laundered clothes hung drying in the island’s fierce midday sun.

In the early 1990s, during the worst years of the ‘Special Period,’ Cary lived there with the rest of her family, but her grown-up children have now left the island.

Today Cary lives alone with her animals – a goose named Axiuli, two dogs called Shimao & Tabey, and her cat Haytoo.

She told me that during the worst years of the Special Period, “pets disappeared completely.” People would steal them, especially cats, passing their meat off as something else on the black market. She worries about the same thing happening again as Cuba’s latest socio-economic crisis continues to worsen.

“I adore my animals,” she continued. “They are my family. I get a lot of love from them now that my children are no longer around.”

In the heart of Old Havana, amid the maze of streets and passageways, lies another albergue on the site of a former sports complex. Ariannis, a mother-of-two in her twenties, resides there with her daughters and several other families.

After meeting her on the street I was eager to find out more about her family’s luchita (daily struggle). She invited me to record an interview and take pictures of their living conditions.

There were letters missing from the faded building entrance sign, which once read GIMNASIO.

Inside was a bare-footed boy in shorts, brushing his teeth. As his gaze fixed on my cameras, I noticed tears streaming down his face.

I delved deeper into the albergues along improvised corridors and stairways to the living quarters of numerous families. There was a young woman cleaning outside the ground floor living areas and she beckoned me over. Through one of the doorways, I found Ariannis sitting on a bed, plaiting her youngest daughter’s hair while the older daughter slept beside them.

We discussed their daily struggles and the hunger Ariannis and her daughters had felt in recent weeks. Like many others in the community, she took each day as it came, hoping for better times.

Ariannis and her daughters

Within their cramped living quarters, I noticed building materials stacked in one corner, serving as a storage space, and a mattress (the children’s bed) propped next to a doorless wardrobe on the other side of the room. The children’s pristine shoes and a row of toiletries were displayed neatly on each shelf like cherished possessions on a mantelpiece.

As I shot a few frames of Ariannis and her daughters, she beamed with pride, describing her girls as “Princesses. Happy, perfect, and beautiful in every way.” Yet, behind the smile, as I asked about the impact of the crisis on her children, she whispered that there was no food in the fridge for dinner that evening.

Before leaving, I handed Ariannis some pesos, inducing an immediate search for food: “Arroz, frijoles. Lo que sea.” (“Rice, beans, whatever there is”). We headed for the street together.

The boy was still there brushing his teeth. The girl wielding a mop by the entrance told me he suffered with mental illness.

He watched me from the corner of one eye like before, whimpering as toothpaste dribbled down his chin.

The girl rested her mop against a wall and posed for a portrait, but I didn’t take a picture of the boy.

Follow James Clifford Kent on Instagram and check out his website.

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