When my professional group, the long winded sounding The Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists (ACEC), gets together every couple of years, we normally meet in some Canadian city, talk a bit of shop, drink beer and listen to a few of us who bring along harmonicas while others strum guitars. The odd time we play host to a few foreign cartoonists who were oppressed in their countries, although the American Association does a better job of hosting foreign cartoonists with help from the Cartoonists Rights Network. Never before have we gone to another country where governments have a record of repressing free expressionists by clamping down on political satire directed their way. We changed that this year. In May, 16 cartoonists plus approximately 10 associates ventured to Havana, Cuba, for the cartoonist convention. This visit included whirlwind tours of UNESCO World Heritage protected-towns of Trinidad and Cienfuegos.
When I returned to the office after a 10 day visit to Cuba, I was met with a bit of grumpiness by a couple of my colleagues. I was reminded of this recent column and the association choosing a place where press freedom ranked #170 out of 180 countries. So with that came digs about when we were planning to host future conventions in places like North Korea or Nigeria.
The ranking is quite disturbing, as it just barely scores better than Iran, Syria and North Korea, which is dead last on the list. Interestingly, the mammoth nation of China, which has increasingly become quite trade-chummy over the past decade with Western governments (Canada included) ranks behind Cuba at #175. Canada, by the way, is #18, the USA is #46, and toping the list at #1 is Finland.
Go further in the ranking of Cuba and one will find that the island country is near the bottom of the list for open markets, regulatory efficiency, limited government, and the rule of law. Raul Castro rules over the state in a rather quieter bureaucratic way than his brother Fidel, nonetheless, he is firmly in control of the state levers and the Cuban Communist Party. Agriculture, the public service, mining, wages, and productivity are all at the bottom of the barrel, and there’s no arguing against the facts spelled out in the bar graphs and pie charts — Cuba’s economic and political freedoms are squarely mired in a deep hell hole.
The American trade embargo certainly does not help matters, and it is often brought up by the locals as the main source of woe that Cuba endures. Their government successfully uses the pain of the embargo to give reason to anything that goes wrong in Cuba. Although, even that is wearing thin on weary Cubans as they openly question creative reasoning by their masters to blame the Yanks for Cuba’s corruption, and the lack of freedoms and rule of law so engrained in the machine that runs the country. We Canadians look to our friends in the USA wondering why they fuss so grudgingly about isolating a harmless country long deserted by an extinct Soviet cold warrior. At the same time, it’s kind of nice to find an oasis on Earth that hasn’t been polluted by the over-commercialization we find everywhere in the West from golden arch restaurants to monstrous box stores selling the goods from international sweat shops.
Yet the island country endures and chugs along against a current of western values that are clearly polar opposite to their own. The consequence are a people who fully and whole-heartedly embrace art, be it music, visual, and/or performance art, and it spills out of doorways and on to the streets like no other place in the 21st century.
What we discovered in Cuba is a very robust, diverse, and creative group of illustrators and cartoonists. Together we mounted a nice exhibit of our illustrations and cartoons at the Vitrina de Valonia Gallery in the heart of old Havana. No, they aren’t allowed to directly skewer their governments to the degree in which we in the North have the freedom to do, but they are keenly aware about how much they can push the envelope to the furthest edges which won’t find them locked away in prison. If I drew the kind of sex cartoons Chisp@ of Cienfuegos gets away with in Cuba, for example, I may not be thrown in jail, but it wouldn’t take long before my bosses would send me packing from the Spectator. Perhaps it’s simply typical of tropical societies, but clearly the culture of the naked form is better tolerated in Cuban illustrations than in cold Canada, so long as it doesn’t cross the line into pornography, because possession of that will find one behind prison bars!
Much of the Cuban editorial cartoons I came across are directed quite predictably at the United States, and not necessarily obsessing against the embargo. The folks I met are very much aware of news events beyond their shores, and are way more up to speed than I can ever be on the latest movies and Netflix mini-series. They may not all have the Internet feeding into their home computers, but they certainly have access to it through their cell phones, tablets and office computers. They have e-mail, they’re on Facebook, and they’re very much aware of the challenging economic times their mighty neighbour to the north is going through.
The housing crisis, the occupy movement, and the Obamacare mess have provided Cubans a front row seat to view the parade of pitfalls of capitalism and the widening gap between the super rich and the growing poor. Today’s hardships have darkened the once colourful picture Cubans had of the USA, making people I met wonder how pathetically desperate fellow countrymen must be to board rafts bound for the the shores of Florida in the 21st century.
Ramses Morales Izquierdo found out from the internationally known Cuban illustrator Ares, that a bunch of us cartoonists were staying in Cuba after our general convention wrapped up in Havana. Not even a minute had gone by during the time I was checking out my room at the Iberostar Hotel in the beautiful old town of Trinidad that the phone rang with Ramses on the line, welcoming me. From that moment on, he became our pal and he guided us behind the scenes into the town’s archives where his gallery is based. He showed us parts of his beloved town that aren’t the usual stops for tourists. He came along with us to the newer and bigger city of Cienfuegos, and, along with the very talented Angel Fernandez Quintana (Andez), organized an impromptu gathering of local illustrators near our Hotel Jagua.
Growing up, Ramses’ mother advised him that he was going to learn English, unlike the rest of the kids in his school who were taught Russian as a second language. The consequence of that decision is someone who is extremely well read and informed about the world around him. He is very passionate about his town and country and speaks with an intensity that is very honest about Cuba. He is quite optimistic about its future. Ramses is very insistent that his country be regarded as a multicultural one belonging to the first world, and an integral part of North America.
(Update: In 2015, Ramses was featured in this CBC news report (beginning at the 1:09 min mark) when the U.S. and Cuba were negotiating an end to a half century of distrust and suspicion.)
Raul Castro has somewhat loosened the government’s grip on private investment. Reports say the reforms aren’t going so well. Evidently however, free-enterprise is cropping up in the form of family run Paladar restaurants and B&Bs. There are obvious signs of entrepreneurship and visitors can see it in the clothes people wear, and in their watches and accessories. There are the haves, and have-nots, and it’s not based on how connected one is to the regime, but how hard one works. There’s also push-back towards the new free enterprise. Off the main square of Plaza Carillo in Trinidad is the Bar Floridita. This is not the one made famous by Ernest Hemingway that includes a statue of him at the end of a bar where tourists get their photo taken, but a replica of the place. It’s one of several that have opened up across the island serving drinks with the same prices one would pay if they were at a Kelsey’s franchise in Canada. It’s all great for tourists, but to Ramses, it’s akin to Starbucks moving in and running the old cafe across the street out of business.
Click here for a full gallery of photos
What I’ve learned from this trip was this is not our grandfather’s Cuba. It’s only a matter of time before Starbucks and the big box stores make their way to the shores of Cuba. And it will make big news just like when the first McDonald’s opened years ago in Moscow and Beijing. It is with hope that Cuba takes a page out of China’s book of how to expand its free markets for greater prosperity. Finally, here’s hoping our friends south of the 49th Parallel will soon rethink their relationship with this beautiful, historic country and its people and let them choose their own destiny unencumbered by old grievances and greedy ex-pat descendants from the Batista era.
Update, January 28, 2015: Adrienne Arsenault of the CBC reports on US/Cuban negotiations to normalize relations. In the video attached to this link.
This article was posted to the DailyCartoonist.com, a terrific website covering news about professional cartoonists, webcomics, movies and animation, and magazine gag cartoonists. It bills itself as the source for industry news for the professional cartoonist. Click here to see the rantings of a genuine 21st century American cold warrior reacting to our tour.
Super Special ACEC Action Cards ***Uncle Sam Edition***, by Wes Tyrell
Message from ACEC President Wes Tyrell, May 25, 2014
At this time most of our cartoonist adventurers have returned to the homeland (Dan Murphy may be setting up a studio in the SierraMaestra as we speak and will only be available via wireless from now on).
Our ACEC/ACDE Conference was by any standard a terrific endeavour and I think now most are in agreement that conferences can be held quite successfully in foreign countries. Our hosts proved to be the most charming of individuals, a delightful blend of veterans and youngsters, all with great admiration and curiosity for the northern invaders.
If anything was learned by meeting these people it was that their desire to observe and create is ceaseless and is that not the most inspirational of elements one hopes to come away with while visiting new colleagues?
The sights and sounds will reverberate for a long time and hopefully will pop up in strange and interesting fashions in your work. Our new friends there including Ares, Adan, Laz, Falco, Martirena, Ramses, Angel and the rest have at the same time learned a little about what it means to be Canadian and how our brand of cartooning can perhaps teach them some different approaches.
Our conversations to this affect were, in that Canadian way, not heavy handed or intimidating and they all thanked us for a velvet approach. Cartooning in Cuba presents many challenges and these characters are savvy navigators, able to satisfy their own instincts while presenting socially palatable work.
Many new friends; a very successful gallery exhibit; some comedic presentations made more unusual with the three language translation magic of our friend Michele; old car tours; great eating and drinking – memories were just piled one on top of the other for all.
I hope members will be encouraged to share photos and videos as well as sketches so we can compile an ibook or equivalent as a terrific memento of this fine time.
Our momentum going forward is strong and our next endeavour will look to bring together cartoonists from all over Canada and the globe in my hometown of Toronto in 2016. This will give us an opportunity to gather members and friends who were unable to join us at this year’s conference as we put on a show that promotes the excellence of Canadian cartooning. This is really the first strength of our association and something you should all be proud of.
Our Ontario members starting with the great Donato, Gable, Mou, Dewar, MacKay and their respective papers will be encouraged to participate in order to remind everyone that cartooning is alive and well in the beautiful city of Toronto.