Cuba during the pandemic (photo essay)

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Ruaridh Nicoll (The Guardian) shares a photo essay featuring photographs by Leysis Quesada Vera, who describes life during the pandemic in Havana’s Los Sitios neighborhood. [Her work is supported and produced by the Magnum Foundation, with a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. Magnum Foundation is a nonprofit organization that expands creativity and diversity in documentary photography.] Here are excerpts:

Los Sitios lies to the south of Centro, the careworn barrio that gives Havana its coarse voice and whose northern limit is the Malecon, the famous corniche set against the Florida Straits.

The photographer Leysis Quesada Vera describes Los Sitios – her neighbourhood – as home to “people who work with tourists but not in the hotels. They sell cigars, probably illegally, clean the houses where tourists stay, sell souvenirs.” The pandemic has pauperised these people. “What they’re doing now is queueing to buy things from the store to resell them on the black market.” She understands. She is raising two children and hasn’t had any income for a year.

For much of 2020, Cuba’s extensive health system kept the virus all but beyond the island’s borders, but at the cost of tourism. The economy contracted by 11%, imports fell by 40%. Still, even the few reported cases spooked residents. There was an outbreak in Los Sitios and the authorities blocked the roads in and out.

Leysis is from San Francisco, a village of 50 houses without electricity in the state of Matanzas. She came to Havana in 1996 “like a crazy girl without any home. I’ve been living in all the tough neighbourhoods.” She was an English teacher, but hung out with photographers, and in photography studios. “l was going to every exhibition – photography and painting – and I loved the bohemian life.” Her first camera was a Nikon FM2; her greatest subjects would become her daughters, Avril and Mia.

“At the beginning of the pandemic I think everyone was afraid.” Certainly she stayed at home at first, but as the streets were sealed off, she ventured out. “It was a mess before they realised they needed to organise,” she says.

Even prior to the virus, Cuba was suffering. Donald Trump’s administration had tightened the 60-year-old US embargo, shutting down the channels through which Cubans abroad could send money home. Cuba’s antiquated infrastructure was already crumbling, the city falling down around Leysis.

The virus added hunger. The government maintains controls of all imports but now has little hard currency to pay for them. Huge queues formed whenever there were rumours of chicken, oil or medicine. “It used to be easy for me to walk in the street and take pictures,” she says. “But now, with people suffering and stressed it is different. They’d watch me taking pictures of the queues and were sometimes aggressive. One day a woman attacked me.”

At the same time, medical students were spreading out through the streets, asking door to door for news of symptoms. Leysis photographed them as they slipped by like modern-day plague doctors. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/07/cuba-during-the-pandemic-photo-essay

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