Photography: Tom Law

Havana is alive and buzzing with an influx of tourists wanting to see it ‘before it all changes’. But the city is changing and you can feel it.
Cuba has been preparing for tourism for many years and is now capitalising on a surge in visitors. Large numbers take city tours in American vintage cars; crowd outside the famous venues such as the restaurant-bar La Bodeguita del Medio listening to a live salsa band; and take photos of Old Havana’s colonial squares, so pristinely renovated, it feels like Italy; or a Cuban Disneyland.

They approach visitors in the streets enticing them to their privately-run restaurants or guesthouses (casas particulares); to take a ride in their vintage taxis; or to simply sell anything from the national newspaper Granma for 1 CUC (US$1) at 100 times the actual cost, fake cigars, or a caricature that an artist has quickly sketched whilst following them in the street.
Havana is also undergoing major construction and redevelopment works to support the tourism industry, and tourists walk amongst construction workers who are renovating the facades of colonial buildings; repaving Obispo, the main street in Old Havana; or erecting stone fountains in the squares. And foreign visitors bring in the latest mod cons, such as iPhones and iPads – theoretically impossible to buy in Cuba because of the US trade embargo – to take photos of the time warped city to send them to their friends and family via the invariably slow wi-fi connection in their hotels.

But what is it like outside of Havana? And who are the ordinary Cubans living the reality of these changes?

Cubans across the island, now able to start their own businesses since more opportunities for self-employment became legal in 2010, are taking advantage of the recent surge in tourism which has provided exciting opportunities. Cubans that work in the tourism industry have access to much higher salaries compared with that of a state worker. It is often clear who is benefitting from the tourism sector or self-employment: taxi drivers wearing gold jewellery, for example. It is also increasingly common to see Cubans taking a holiday by the beach or having a drink at a bar which charges prices in the tourist’s currency, the convertible peso, which is pegged to the dollar. This trend is no doubt set to continue.

Although the Cuban Government is planning to converge its two currencies in order to minimise these economic distortions, as Cuba opens up and the economy develops, there will be a rise of some form of middle class who have more disposable income. As earnings increase, consumerism will likely set in and Cubans will want more access to leisure and luxury goods that are currently not widely available in the country.

‘Cuba: the Havana effect’ sheds light on the situation outside of the capital and the extent to which these changes – best observed in Havana – are trickling down into the rest of the country. It provides an insight into the lives of ordinary Cuban people experiencing the on-the-ground reality of change, bringing to life and offering through images a personal perspective of the high-level international and domestic policy changes that are taking place.

Cubans from Havana down to Cuba’s second largest city on the east of the island, Santiago de Cuba, were interviewed as part of this project. This selection of images include a retired boxer earning tips from showing tourists around a boxing ring that he manages; young Cubans on facebook using a hotel computer due to the limited internet access on the island; construction workers carrying out renovation projects; Cubans waiting for a train at a railway station due to an unreliable service that experiences lots of delays; families living nearby expanding tourism resorts; and a farmer in Cuba’s agricultural heartland, far from the cities where a sleepy, rural Cuba still exists.

About the Author:

Tom Law is a professional ethnographic photographer and documentary film-maker. He is Creative Director at BAMM, a visual thinking company in London. Tom’s influences in photography stem from his filmmaking background, where bringing people’s stories to life and exploring how their culture and environment shape them is the foundation of his work. He has won a number of awards for both his films and photography. Tom graduated from the University of The Arts in 2010.

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