Free Havana

A new book provides a revealing look into Cuba’s privileged class


In Havana, photographer Michael Dweck and writer Bill Westbrook have discovered a state-supported community of creative elites, a number of them equipped with some rarified strands of DNA. Among them is Camilo Guevara, Che’s son. He’s a photographer whose work explores the taboos of Cuban society. There’s also Fidel Castro’s son, Alex.  His photographs reinterpret well-known 18th-century Spanish paintings. They’re on the fringe of a group of painters, models, actors, musicians and filmmakers that Dweck photographed and Westbrook interviewed for their new book called Habana Libre: The Secret Life of Cuba.


“It’s designed to explore this privileged class in a classless society,” Dweck says. “It’s about the elegance and intimacy among this clique of well-connected and accomplished friends.”


In addition to interviews with the sons of Che and Fidel, the book also features Kelvis Ochoa, a musician Dweck compares to Bruce Springsteen as a voice for a new generation, painters like René Francisco and Rachel Valdez, as well as Viviana Libya, the former first lady of Bolivia. “They’re allowed to travel freely, to have studios and to sell their wares,” Dweck says. “They have access to equipment.”


In Cuba, there exists something of an unspoken agreement – one that doles out privilege as a reward for talent. Fidel Castro has long been known as a patron of the arts, and these artists live well, which allows them to create, experience and travel. “What’s created in the process is akin to a flock of carrier pigeons that takes the essence of Cuba – its art – and disseminates it around the world like seeds in the wind,” Dweck says. “As Camilo Guevara says in the book, the mindset after the revolution was, ‘The best way to be free is to be cultured.’”


The Cuban artists have become, in effect, ambassadors for their nation. “Fidel was smart that way – he knew his country was largely isolated – and it’s only become more so since the end of the Cold War,” Dweck says. “Thus the privilege and the relative freedom. This isn’t to say that the artists have total freedom or total freedom of expression, but given their importance to Cuba’s image, they’re afforded certain, shall we say, ‘perks.’”


That’s a big part of why no one really knew anything about this group – not outside of Cuba and not inside either. “It’s not exactly something that Havana broadcasts to the neurosurgeons and teachers who earn next to nothing,” he says.


Dweck and Westbrook visited Havana eight times during a period of 14 months, spending about 80 days there and getting to know that one group of friends. “I was lucky. On my second day there, I was invited to a party by a Brit,” Dweck says. “I went at 1am to this ‘50s modern house on the ocean, with waves crashing over the walls. It was hot, about 95 degrees, and Kelvis was playing, with people dancing around a turquoise pool. I realized I was in the middle of an underground of artists and models, and realized I wanted to be part of it – and chronicle how it made me feel that night.” He succeeded.


Westbrook handled all the interviews, and served as ears to the eyes of the photographer. “That was invaluable, because it gave me the opportunity to focus entirely on appearances and aesthetic personalities, with confidence that Bill would capture the actual personalities and thoughts of subjects,” Dweck says.


It all adds up to an extraordinary book that captures the free spirit of a little-known group of celebrants gathered at Castro’s cultural altar.


“I want people to be able to take away some of the heat and sensuality of the people, the steam and suggestion of poolside parties, the almost palpable creativity of the artists I photographed,” Dweck says. He succeeded there, too.


By J. Michael Welton