Visual Project Management | Grant Work: Democracy + Communism: 2. Cuba: Communism Relived
I gained additional funding for the second part of my project through the Pulitzer Center, managed its on-the-ground execution by securing interview sources and complementary visuals, completed its post-processing editing, and published it in The New Yorker and in The New York Times.
(This project is being updated in both scope and publication before and during the pandemic, with more historical material via imagery and reporting alike.)
- Cuba: Communism Relived
Most Americans who visit Cuba recall a time machine moment: their grandfather’s Chevy, showgirls at the Tropicana, or the absent reach of email. My version of time travel included a Lada and a red scarf — two symbols of my childhood in Bulgaria, a communist nation that turned to democracy after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Last year’s anniversary of this event — which had allowed my family to immigrate to the Western world 25 years ago — prompted me to examine how democracy and communism had impacted my country. And a stronger urge followed: to explore places of kindred circumstances, with Cuba as a natural choice.
The recent warming of Cuban-American relations has fascinated me particularly because it's led to speculation on the future of Communism on the island.
During my visit, I observed life in Cuba as only a native of the Soviet Bloc could — struck by the decorum of communism, the appearance of choice that belied government involvement in nearly every aspect of daily life. Cubans can vote, although only for one-party delegates in a unicameral parliament. Some private entrepreneurship is allowed, but severely restricted by a lack of advertising and steep taxes on business expansion. Artists toe the line of self-expression, knowing that if they cross it with any unsanitized view, they risk losing support from state-run galleries. Rallies, voting, and party activities from youth to old age are not officially described as mandatory, but if omitted, are nearly always reason for social and professional punishment. Committees for the Defense of the Revolution peppering every neighborhood promote community projects, yet also alert the government of dissident activities, a definition distilled down to any disagreement with current policy. Government control means relative safety, but not from itself -- as that is often delivered with a heavy hand against artistic expression, travel, economic independence, and certainly any measure of criticism against its regime.
And yet, my project is not about political alignment: in both theory and practice, there are extreme pros and extreme cons to Capitalism, as there are to Communism. It was simply a childhood relived, and my future reimagined had democracy been just a whispered-about but never-seen guest. I saw myself in the child in a red scarf saluting voters, my mind too young for politics, simply eager to belong. Memories of my grandfather, who gave five youthful years to a Stalinist gulag after failing to show "proper" enthusiasm for a party he'd seen threaten, imprison and murder while dementing a utopian ideal, flickered through my mind while watching the Cuban Ladies in White, who still protest their loved ones' political imprisonment, despite beatings and detentions. One too many a family shared the familiar pain of separation via necessity — and not an innate desire — for emigration.
These striking parallels are what a life straddling both communism and democracy had fine-tuned me to openly receive and record. Those who are bound by Cuba’s borders do not often have this luxury.
Like the rest of the world, I am captivated by Cuba’s future — both as a Bulgarian and an American. Will the country’s borders open, releasing curious souls but thinning its population, as in the Eastern bloc? Is the promise of two nations as trade partners just 100 miles apart enough to end a destructive half-century-old embargo? Would an attitude of incentive, and not one of disincentive, spotlight both what’s changing — and what isn’t?