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Nepantla: Views from South 3.3 (2002) 451-493

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Picturing Havana
History, Vision, and the Scramble for Cuba

Ana María Dopico


With the fading of the Cold War and the promotion of tourism during Cuba's “Special Period,” an economic and ideological scramble for the island has multiplied its manifestations in an international field of vision. Havana has become synonymous with the photograph in the last seven years, and the journey there seems to demand a photographic eye, an instrumental lens, an archaeological instinct. The gaze of the lens in Havana has accompanied the eye of the market, reflecting the fashionable status and historical exceptionalism of the city as living ruin, and the allure of a scarcity still set apart from the flawed and normative narratives of development, democratization, or global economic integration. With every photon of nostalgic, alluring, or foreboding light emanating from the romantic ruins of a picturesquely suspended Havana, with every cracked and peeling wall, every voluptuous body or wrinkled face, we are reminded that this photographic bounty is not merely an aesthetic rediscovery or the latest fashionable migration of the image market. This visual scrutiny, selective and seductive, has a banal and ominous significance for a city that lives in multiple temporalities, a capital that is negotiating survival and ideology, improvising its daily life amid the shifting and mixed economies of third-world tourism and Cold War symbolism.

A thirty-year shortage of Cuban images on the world market only made more precious and extreme Havana's aesthetic and sensual fetishization and its promotion as a must-see, world historical destination. After that scarcity, and the Cold War, ended, photography became the emblematic genre representing Special Period Havana (as tourist synecdoche for Cuba), filling aporia of speech with multiplying images. This article considers how [End Page 451] the photographic image has triumphed in exporting Cuba during the Special Period and measures the political history and ideological weight of this recent image boom. My reflections highlight how photographs of Havana circulate as currency and tableaux, delivering an unrivaled Cuban light that must substitute for enlightenment in the viewer and an alluring visual syntax that must replace the voices of those represented.

Where images are multiplied and repeated, one wonders what is being covered over, what is left out of the picture. My reflections record an anxiety about representations of Havana as visual field and ideological geography. This unease increased with the flood of recent images of Cuba that promise clarity, transparency, and visibility at a moment of obscurity; images that promise a time of suspension to consumers overrun by speedup; images of a real nation functioning as historical theme park; images that promise human intensity and acute vision within the mobility of tourism; images of decay made picturesque for those who like to visit ruins; images of collapse marketed to a world intent on rebuilding and expansion. The multiplied images of Cuba translate the island's Cold War visual codes and preserve their aura or half-life as they are rapidly reintegrated into the global image market. As images of Havana circulate, they appear to normalize the island's status in a post–Cold War secular order,1 literally keeping “out of sight” political conflicts that cannot be assimilated by the narratives of tourism and foreign investment, symbolic or otherwise. At a moment when the United States is flooded with Cuban images but lags behind in investment and economic penetration, this photographic boom offers a kind of ideological overstimulation, stirring political interest and market appetites. My reflections therefore reveal an old-fashioned suspicion about hegemonic vision, expressing a deep foreboding about the political fantasies, the artificial memories, and the imaginative recolonization that these photographs of the Special Period seem to announce.

In the pages that follow, I reflect on the Cold War origins of my own fascination with images of Cuba. Havana's role in Cold War contests, its function as the projection screen for Western fantasies, is part of a long tradition. The current prodigious investment in photographs of Cuba must be...


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pp. 451-493
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