Last weekend at Valley Variety in Hudson, NY, we sat down with writer and journalist Brian Schaefer and photographer Kristopher Kelly, who created our Issue 4 story “Rum and Revolution: Seeing Cuba through Its Cocktails.” It was a broad-ranging conversation about their visit, touching on history, rum, and what it’s like to travel with a group of 16 gay men. Below are some highlights from our conversation.
Steve Viksjo, Jarry Creative Director: I’ve heard a lot of people tonight say, “I want to go to Cuba,” but there are special circumstances about being allowed to visit. Can you tell us how you put the trip together?
Kristopher Kelly: I knew that I wanted to do something focused around LGBT travel, and so I did some research and found a company called OUT Adventures. They’re an approved travel provider with the US Treasury Department to provide travel to Cuba. I’m not an expert in any of this, but as the laws were changing and things were becoming more open, more people were able to travel to Cuba. But there were still a whole host of restrictions. There are only twelve travel categories that are allowed, and one of those is “people-to-people.” That’s how OUT Adventures classifies their trips. So, through them, Brian, me, and several mutual friends were able to go legally. While we were there, we met with LGBT Cuban activists, visited local theaters, and did a variety of other things that were directly related to cultural exchange.
Lukas Volger, Jarry Editorial Director: What were your expectations for the trip, and for Cuba?
Brian Schaefer: I think one of the ongoing characterizations, and a bit of a cliche, is to define Cuba as being stuck in the fifties. We get that impression because of the photographs we see of the classic mid-century vehicles driving around, and they are there and certainly kind of dominate Havana, but they’re mostly taxis and they’re not cheap. But you do get that aesthetic. More accurately—and this is a point that my partner Stephen liked to make and I think it’s true—it feels like a country that’s paused in the nineties. Technologically speaking, you are basically offline unless you stand in line to wait for a government issued internet card. That gives you an hour to then go to a public hotspot to sign on to then have spotty service. The parks and public spaces are where Cubans go to check Facebook. It’s not censored, they have access to social media and websites, but the ability to sign on is something that is lagging behind.
SV: When we developed the piece for Jarry, you were tasked with bringing food and drink into a story about traveling to Cuba. Brian very elegantly combined the country’s complicated history and its cocktails. Can you tell us a little bit about how that idea came to be?
BS: Going into the trip, I wanted to send the guys a reading list to prepare us for the experience. I didn’t want us to go in blind, without any sense of history, but I also didn’t want to assign history and textbooks. So the list that I curated included literature and memoir, and then also a little bit of history. And after doing some research, the history that seemed the most fun to engage with was Bacardi and the Long Fight of Cuba by Tom Gjelten. It tells the story of the history of Bacardi in Cuba—Gjelten looks at the arc of the past 150 years of Cuban history through the story of the Bacardi family. It felt like a really interesting way to take a product that we associate with parties in clubs and having a good time, but actually allows us to get much deeper into the history and politics of this place. That book inspired the lens through which we approached this article. That was the first book. The second one was Before Night Falls, the memoir by Reinaldo Arenas, a gay Cuban poet and writer who, with the LGBT community, was put into forced labor camps and treated horribly during the Castro regime. That felt important to us, going in wth kind of pure lens to understand what that community faced, and to also see that side of the regime. And then, to include a bit of literature, we had Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. Even though it’s a fun spy read, it does give a taste of the foreign influence in Cuba. It offers a perspective in terms of how America has really directed the way that Cuban has grown—our interference and influence helped shape a lot the choices that the country has made, and something that we Americans have to reckon with. The last was Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. He has a huge presence in Cuba. He lived in an old farm—really, an estate—for twenty years, built really strong relationships, and also wrote very eloquently about its cocktails.
LV: We’re having a rum tasting tonight [thanks to our sponsor Fairview Wine & Spirits!]—there’s a Bacardi 8-year rum, as well as two Havana Club rums, the gold and silver, and you noticed that the Havana Club rums actually comes from Puerto Rico.
BS: There's an ongoing legal dispute over the trademark on Havana Club rum. Havana Club was a rival of Bacardi but in the aftermath of the revolution, Bacardi claims to have purchased the copyright from the family that started Havana Club, even as the Castro regime nationalized that brand. The government-owned version of Havana Club struck a distribution deal with international conglomerate Pernod Ricard, which sells it everywhere in the world except the United States (because of the embargo). Meanwhile, Bacardi sells its version of Havana Club in the United States as a product of Puerto Rico, where the company is now based. The legal fight continues.
Audience Question: You mentioned the Bacardi family was momentarily progressive, maybe, at the time of the revolution and open to some negotiation with the revolutionary government, and I’m curious to know—were the Bacardi’s slave owners, and to what extent were they plantation exploiters?
BS: That’s a great question. Cuba did have slaves, and enslaved Africans were the ones who were doing the sugar harvesting as it was a growing industry in Cuba. Slavery was abolished in 1886, so it slightly predates the Bacardi family. Which is not to say that there wasn’t still exploitation that continued afterwards, but it wasn’t based on the slave trade, that their business or the rum industry developed. That’s the best I can do right now, but I can certainly refer you to the book.
Audience Question: Have you had any contact with friends that you made while you were there? Do you have any kind of accurate report on how the island is doing now after the hurricane?
KK: Yes, I reached out to Out Adventures to see about our guide that was with us, and know that he’s okay. They haven’t been able to get in contact with anyone that runs one of the houses where we stayed in Havana, and so the fear, based on where it was located, is that likely it was flooded. We met a number of Cubans and do follow them on social media. While we haven’t been in direct contact with them, they have been posting recently, as if nothing is wrong. Clearly though, the hurricane impacted Cuba significantly as well as the Caribbean.
SV: Kris has done some research regarding relief efforts in Cuba and he has learned that it is often difficult to reach LGBT people in these regions because oftentimes the relief efforts are led by religious organizations. They aren’t necessarily discriminating against anyone, but if you’re queer you may not feel comfortable approaching them, or for whatever reason you are harder to reach.
Consider Donating to the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities (CVC) Coalition, which specifically serves LGBTI persons affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
SV: Kris, what was your experience like shooting this piece?
KK: As you mentioned in the beginning, we didn’t really know how the story was going to take shape. I knew it’d be about cocktails, and clearly as we were going through Cuba, I was thinking, how can I photograph the food and drink as we were drinking? Also, there are parts of Cuba that are clearly impoverished, and there were times when I didn't feel comfortable shooting these people or places. Other times, I decided that I wanted to experience a moment for myself without lifting up my camera.
LV: I’m curious about the experience of traveling with Out Adventures. Being part of an LGBT travel group must have meant that you were very out.
KK: We were a group of 16 gay men walking down the street—so there was no way that we couldn’t be “out.” I personally, never felt, ever not safe. There were a few times that we were told not to travel to certain areas.
BS: As part of our trip, we did meet with Cuban gay activists, they seek more rights, but they don’t want to identify as a “community.” they seem themselves as Cuban first - one community - and don’t want to separate themselves.
SV: Did those activists describe for you their experience of being gay in Cuba?
BS: The activists spoke a lot about the political progression of gay rights, frequently mentioned Mariela Castro, the daughter of Raul and niece of Fidel. Since 2000, she has run the National Center for Sexual Education and expanded its focus beyond mostly women’s health to include LGBT people, and I think for 10 years now they have had anti homophobia, anti transphobia marches, and her research has led to some legislative progress, too. But, a social stigma is oftentimes still there - being a largely Catholic nation. Like everything else in Cuba, the status of LGBT citizens is complicated. I think the trip brought up more questions than it answered.
In the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, there's much need for help throughout affected regions in the Caribbean, including Cuba. LGBTI people often face challenges not addressed by traditional, often faith-based relief efforts. The Rustin Fund and Alturi are raising money for the local and grassroots organization Caribbean Vulnerable Communities (CVC) Coalition, which specifically serves LGBTI persons. We encourage you to give what you can.
Read "Rum and Revolution: Seeing Cuba through Its Cocktails," by Brian Schaefer, with photos by Kristopher Kelly.