Saturday, January 24, 2015

This is your country, and no regime can take it from you

This is your country, and no regime can take it from you
The photographer's work was the pretext that Havana used to suspend
negotiations with the European Union
ERNESTO HERNANDEZ, Miami | Enero 23, 2015

Marius Jovaiša is a Lithuanian photographer, 41, who has spent much of
the last five years taking photos of Cuba from a perspective never
before seen: from above. He started the project in 2010 thinking that,
being a foreign artist far removed from politics, it would be quite easy
to get permission to take aerial photos. However he quickly realized
that he would have to navigate against an extremely slow bureaucracy,
invest a great deal of resources, be patient, and understand that the
freedom to do things is very limited on the island.

Unseen Cuba, a collection of more than 300 ariel photos of the island,
taken from an ultralight 300 feet above the surface of the earth, was
published in 2014. The exhibition of the images in Washington and
Brussels caused problems with the Cuban authorities, who came to use his
work as a pretext to suspend their dialogue with the European Union last

Question: Why did you decide to write a book about Cuba?

Answer: After the publication of my book of ariel photos of Lithuania, I
realized that I was doing something that I enjoy, that appealed to the
public, and that could also be a profitable project. With this new
project I could combine my passion for photography with the adrenaline
that one feels when flying in an apparatus that is open as an
ultralight. It was like I was flying in a chair and, at the same, time
taking incredible photos.

First I did Unseen Belize to see if the model would work in a foreign
country and then I thought about Cuba, because there had not been a work
of this kind in the country, and also because the island and Lithuania
share a piece of history through the Soviet influence. Cuba was like a
secret country and it would be a great challenge for me to develop the
project. I love challenges.

Q. Do you expect to hold an exhibition in Havana next?

A. I would love that. There were already two exhibitions last year, one
in the Lithuanian embassy in Washington and another with the support of
the European Union in Brussels. Both caused problems with the Cuban
authorities. Unfortunately, my work found itself in the middle of a
political problem. Last May, our ambassador in Washington invited to the
exhibition several Cuban-American members of Congress, who made very
strong political statements, and the Cuban diplomatic mission reported
what happened to Havana

The person responsible for Latin America at the European Union is
Lithuanian and she invited me to show my work. Cuba and the European
Union had begun their rounds of talks, and she thought the show would be
an opportunity to educate the diplomatic community about the culture of
the country.

Someone in the embassy in Brussels realized that it was the same
exhibition that had created so much conflict in Washington and asked
that it be canceled, but the European union refused. The Cubans
boycotted the exposition, as did other Latin American ambassadors, and
at the same time they suspended the talks. Many said that my exhibition
was just an excuse for the cancellation and not the main reason, but
that is what happened.

Q. What do Cuban authorities think of your book?

A. I sent it to them last November. I hadalready reported by telephone
that on page 77 there is a picture of a lighthouse with what appears to
be a soldier patrolling, from above. Although you cannot see the soldier
very well, in Cuba there are regulations that prohibit photographing the

I was also told that there is a picture of my children with some Cuban
children that they did not much appreciate. They said: "We do not want
to show our children to the world in this way, they appear to be poor
little savages. I am still waiting for a global response, but if there
is nothing that would harm my artistic work, I am willing to publish the
book in Spanish for sale in Cuba.

Q. Who were the first people you met with in Havana?

A. I met primarily with Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs. One of the entry points for me was the Antonio Núñez
Foundation for Nature and Humanity. Its director, Liliana Nunez Velis,
fell in love with my project and took me, literally, by the hand to the
Ministry of Culture. She wrote a letter of recommendation on behalf of
the Foundation saying that my project presented an opportunity to
promote Cuban culture in other countries through its geography and

Then, in my meetings with the Department of International Relations
within the Ministry of Culture, I worked with the department director,
Pedro Monzón Barata. I was always talking with officials from each
ministry separately, but I realized that each of them was coordinating
everything with the military. The Government also designated me as a
trading company of the Ministry of Culture to coordinate the initiative,
Paradiso. Through them, money was sent from Lithuania to Cuba to
develop the project.

Q. At any point do you think that it would be better to abandon the project?

A: I thought of quitting many times because the bureaucracy did not do
its work and delayed decisions, it was exhausting. Something would be
agreed on in the meetings, and afterwards it wouldn't happen. On my
first visit to Havana I managed to open doors and even to fly, and I
committed myself totally to the project and believe that it would be
possible possible to do it. On this first trip I received many
compliments, everyone told me, "Relax don't worry."

I come from a country that belongs to the Soviet Union, I knew some
things would be achieved through under the table negotiations,
sidestepping the rules a little bit. I knew I would find some way to
navigate through the labyrinth of regulations. Then when I felt like
giving up the project, I thought about the flight that I managed on my
first trip. Perhaps if I hadn't taken this flight I would have lost
interest in the project.

Q. Do the Cuban authorities feel threatened by your book?

A. I don't think so, not at all. The problem is they expected it to be
done much more slowly, and that the captions on the photos would be
written by the Cuban historian and geographer assigned to the project.
But they weren't doing the work and I went ahead.

Q. In April 2014, you received a visit from the Interior Ministry. The
authorities claimed that they were not aware of the project and had
received complaints that "a foreign spy" was taking aerial photos of
Cuba. What did they ask you in the interrogation?

A. It wasn't an interrogation as such. They asked me several questions
about the work I was doing. I do not think it was an order from above.
It was rather the local police who were trying to show their spirit of
initiative and were doing their job.

Q. Why initially could you not take pictures of the cities?

A. I thought it was for security reasons, but they never explained it to
me. I always hoped they would let me take photos of cities, though
perhaps I would have to do it in a military plane and not in my
ultralight, but that was not the case. I was very surprised when they
let me do it, because in other places it is not allowed.

Q. How much did the project cost?

A. The whole process – travel, events, presentations, production of the
book, et cetera – has cost close to $1 million. I still haven't finished
the process, there's a lot to be done in terms of promotion and sales,
so the costs continue to rise

Q. What impressed you about Cuba?

A. When I started to visit places outside Havana – Trinidad, Santiago
and so on – I realized how big and long Cuba is. The roads were very
narrow and the transportation very limited. I realized it would be a
complicated job.

I had a lot of contact with Cuban artists. Before the project I
organized a series of seminars and presentations about my work and my
experience with photography. The island's photographers are very
talented, expressing in their work, in a way, the same pain and the same
sensitivity that existed in Lithuania in Communist times.

The Cuban people are strong. Their feel love for their homeland. It is
very difficult to live in Cuba without access to simple things, without
a free market, unable to express their creativity. It reminded me a lot
of Soviet times in Lithuania.

I also met many Cubans outside the island, dreaming of the day when they
could return. I stayed in B&Bs in private homes, I visited with Cubans
who welcomed me like a member of their families. My kids played with
their Cuban friends. Cubans are a very welcoming, they give you a unique
friendship. They don't see you as a commercial object. I was always
asked about my family and not about my professional life. They improvise
a lot, they have an incredible creativity.

Q. What do you want to accomplish with your book?

A. One effect that this book will have is to awaken a certain national
pride in Cubans. It's like saying: this is yours, this is your country,
it was created before any revolution and political system, and it will
also survive long into the future. No regime, whatever it might be, can
take it from you.

These pictures evoke a sense of belonging to a single Cuba for Cubans
living both inside and outside the island. I know it will be very
difficult for my book to be in the homes of every Cuban on the island,
but my hope is that Cuban-Americans can buy the book and share with
their families inside Cuba.

For those who are not Cuban, I hope my book will serve to show the
beauty of the country. Cuba is a place that is recognized throughout the
entire world and I hope that this book will allow many people to see
Cuba from a new perspective.

'Unseen Cuba' presented in Miami on Friday, January 23, 7:30 pm, at
Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. (305) 448-9599

Source: "This is your country, and no regime can take it from you" -

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