By: Gina Bruno
On his first voyage in 1492, Christopher Columbus “discovered” what he described as the fairest island human eyes have yet beheld. This fair island was known by many names: Juana, Cubanacan, Cubao, The Pearl of the Antilles, Cuba. Centuries later, a young lawyer turned revolutionary overturned 500 years of colonization and outside influence, and on January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro declared victory in the city of Santiago de Cuba, forever making Cuba synonymous with a new word: revolución. However, like most revolutions, things got complicated, in Cuba’s case, an ideological clash against imperialism meets Communism meets, well, a 50-year embargo imposed by the United States. In 1961, after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Fidel communicated to his people through his state-run Radio Rebelde broadcast, saying, “And do they think they can hide this from the world? No! Cuba has a radio station that is already transmitting throughout Latin America … We are no longer in the age of stage-coaches. We are in the age of radio and the truth can travel far and wide!” Cuba was on the cutting edge of social media. How could Fidel have ever predicted the Kardashian selfies of 2016?
Whether he likes it or not, a lot has changed in the world during the decades Fidel has kept his people locked under state-run media. And while the vast majority of Cubans have not had free access to social media, or, Internet for that matter, the world has, and now, with Cuba in the middle of a historic thaw with the United States and being the top destination on every American mind, Americans had the unique opportunity to experience Fidel’s island from two unlikely lenses: the Kardashians and Chanel. To put it simply, it was a weird trip. Chanel showcased his Resort collection on Havana’s famous avenue, Paseo del Prado, a collection that was inspired by the heyday of glamorous, wealthy Americans travelling to the Caribbean for vacation. To make this painful irony worse, the show was opened strictly to VIPs, leaving Cuban citizens frustrated, isolated and held behind police lines, separating the have and the have-nots, the bourgeoisie from the proletariat.
Meanwhile the Kardashian sisters, Kanye and North West in tow, who were there expressly for the Chanel show, gallivanted around Havana, fetishizing it all over social media as most tourists are prone to do. However, not everyone was happy with the posts on Instagram. Khloe Kardashian particularly stirred up her followers with one photo of her against a wall with “Fidel” written behind her, followers commenting that her photo was like “posting a Hitler banner.” Meanwhile, in a second photo, Khloe posted against another wall, but this time, Photoshopped the graffiti that read, “Viva la Revolución,” reducing it to a blur, prompting her followers to comment, “Why did you Photoshop the “viva la revolucion” away? That’s what Cuba stands for.” Talk about ideological divides. Kim’s photo of a street lined with vintage cars was captioned, “…Being away and living in the moment having no phone service was so amazing! We felt like we stepped back into a different time period … Thank you Cuba!” Kim’s post sparked controversy with South Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a staunch opponent of the Castro regime, who exclaimed, “”Now, the Kardashians are parachuting into the island to tape their vapid TV show … haven’t the Cuban people suffered enough?”
As more and more Americans hit the Cuban scene and more and more Cubans gain access to the outside world through social media, the contradictions and controversies will continue to run deep. During Obama’s visit to Cuba in March, Raúl Castro made a rare show of answering questions at a press conference, in which he denied Cuba’s detention of political prisoners. During the press conference, Raúl Castro declared, “After this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners, and if we have those political prisoners, they will be released before tonight ends,” which was quickly followed by a flood of names being listed on Twitter by journalists from Cuba and overseas. Between Chanel, the Kardashians, and the names of political prisoners being openly listed on Twitter, Raúl has to wonder whether opening his island to free, limitless Internet and the warming relations with the United States will work in favor of his revolution. I just hope that when he figures it out, he shares his thoughts with us with a quick tweet.