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Jose Marti Square, Havana

February 3, 2011

Here’s a composite sketch of Jose Marti Square in central Havana. It was late in the day, the sun was going down fast. I positioned myself so that the glare of the sun was directly eclipsed behind one of the towers on the Grand Teatro, and began to rapidly sketch the square right to left. As I sped through the panorama I’d draw across the page onto a new sheet – and also adjust my position so the blinding sun would be in turn behind the statue of Jose, or screened by the palms. You really couldn’t see much inside the big backlit shapes of the buildings.   Made for an interesting drawing – with the subject only half seen through the glare.

It was rush hour – a steady stream of people were moving across the square – leaving work and heading for the overcrowded busses that would take them home.  But the other thing that was going on was my first experience in Havana with outright begging.  Of course I’d been meeting people the whole week who were selling things, or who clearly worked for minimal wages in hopes of seeing tips from foreigners.  But unlike places I’ve been in Southeast Asia or  South America, I really didn’t experience any people systematically begging. Far fewer in fact than back in the US/Canada.

However this time there was an old woman, perhaps in her 70’s or 80’s. She was quite aggressive – coming straight over to me, standing very close in my personal space, and insistently whispering in a low pleading monotone. She’d clearly had a hard life – face ravaged by poor nutrition, bad dental work, a lifetime of tropical sun. None too clean either – dressed in rags,  something stuck to her face – food? Something I didn’t work too hard to identify. I was drawing as quickly as I could to catch the last light. As I moved with the sun, she would shuffle closer, consistently pleading.

Now. I never really know what to do in these situations. Clearly – she could use some money. But of course – so could many many other people I’d seen. Just in a five block radius there were young guys selling themselves to tourists, kids playing near corpses of dogs on the street, regular guys  working  construction in cheap shoes with their grandfathers hand tools.   How can you say which person is the one you’re going to reward? Everyone here is in the middle of a untenable situation.

Then there’s the issue with the tourist economy.  When we arrived our ‘greeter’ (I won’t say guide, as they really just give you a quick lecture and then drop you at your hotel), was very insistent that we were *not allowed* to obtain local currency (pesos), and that nobody was supposed to sell us anything outside of ‘nice’ shops – where we would pay in CUCs  (tourist money). The system is to ensure that tourists pay cheap-for-us but inflated-for-locals prices. So sure – it’s a tax on tourists. We don’t really need to get the incredibly low local prices – I can see the ‘fairness’ in that.  But the problem is, we can’t easily spend money just anywhere we feel like. You can’t patronize any small (independent?) shops without pesos. I wasn’t even sure locals were allowed to hold CUCs. I know now I could have given dollars to people – but I didn’t know then.

Either way I’m not exactly a rich guy. We had a tight budget for the trip – and pretty much spent it all on flight, food and lodging. If I *had* made a greymarket deal and bought some local currency I could certainly have afforded to be a lot more generous to everyone. Even a ‘starving artist’ can be a big tipper at 30 to 1 exchange.  But they don’t really want you to figure this out for some reason.  I can only conclude the official policy is to prevent locals from accumulating too much foreign currency. They certainly don’t make it easy.

So I did this drawing and chocked up that mixed experience. I don’t have a conclusion here.

What would you do? Give something to the old lady? Bring a pre-determined amount and give it out to whoever tugs the heart-strings each day? The logical mind says you can’t help the individual, you should support education and economic development. Teach them to fish, not airlift fish sticks. But you know, there’s some suspicion here that the government isn’t equipped to help people. So who’s the right organization to actually support?  Tough call.  What would you guys do?

So I’m working on this via some back channels. As I work on the collating the drawings from this trip, I’m thinking about what I can do to raise some money with the art. Plans are not set. But some portion of the book or the app or the gallery show that comes out of the trip will go to some kind of cause.  Not a great answer. Yet.

I will leave you with some drawings from the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón. More about this fabulous place later.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Sass permalink
    February 3, 2011 9:31 AM

    Hi Marc,

    I prefer to give directly. I read a statistic that 90% of money given to charities is used for “administration and fundraising”. The fundraising is subcontracted and then you have 2 complex organizations skimming the funds leaving little for the actual end recipient. Just give to the individual, and dont worry about the impossibility of solving a larger problem. Many people, when they travel to 2nd world countries will pack things from home to give away like toothbrushes, toiletries, toys etc… this way you can give them products that are perhaps also difficult to obtain in other locations.


    • tarosan permalink*
      February 3, 2011 10:01 AM

      Hey Mike – I meant to say – great cover you posted up the other day. Nice clean tight detail that I love!

      Yup that is the real problem with ‘charity’ – how do you know what they do with your money? There are a lot of guys selling drawings on the street there. I was thinking maybe I should raise up a bunch of art supplies and send them over :)


      • Mike Sass permalink
        February 3, 2011 10:35 AM

        Thanks Marc. I also appreciate your sitting and drawing on location in unfavorable conditions.

        For the giving thing, why not just give locally? Personally, I would prefer to do that and make the world a better place by starting in my own backyard. Not like I’m a huge giver, or anything… Why would it be better to give anything to a Cuban over a Montrealer?

  2. tarosan permalink*
    February 3, 2011 10:50 AM

    Well – of course it’s not. (better). You’re right. There are people one could help right here. There’s certainly more social safety net here than there however.

    But really it’s not who’s more worthy or whatever – for some reason I haven’t analyzed thoroughly – It seems right that if I make drawings in some place – and it turns into a paying job for me someday – that I should return something to that place.

    I make drawings in Montreal too of course – so perhaps I should be drawing for the homeless here. (and they would be cold cold homeless right now). But it’s a slippery slope right?

    Should I stop all non-humanitarian drawing, as other work is a waste of time? Am I just being ridiculous, since I’m not really making any money to speak of yet, so it’s all hot air? I could make more money doing film concept work and give half of that to charity. For that matter I could go to med school and have more philanthropic power than I may ever have as an artist. So ya. It’s a long term thought process I guess.


  1. Travel and Time Travel – Back from Havana | Citizen Sketcher

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