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The color of Cuba

Oxford art collector holds
Cuban art exhibit as talks of diplomacy begin
between the U.S. and Cuba

By LaReeca Rucker
The Oxford Eagle

In 1996, Milly West of Oxford embarked on a quest to Cuba in search of fine art.

She found it everywhere she went, from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, and it reminded her, in many ways, of the self-taught artists of the American South — poor people with a seed of brilliance and a desire to create something — but without money to buy materials like paint, canvases and paper — so they were resourceful, using found objects, house paint, paneling and old bed sheets to share their souls.

West said resourcefulness is a commonality among Cuban artists who capture the intense bright colors and light of the country and its people, like the teenagers who hang out in street cafes drinking sodas and listening to music, and the women of the countryside who wash their clothes in rivers and hang them out to dry.

Cuban art has deep meaning

“Art in Cuba — everything seems to have a meaning,” West said. “It goes deeper than just a landscape or even a portrait … Instead of just reproducing what they see — even if it’s just how they live or what they remember — it’s maybe some sort of environmental statement. My sympathies go out to the artists there who are creating amazing work, but they don’t have a buying audience.”

During the past 18 years, West has traveled to Cuba more than 30 times, and she loves to share stories of the country through art. Last year, West, who is also a columnist for The Oxford EAGLE, published a book of photographs called “Cuba for Keeps,” and this weekend, she’ll hold an art preview party at the Tres Puertas Gallery in her home at 212 Bramlett Blvd.

The preview party will be held Friday from 6–9 p.m., and the gallery will be open Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. It will feature Cuban art from artists Alberto Korda, Roberto Salas, Suitberto Goire, Luis Rodriguez, Juan Carlos Lima, “Chicho,” Alicia Leal, Manuel Mendive, Blanca Rosa Chacon, Jorge Luis Sanfiel and “Regina.”

“I’ve not met anybody whose been to Cuba who hasn’t really felt the warmth of the people and who hasn’t really learned something about how to treat one another,” West said. “The people are the kindest and most respectful people you would imagine.”

They also share an economic commonality.

“A doctor who specializes in any kind of intricate surgery, in the U.S., he would make half a billion dollars a year,” West said. “In Cuba, his salary is the same as someone who works in a restaurant or drives a taxi. Everyone who works gets paid enough to sustain themselves in the most modest way. They are supplemented rations.

“It’s not a good life compared to what we know. I’m always glad to come home. But while I’m there, I realize how much I can learn from the way these new friends of mine live. They live without material things, without anything new for the most part. The lifting of the embargo is hopefully going to open up, economically, a whole new world for the average people.”

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced that the United States will take historic steps to forge better relations with Cuba.

“We are separated by 90 miles of water, but brought together through the relationships between the two million Cubans and Americans of Cuban descent that live in the United States, and the 11 million Cubans who share similar hopes for a more positive future for Cuba,” Obama said in a White House statement yesterday.

Key elements

Some of the key elements of the new approach include: — Establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and re-establishing an embassy in Havana.

— Adjusting regulations to more effectively empower the Cuban people.

— Expanding travel under general licenses for the 12 existing categories of travel to Cuba authorized by law. — Facilitating remittances to Cuba by U.S. persons.

— Authorizing expanded commercial sales/exports from the United States of certain goods and services, and authorizing American citizens to import additional goods from Cuba.

— Facilitating authorized transactions between the United States and Cuba.

— Initiating new efforts to increase Cubans’ access to communications and their ability to communicate freely. Providers will be allowed to create a telecommunications and Internet infrastructure and provide services, which will strengthen communication between the United States and Cuba.

Antonia Eliason, assistant professor of law at the University of Mississippi, teaches international trade law. She explained the recent developments.

Pope involved

“After more than five decades of economic and political embargo, the U.S. is officially re-opening diplomatic relations with Cuba,” Eliason said. “This dtente has come about as a result of prolonged secret negotiations between the two countries, facilitated by Pope Francis. Ostensibly, the move that sparked the change in policy was the agreement of a prisoner exchange.”

Eliason said the strained relations between the U.S. and Cuba date back to the overthrow of former Cuban leader, Fulgencio Batista’s regime by Fidel Castro in 1959.

Many Cubans fled the country and came to the U.S. The U.S. also lost a number of economic interests in the country, including sugar plantations. Because of this and concerns about the rise of communism in Latin America, the U.S. imposed a comprehensive embargo against Cuba in 1960, Eliason said.

“In subsequent years, incidents between Cuba and the U.S., including the Bay of Pigs in 1961, where the U.S. unsuccessfully tried to overthrow Castro’s government, and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963, where tensions over the placement of nuclear warheads in Cuba by the Soviet Union nearly resulted in nuclear war further exacerbated tensions.”

More recently, Cuba’s poor human rights record “has proved a sticking point for opening of relations between the two countries,” Eliason said.

Restoring diplomacy will first involve opening a U.S. embassy in Cuba and a Cuban embassy in the U.S.

“Economically, while the embargo has yet to be lifted, discussions regarding its demise are apparently ongoing,” she said.

Travel restrictions

Travel restrictions will also likely be lifted soon, which will allow American citizens to visit Cuba with limits.

“Due to U.S. policies prohibiting travel to Cuba, it has been impossible for Americans to travel to Cuba without special permission,” Eliason said. “If the economic embargo is eventually lifted, this will open the door to U.S. manufacturers and businesses to engage in commerce with Cuba, benefiting both American and Cuban businesses.”

For West, traveling to Cuba has been a challenging process that involved obtaining a license from the U.S. Treasury Office and filling out a det a i l e d report that explained what she planned to do each day.

“Now that I know the route I have to follow, it’s pretty easy for me,” she said. “I’m going to go to certain people’s homes each day. This is my plan, although it’s not carved in stone. The U.S. Treasury is happy for U.S. citizens to make money dealing in art from Cuba, but they don’t want you to go just to party.

“And that’s why this whole thing about the embargo — it’s about time that we, as North Americans, are free to travel where we want to travel and decide how we want to spend our time. I’m so glad that Obama has made these steps toward better relations with Cuba. We will be the ones who benefit, believe me.”

West said she was also happy to hear that three of the “Cuban Five” will be released.

“All over Cuba, in every airport and bus terminal, hotels and everywhere, there are tributes and posters and signage saying: ‘Free the Cuban Five.’ They are not forgotten. I have a picture of one of their posters.”

The “Cuban Five” includes Gerardo Hernndez, Antonio Guerrero and Ramn Labaino, a group of Cuban nationals convicted of spying in Miami in 2001. The two other members, RenGonzlez and Fernando Gonzlez, were released in 2011 and earlier this year, respectively.

“Knowing what I have known and studied about them,” West said, “I think this is a wonderful thing that they are actually going back home to be with their families.”

Other changes

Dr. Matthew Casey, a history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, said the big changes this week, aside from paving the way for diplomatic conversations, is that the U.S. will now have a full diplomatic staff in Cuba and vice versa.

“It will be easier for U.S. telecommunications companies to sell their products to Cuba, which ultimately reduces the monopoly that the Castro government has on the ideas that circulate in the island,” Casey said.

“And it promises to make it even easier for Cuban and Cuban American families to reunite. But now the ball is in Congress’ court, essentially. And what they do will depend on how the American public responds now and in the upcoming elections.”

Casey said the embargo, itself, legally cannot be lifted by a president’s executive order. It must be eliminated by Congress.

“There are both Democratic and Republican representatives in this country who both favor and oppose the embargo,” he said. “So this is not an easy issue to just slot as belonging to one party or the other.

“That’s why today’s speech and the agreements reached are historic and unprecedented. They are the best healthy function with Cuban relations since 1959, but they are only a starting point. Essentially, the barriers are out of the way, and we will see what happens in other branches of Cuban government and in America as well.”

For more information about West’s Cuban art exhibit slated for Friday-Sunday, email millywestart@, or visitwww.

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