Cuba: Reliving Memories of Communism

Daniel Aleman, 20, and his girlfriend, Kaisa Garcia, 21, before a Buena Fe concert at Mella theater in Havana. Their moments of privacy are rare - like many people their age, they will live with their parents for many years before being able to afford their own place to live. "If you can just forget about the economy, the safety here is nice," Ms. Garcia, a dancer, said. "I just try to create a bubble in my mind away from anything that doesn't work in the country, and I am happy." Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

A list of available products hangs outside a bodega in Havana. Bodegas provide food rations - like rice, flour, sugar and beans - to each Cuban citizen via the Libreta de Abastecimiento (Supplies Booklet), which establishes the amount and frequency of food allotted per person. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

From left, Yosuan Gonzalez, 15, Lazaro Gutierrez, 16, Lorenzo Velasquez, 13, Noel Sandoval, 19, and a friend hanging out in Havana with Emily Chanti, 4, and Yesena Kagemusa, 6. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

A participant of a march organized by the wives and female relatives of imprisoned political dissidents rests by a tree in Havana. The opposition group, Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), attend Mass at Santa Rita Iglesia each Sunday, then march around the church dressed in white as a symbol of peace. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

From left, the artists Angel Leon, 24, and Victor Manuel Ojeda, 24, work on their own interpretation of a piece by the painter Eduardo Abela, 52, in Havana. Their adaptation of the painting alludes to the cult of action heroes by placing religious figures with Western cartoon characters. Art during the Communist years in Eastern Europe was highly monitored - artists who chose not to show a utopian view of the country were censored and punished. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

Participants in the Labor Day parade on May 1st hold signs with images of the Communist figures Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx. In Cuba, the day is known as Dia del Trabajo and is a call for people to show support to their socialist government and the Cuban Revolution. Guests worldwide are known to join. While attendance is not mandatory, absence from the march is usually noted and discouraged. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

Yasiel Valdivia waits for a bus in the port city of Mariel on the way to visit his mother and grandmother in a nearby village. Mr. Valdivia's uncle was among those who fled toward Florida in the Mariel Boatlift exodus of 1980. He has not since regained permission to return, separating him for the past 35 years from his sister, Yasiel's mother, and his mother, now 93. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

Jose Alonzo, sporting a U.S.A. tattoo, waters the plants in front of his house in the port city of Mariel, Cuba, a place whose tranquil appearance belies its importance in both the history and future of Cuban-American interaction. Russians unloaded nuclear warheads there in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and it was the gateway through which 125,000 Miami-bound emigres fled during the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. The town is now the site of reconstruction of a deep-water container port and a free-trade zone. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

Looking into a private barbershop in the Havana Vieja neighborhood of Cuba. Since privatization was first allowed within Cuba's state-owned socialist system in the mid-'70s, the requirements for those allowed to be cuentapropistas (private business entrepreneurs) have fluctuated from restrictive to less so - easing in the Raul Castro era of 2008 and after. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

Lucilla Sulueta Cuesta, a 66-year-old retiree, gets her nails done in the Havana Vieja neighborhood. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

A pro-government poster and a newspaper biography of former President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

From left, Yandi Corrioso Samoraz, 22, and Raymel Medina, 16, go for an evening swim, with construction of the new port visible in the background, in Mariel. Raymel said he would like to learn more about the world, but extremely limited Internet access in his city makes this a challenge. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

Children wearing the uniform of Communist youth are prepared to salute "Voto!" ("He voted!"), as a woman places her ballot in Cuba's Elecciones Parciales (Partial Elections). The vote was to elect delegates to the Municipal Assemblies of People's Power, the country's unicameral parliament, on April 19, in Havana. The delegates function as district representatives for a two-and-a-half-year term. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

Women practice tai chi under a fresco of the Cuban revolutionary philosopher Jose Marti and the revolutionary leader Che Guevara in Mariel. Images of government idols - a famously ubiquitous sight across Cuba - fill the space that an absence of advertising leaves in printed media, billboards and edifices. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

Traffic moves through the center of the port city of Mariel. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

A man prepares whole grilled chicken for sale transported in the trunk of his Moskovitch, an automobile made by Russia from 1946 to 2002, before a cock-fighting event at a sports arena in Managua. Image by Yana Paskova. 2015.

A chicken's beak is tied shut to prevent premature pecking before a cock-fighting event at a sports arena. Cock fighting in state-run events in Cuba is permitted, but not for monetary betting. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

People march by a sign saying, "The embargo: the longest genocide in history," during the Labor Day march on May 1. The commercial, financial and economic embargo enforced by the United States against Cuba went into effect in 1960, nearly two years after the deposition of the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship by the Cuban Revolution, and just after Cuba nationalized American-owned properties in Cuba without remuneration to the United States. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

Apartment blocks with a crumbling infrastructure are seen in the provinces on the way to the port city of Mariel. Many houses in Cuba are in need of major repairs. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

Nancy Mena, 48, gives Juaneto Mena, 82, a shave in the port city of Mariel. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

An image of former President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is posted at a bodega in Havana. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

Dancers mingle to the sounds of D.J. Mike Polarni after a concert at Fabrica de Arte, in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

A late-night pizza shop, playing mostly American music from the 1980s and 1990s, in the port city of Mariel. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

Buses full of passengers drive by El Capitolio, or the National Capitol Building of Cuba — whose name and design were modeled after the United States Capitol in Washington. The building was the seat of the government until the Revolution of 1959, when the Communist leadership disbanded congress. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

Maydelin Pérez Pérez, 38, sells empanadas with her 3-year-old daughter, Lorena Sofia Reyez, in the Habana Vieja neighborhood. Ms. Pérez is divorced, cannot afford day care for her four children, and says her ex-husband contributes the equivalent of $1 of child support monthly. Image by Yana Paskova. Cuba, 2015.

Most Americans who visit Cuba recall having a time machine moment: their grandfather’s Chevy, showgirls at the Tropicana, or the absent reach of email. My version of time travel included a Lada and a red scarf — two symbols of my childhood in Bulgaria, a Communist nation that turned to democracy after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Last year’s anniversary of this event — which had allowed my family to immigrate to the Western world 25 years ago — prompted me to examine how democracy and Communism each had affected my country. This awakened a stronger urge — to explore places of kindred circumstances, with Cuba as a natural choice.

The recent warming of Cuban and American relations has been of particular fascination to me, as it has led to speculation over the future of Communism on the island. During my visit, I observed life in Cuba as only a native of the Soviet Bloc could — struck by the decorum of Communism, the appearance of choice that belied government involvement in nearly every aspect of daily routine. Cubans can vote, although limited to one-party delegates in a unicameral parliament.

Some private entrepreneurship is allowed, but restricted by a lack of advertising and steep taxes on business expansion. Artists toe the line of self-expression, knowing that if they cross it with a non-sanitized view of the country, they risk losing support from state-run galleries. Rallies, voting, and party activity from youth to old age are not mandatory, but reason for social and professional ostracism if they are omitted. Committees for the Defense of the Revolution that are peppered in every neighborhood promote community projects, yet also alert the government of dissident activities. Government control means safety, but often with a heavy hand that also restricts expression, travel and economic independence.

My project was not about political alignment: In both theory and practice, there are highs and lows to capitalism, as there are to Communism. It was simply a childhood relived, and my future imagined had democracy been just a whispered-about but never-seen guest. I saw myself in the child in a red scarf saluting voters, my mind too young for politics, simply eager to belong. Memories of my grandfather, who gave five youthful years to a forced labor camp after failing to show proper enthusiasm for the party, flickered through my mind as I saw photos carried by the Ladies in White, who still protest political imprisonment, despite beatings and detentions. One too many a family shared the familiar pain of separation via necessity — not an innate desire — for emigration.

All these parallels, while not sought out, are what a life straddling Communism and democracy had fine-tuned me to openly receive and record. Those who are bound by Cuba’s borders, those who observe life within as part of their profession or routine, do not often have this luxury.

I’d originally thought being from a former Communist nation would help forge a bond with Cubans. But I quickly learned that many weren’t sure of Bulgaria’s recent history — whether it was still Communist, nor the democratic changes introduced in the 1990s. Information that enters and exits the island is still very much government controlled.

Like the rest of the world, I am captivated by Cuba’s future — both as a Bulgarian and an American. Will the country’s borders open, releasing curious souls but thinning its population, as in Eastern Europe? Is the promise of a United States trade partner 100 miles away enough to end to a half-century-old trade embargo? Would an attitude of incentive, not one of disincentive, spotlight both what’s changing — and what isn’t?