Vickroy: Palos photographer connects Americans with Cuba
By Donna Vickroy firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy February 27, 2013 5:48PM
George Vaselakos, of Palos Heights, talks about his recent photography trip to Cuba Tuesday, February 19, 2013. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
View Vaselakos’ photos
Vaselakos’ photos are or will soon be posted at georgeVphotography.com
Go, but don’t bring back
Jeff Braunger, program manager for Cuba Travel Licensing at the Office of Foreign Assets Control, explained how the cultural exchange programs work:
“Authorized U.S. persons who travel to Cuba under a people-to-people license must engage in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the U.S. travelers and individuals in Cuba. Travelers may spend up to the State Department’s per diem for Havana each day and may go beyond that amount only to engage in their authorized people-to-people activities. OFAC does not authorize transactions related to activities that are primarily tourist-oriented, including self-directed educational activities intended only for personal enrichment.”
From the OFAC Cuba brochure:
What can be brought back from Cuba?
“No goods of Cuban origin, other than information or informational materials, may be transported out of Cuba or brought into the United States. There are no limits on the import or export of informational materials. Such materials — including books, films, posters, photographs, CDs — are statutorily exempt from the prohibitions of the Regulations and may be purchased, sold, and transported freely. Blank tapes, CDs, and other media are not considered informational materials. Please see 515.206(a) and 515.332 of the Regulations.”
For more information, visit www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/cuba.pdf
Updated: April 1, 2013 6:07AM
For Americans, Cuba has long been an iconic place of wonder, a sometimes scary, always mysterious symbol of the Cold War.
Just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, Cuba may as well have been 9,000 miles away, said George Vaselakos, a retired Palos Heights businessman and teacher.
For decades after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs debacle, a U.S. trade embargo forbade direct contact with Cuba, sealing the Communist nation off from its superpower neighbor.
Then, in 2011, President Barack Obama opened the doors, at least partially, enabling separated family members as well as curious travelers to connect with the Cuban people. For the first time in more than 50 years, U.S. citizens could again journey to Cuba, but only through a licensed people-to-people cultural exchange program.
Vaselakos recently did just that.
The father of two has been an amateur photographer most of his life, at least since he was president of the photography club at Morgan Park Academy in the early 1960s.
Vaselakos, who owned a dry cleaning business in Oak Park, also taught biology, chemistry and physics at St. Barbara and Lourdes high schools as well as at DePaul University. He is also a pilot. But, he says, photography is his passion.
He and his wife, Denise Fraser Vaselakos, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of the Clothesline Project, which honors victims of domestic violence, have two sons, Douglas and Mark, and four grandchildren.
“Cuba has been on my radar screen for a long time,” Vaselakos said. Once he realized that Santa Fe Expeditions, with whom he’d participated in a photography workshop last summer, was among the 200 groups to receive a people-to-people license, he signed up.
“The trip exceeded all my expectations,” he said.
During his seven-day visit, he and the other 14 members of his group stopped at two to three places a day.
They went to Havana’s main university, where he snapped a photo of a tank sitting in the middle of the campus. They visited a dance studio, where 1,000 young girls were auditioning for a team of 25. Through photos and video, Vaselakos strived to capture the beauty and determination the dancers exhibited.
The group also visited tobacco farms and a supermarket, where meat, including pigs’ heads, was simply displayed on tables — no packaging, no refrigeration, no restriction on dogs wandering the premises.
“Cuba is a beautiful yet sad place,” he said.
Much of Cuba still smacks of its pre-revolutionary past. Remnants of swanky resorts that made it a mecca for the rich and for high-stakes gamblers still stand, but just barely.
Throughout Havana, Vaselakos said, buildings are crumbling. People continue to live in apartments covered in mildew, he said.
And between crumbling curbs are lanes filled with pink, yellow and pastel green 1950s Chevys and Pontiacs, although Vaselakos pointed out, “If you look closely, you’ll see a fair number of Toyota engines and parts.
“Now, Cuba is a photographic time capsule,” he said.
But that won’t last long. His travel guide, who has been to the island nation many times since the border was opened, told Vaselakos and the others that each time he returns, he sees considerable changes.
“He said the difference between a year ago and today is exponential,” Vaselakos said. “Greater exposure is causing rapid change. The flavor of Cuba is changing.”
That is, perhaps, the point of the travel programs. In a January 2011 news release, Obama said the new travel programs would “increase people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities.”
Vaselakos’ group stayed at the Plaza Central Hotel in Havana.
Every morning, he participated in “dawn patrol,” when the group of photographers — many of them well-traveled — would head out to capture the city coming to life.
“The people are just lovely,” he said. “They are quick to smile and seemed fiercely proud of their revolution.”
On the downside, he added, the Cuban people, in general, know very little about the outside world, or at least the outside world as it affects the United States.
“They don’t know about Afghanistan or Grenada,” he said.
“Everywhere you go, you hear wonderful music,” Vaselakos said.
Before he left for the Caribbean, he’d heard the way to win a Cuban’s heart is to bring him things he cannot get in Cuba. That included such everyday items as hair products and guitar strings.
“I brought several packages of guitar strings,” he said. “Each time I took someone’s photo, I gave them a package. They just loved it.”
Armed with his Nikon D800 and Nikon D600, Vaselakos and the others integrated with members of Cuba’s national photography association, Fototeca de Cuba, an institution created in 1986 to promote photographic arts in Cuba.
One of the requirements of the cultural exchange programs is that visitors interact with selected Cuban individuals or groups.
Vaselakos said it was amazing to see the resourcefulness of the Cuban photographers.
“They had very little in terms of technology and equipment, yet they were able to produce amazing work,” he said. “They had this studio that was 4-foot-by-6-foot with a small window. They’d hung damask over the window to diffuse the light.”
He said the Cuban photographers shared a single Rebel TI camera. Yet, despite the limitations, Vaselakos said, “Their photos are brilliant. Your mouth just hangs open when you see them.”
Vaselakos said in addition to learning much about the country, the trip helped him hone his craft.
“I had never been a good street photographer,” he said. “This trip made me a better one.”