For lack of the Journal of Columbus in my shrinking personal library, I have been unable to verify this, but I think it’s true. They say that the Grand Admiral, having had the opportunity to meet the aborigines who populated the island, wondered: “What makes these Indians laugh?”

Unaware of the fact that laughter, inherent joy, is as common to us as tree rats and sunrises, some observers of the surface Cuban reality argue that everything is going well.  The irrefutable proof?  People laugh.  These visitors forget that on the night of Saturday, July 25, 1953, while hundreds of young idealists prepared themselves to die in the crazy assault on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, the rest of Santiago laughed and enjoyed the music of conga drums, as they got themselves drunk on as much beer and rum as they could afford on their wages.

During the 14 years I worked at the magazine Cuba International (1973-1987) there were many times when I witnessed how the photos were done and especially how they chose which to publish, including the title photos. The best photographers of the time captured these images (Ivan Reeds, Ernesto Fernandez, Figueroa, Pablo Fernandez, Christopher Pascual and others).  They were so good at getting their subjects to laugh that sometimes I myself would cooperate, monkeying around behind the photographers while they composed a portrait.

Not that we wanted to lie, rather it seemed that in Cuba a photo is not complete if its subjects are not smiling, whether they are the students of a newly opened school in the countryside, or the macheteros who have just cut their third millionth arroba of sugar cane, or the unsleeping soldiers guarding the skies of the fatherland.  And it was so easy to make them laugh, and so natural for them to want to please us, that over time we were shaping the contours of a country where laughter appeared as a heritage of the new times, a result of the revolution. I have to assume responsibility for my part in this.  I made the jokes, but they were the ones who laughed.

What the apologists coming from other latitudes do not know is that we also laugh at them, at their imperturbable naivety.   A bus in Havana where people make jokes,  share their lives and maybe get a bit lascivious, is not the Metro in Berlin where the passengers avoid each other’s gaze and everyone competes to seem the more sullen.

Oy, foreigner, take my photo and give me a dollar, and you will see how I can laugh!

Translator’s notes:
Machetero: Someone wielding a machete, a sugar cane cutter.

Arroba: About 11.5 kg or 25 pounds.