A fast-changing Cuba strives to reconcile its past and future

From thriving nightclubs to countercultural cinema, Havana is forging a new path

It's almost midnight, and the queue stretches so far down the street that it disappears into the dark Havana night.

The music seems to be pulsing out from an old smokestack that soars above the former cooking-oil factory, now a vast industry-chic nightclub and art space that would sit snugly on the edgier fringes of Brooklyn or Berlin.

Inside, having paid a €2 cover charge, hundreds of sharply dressed young Cubans and tourists, including many Americans, sip cocktails as they move between the club’s 11 bars.

Endless doorways and corridors lead to seemingly hidden spaces, each with their own theme: a DJ in the basement, a live jazz gig, a photographic exhibition.


There are restaurants, an open-air black-and-white movie and, in an old warehouse, a huge cinema screen showing 1990s music videos.

La Fábrica de Arte Cubano, or Cuban Art Factory, is perhaps the biggest – and surely one of the most lucrative – of a new type of venture that occupy a grey area between the public and private spheres in Cuba.

The brainchild of X Alfonso, a celebrated Cuban musician, the factory is neither a wholly private business nor a state-run enterprise, but rather a "community project" that operates with the government's blessing and large degree of independence.

In its artistic and cultural choices it is proudly Cuban, but its aesthetic is almost ostentatiously cosmopolitan and outward-looking.

Biggest transformation

As such, the nightclub epitomises the changes taking place in a country that is undergoing arguably its biggest transformation since the revolution that brought the communists to power in 1959.

Although the economy remains centrally planned, a series of reforms, known as the lineamientos económicos (guiding economic policies), initiated by president Raúl Castro in 2011, have loosened the state's grip in certain sectors, resulting in a spike in private business ownership and a tourism explosion.

New privately owned cafes and restaurants are appearing all over Havana’s old town, their pristine interiors and long menus in contrast to the drab décor and bland food of the state-owned cafeterias.

Hotel prices have more than doubled in two years, and in the current high season the city’s accommodation is severely overstretched.

The tentative rapprochement between Cuba and the United States in the latter part of Barack Obama's presidency has been accompanied by a wave of tourism from the US.

Just last month an American Airlines office opened here for the first time, and US cruisers are now a regular sight at the port.

Among the beneficiaries of this new atmosphere is 25-year-old Ernesto Gonzales, who has just opened his own restaurant, with 18 employees, near the old town.

He named it Almendron, slang for the old American cars that have become a postcard cliche of Cuba, and the restaurant’s decor has been styled like a US diner.

Gonzales, who trained as a dentist, got the capital for his business from relatives in Spain and the US.

He feels “proud” of his country for the new opportunities that exist, and he speaks glowingly of the ease with which the process worked.

“It has helped the country hugely, because it has increased the jobs available and it helps the economy,” he says.

Gonzales feels no bitterness towards the US and welcomes the thaw in the relationship.

“I obviously see that the government could have spent its money in other, more useful, areas [had the embargo not existed], but my generation wasn’t affected so much,” he says.

“It’s the older generations that were really affected, like my grandparents.”

Asked how he felt when Fidel Castro died in November, Gonzales says his overriding emotion was sadness.

“This country was built on his ideas,” he says. “If today any of these businesses exist, it’s because he wanted it to be this way.”

It's a sentiment shared by Miguel Machado, who is polishing his 1958 Chevrolet convertible while waiting for a fare at nearby Paseo del Prado.

A qualified engineer, Machado and his brother took advantage a few years ago when the state relaxed the rules on self-employment and allowed private individuals to turn their cars into taxis.

Restored the car

The red Chevrolet had been in Machado’s family since the early 1960s so, like many of their compatriots around the same time, they lovingly restored the car and put it back on the road. The business has changed their lives.

“As an engineer, I get paid very badly, so this helps me earn a bit more,” says Machado.

As a full-time telecoms engineer he would earn the equivalent of €60 a month; the car brings in €600 a month in fares.

“There are more possibilities now to give my family what they want. I was able to buy a TV, for example. They cost €300. Before, I would have to save for eight months to buy one.”

His customers come from all over, but he prefers the Americans – for one simple reason.

“The Italians, the Canadians, everyone else – they all try to negotiate the price. Americans just pay,” he says with a laugh.

According to Rafael Hernandez, founder and editor of Temas magazine, a cultural journal that publishes critical perspectives on various aspects of Cuban life, recent changes were a response to social pressure.

“When Raúl Castro took over in 2008, he said, ‘Okay, the private sector is not a concession to capitalist ideas, this is part of the socialist family’.”

Private businesses

It was not difficult to convince people of that, Hernandez suggests. After all, he says, tens of thousands of private businesses operated in Cuba in the first decade of the revolution and were accepted as consistent with the country’s model of socialism.

Yet he insists the path the government has embarked on will not lead to a market-driven economy.

"Anything can happen, but I see nothing that indicates to me that that is going to happen. This is not China. This is not Vietnam. I don't see any signal from the Cuban leadership, or in the Cuban public debate, about throwing the socialist system out the window.

“This is about trying change it – to transform it into a mixed economy where the state prevails but where the private sector operates, particularly in those areas where the private sector is efficient. So, we will not privatise healthcare. We will not privatise education. I don’t think we will privatise big industry.”

The distortions of Cuba’s dual currency system are such that a waiter can earn more in a night than a doctor or policeman makes in a month.

The CUC, or tourist currency, is worth about 25 times more than the domestic peso, so while those with access to tourist cash have seen their living standards rise, others are often heavily dependent on remittances to get by.

"My income is €8 a month because I'm retired," says Daisy Perez Ramirez, a 72-year-old who is out walking with her newborn great-granddaughter, Camila.

“My children take care of me, but if it weren’t for that help it would be very hard to live.”

Gritty neighbourhood

We meet in Ramirez’s neighbourhood, Centro – a gritty neighbourhood of run-down tenement-style buildings, many of them turn-of-the-century townhouses that residents have split into small flats.

A 14-year-old when Castro came to power, Ramirez feels like she has seen it all. She lived through the heady days of the revolution ("a time of happiness and excitement"), the missile crisis and the "special period", a euphemism for the economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Those experiences have made her phlegmatic about the current upheaval.

“This might be the biggest change, but it’s not the worst,” she says.

“The worst was the special period. There was absolutely nothing – no soap, no food. Even with money you couldn’t get anything. Now there’s everything, but you have to have money.”

When Fidel died in November, it hit Ramirez hard. “I really felt it. You know why? Because I’m from a very poor family and if it wasn’t for the revolution, my children wouldn’t have gone to university.”

Cuba faces huge challenges in the coming years. Its economy shrank by 0.9 per cent last year, and its reliance on trade with a small number of countries in Latin America, Venezuela in particular, have left the economy vulnerable to geopolitical upheaval.

Donald Trump's rise to power in Washington has cast doubt over the Obama-era rapprochement, and with Raul Castro having signalled he will step down next year, big changes are expected in the ranks of the Communist Party leadership.

For many Cubans, including the government, according to Hernandez, the question is how to open up in ways that allow society to protect the achievements of the revolution.

After all, Cuba has one of the best educated and healthiest populations in Latin America, and an extremely low carbon footprint.

It is also one of the most equal societies in the region and has a very low crime rate.

But the easing of economic restrictions, coupled with the end of the “wet foot/dry foot” policy, under which the US gave automatic residence to migrants from Cuba, have added to pressure for further political and economic reform.

Cuba remains a one-party state where groups representing different sectors in society – workers, women, students, farmers and so on – are in effect subsidiary parts of the Communist Party.

The law makes it difficult for independent civil society organisations to function and human rights groups report that those who challenge the current political or economic system face harassment, arbitrary detention, travel restrictions, attacks and public denouncements.

In the past two years, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, there were more than 9,000 arbitrary detentions in Cuba, up from 6,500 in 2013 and 2,100 in 2010.

Moreover, several independent groups that have long been tolerated have in the past year been put under significant pressure.

A number of contributors to Cuba Posible, a monthly academic publication that covers political and economic topics, have lost their jobs, while last September the authorities raided the offices of CubaLex, a lawyers' co-operative that defends human rights cases.

Hernandez argues that under Raúl Castro the space for independent thinking has nonetheless expanded over time.

‘Individual freedoms’

“The main restriction is that you cannot create a political organisation.

“Of course this is the way it is. It’s a restriction on individual freedoms, but freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom to travel – a lot of progress has been made. And that is because of social pressure,” he says.

Hernandez points to the cultural sphere, where he says film-makers, writers and visual arts have been to the fore in pushing the boundaries of accepted discourse.

As an example he mentions Conducta, Cuba's entry for the Best Foreign Language film at the 2014 Oscars.

“It’s a very critical presentation not only of the schools but about rigid mentalities. In the film a teacher is fighting the education bureaucracy.

“ Education is one of the jewels in the crown of the socialist system in Cuba, like the healthcare system. Cuban movies are very, very controversial.”

His own magazine, Temas, could not have existed in the "ideological context" that prevailed 40 years ago, he adds.

And while he does not seek to provoke, he sees “no moral justification” for self-censorship. Are there lines he know his magazine cannot pass?

“I have never been told where the lines are,” Hernandez replies. But he must have some idea, I suggest. “I have an idea that the lines can move. And the lines do move.”

So it’s a matter of testing them?

He smiles. "Exactly." Tomorrow: Cardinal Jaime Ortega, one of Cuba's key political figures, on his behind-the-scenes role in paving the way for the historic meeting of Raúl Castro and Barack Obama