In Cuba, an opera singer's enterprise
* National, local governments now promoting private ventures
* El Cabildo believed to be
Cuba's largest private business
* More private cabarets, theaters in the works
By Marc Frank
(Reuters) - Cuban performers ranging from Broadway-style dancers to classical opera singers are packing them in at El Cabildo, a recently opened entertainment center that is pushing the limits of the communist country's still-unfolding economic reforms.
With about 130 employees, the club tucked into one of
Havana's posher neighborhoods is believed to be the
largest private business in Havana
and perhaps a harbinger of things to come under the initiatives of President
El Cabildo, which has an outdoor theater, bar and 150-seat restaurant, is a throwback to life before
1959 revolution, when Havana
teemed with cabarets and theaters.
It has nightly entertainment, anchored by an eclectic troupe called "Opera of the Street" that mixes traditional opera with Cuban song and dance and popular music from abroad.
On Sunday evenings, disco music reigns and other nights four opera tenors perform.
Unlike the ritzy clubs of the pre-revolutionary past, El Cabildo is built atop the ruins of a fallen building and a thatched roof covers part of the area.
El Cabildo is the product of one man's moxie and of changes in government policy aimed at improving
Cuba's struggling economy.
Ulises Aquino, a 50-year-old opera singer who founded Opera in the Street in 2006, was looking for a home for the company, so when President Castro announced a series of reforms two years ago promoting private businesses he decided to seize the opportunity.
One reform designed to promote municipal development encouraged local leaders to come up with their own ideas instead of waiting for direction from the national government.
In 2011, Aquino, whose performers were accustomed to playing in rudimentary conditions, including in the street, convinced authorities in
Havana's upscale Playa
district to let him use the remnants of one of the city's many collapsed
Aquino, a stocky, barrel-chested man who has a powerful baritone voice onstage but speaks softly when he is off, transformed the rubble into a permanent venue for his group.
"The country has moved on from a tendency to degrade things," he said on a recent night at El Cabildo. "The government's policy is to support this type of phenomena and that an artist, or a worker, or a farmer can put his own means of production to work to help meet the goals of the nation."
Aquino kept the company afloat financially by taking it abroad and performing in local tourist venues to earn hard currency, and became adept at working within the Cuban system.
While Castro's reforms have encouraged private initiative, they come with loaded with restrictions to try to ensure that Cuba does not return to a society of haves and have nots. Aquino mixes individual initiative with community activism, hosting free children's activities weekend mornings and keeping his prices affordable.
The new entrepreneurs had to get a license for their business and private restaurants were limited to a maximum of 50 seats.
Aquino got around the limit by taking out three restaurant licenses, which enabled him to put in 150 seats, and then another as an "organizer of events and other activities."
Using the latter, he plans to expand the business by offering boat rides on the
Almendares River, which flows beside El Cabildo just before
opening into the Straits of Florida.
"It is not enough to have an ugly socialism. It has to be more beautiful than the other systems so everyone will embrace the idea," he said.
GOOD SALARIES; HIGH COSTS
El Cabildo is no mom-and-pop operation. Aquino has 60 performers and 26 support staff in Opera of the Street, plus 43 employees in the bar and restaurant.
They all earn 1,800-2,000 pesos a month, about four times
monthly salary of 450 pesos, equivalent to $19, he said.
Aquino pays about 20,000 pesos, equivalent to $833, a month for his licenses and sales taxes, but does not know yet how much his annual income tax will be.
Running costs are high, mostly because he like other private business owners has to buy all food, beverages and other items from state stores at retail prices.
It is a common complaint that the state provides goods at wholesale prices for government businesses, but not yet to the private sector.
The vast majority of El Cabildo's clients are Cuban, paying a 50 peso cover charge, the equivalent of $2, while tourists pay the equivalent of a $10 cover Sunday through Thursday and $25 for the show on weekends.
According to Rafael Betancourt, a specialist on local development at the National Association of Cuban Economists, a number of similar private entertainment projects are in the works pointing to the importance that individual initiative will play in building
"There are many artists that want to do projects like this," he said. "El Cabildo is just the beginning." (Editing by Jeff Franks and David Adams; Desking by Cynthia Osterman)
Cuban opera singer challenges "jealous" bureaucrats over closed theater
Thu Aug 2, 2012 3:39am IST
* Cultural center raid surprises patrons and staff
* Owner challenges government action as contrary to Castro reforms
By Marc Frank
HAVANA, Aug 1 (Reuters) - The Cuban government has closed a privately run cultural center, causing consternation among artists and intellectuals in what is shaping up to be the latest test of President Raul Castro's loosening of controls over everyday life.
A week ago government inspectors burst into the El Cabildo cultural center to the shock of patrons, artists and staff attending musical performed by its theater company, the "Opera in the Street."
The local authorities, citing a recent Reuters story on the center that mentioned a cover charge for customers, took away El Cabildo's license on the grounds of "illicit enrichment."
The vast majority of El Cabildo's clients were Cuban, paying a 50-peso cover charge, the equivalent of $2, while foreigners paid more.
The inspectors searched El Cabildo for hours and interrogated its young artists and restaurant staff, but found nothing more amiss than two cooks working on a trial basis without proper papers, employees said.
A protest letter circulating among members of Cuba's National Union of Artists and Writers, and written by owner Ulises Aquino, defends the cultural center against the enrichment charges and instead turns the tables on unnamed bureaucrats.
"The poet says: 'who questions the honorable, clearly signals that he is not,' and a proverb says, 'The thief thinks that everyone is the same as he,'" Aquino's letter said.
Officials at the Cuban government's press office did not immediately respond to a request seeking an official explanation for El Cabildo's closure.
STATE BUREAUCRATS UNDER ATTACK
For many within Cuba's cultural and intellectual circles, the cultural center's fate has become a litmus test of efforts by Castro to grow the state's small private sector while drastically reducing the state bureaucracy.
Since taking over for his ailing older brother Fidel in 2008, Raul Castro, 81, has liberalized regulations for small businesses and farming, and begun leasing small state retail outlets to employees.
Aquino, a 50-year-old opera singer, founded the theater company Opera in the Street in 2006, and taking advantage of loosened regulations on small business and government encouragement of local development projects, opened El Cabildo as a permanent venue for the youthful troupe.
A staunch advocate of socialism, Aquino charged in his letter that the forces behind the closing of his center were "jealous" of its success.
"Those who fear that the worker, the intellectual and the artist might find their own productive road are not revolutionaries, they are conservatives," he wrote.
"They enjoy the benefits of power that gives them the ability, as in this case, to decide the destiny of human works, not to help them flourish, but to destroy them," Aquino charged.
The Reuters story characterized El Cabildo as "perhaps the largest private business in Havana," with the Opera of the Street's 86 artists and support staff, plus 43 other employees in its bar and restaurant.
After the article appeared, the Communist Party's Ideology Department phoned Aquino to ask how El Cabildo worked.
Aquino told reporters that he provided a full explanation and believed all was well, only to be raided by a "commando" of inspectors later in the week.
BUILT FROM SCRATCH
Aquino, a stocky, barrel-chested man who has a powerful baritone voice onstage but speaks softly when he is off, built from scratch the eclectic theater company that mixes traditional opera with Cuban song and dance and popular music from abroad.
He also built the cultural center, investing his savings earned abroad as an opera singer, on the ruins of a collapsed building in Playa, one of Havana's relatively well off districts.
Reuters also had reported that El Cabildo's proceeds were shared after expenses, taxes, and investments, resulting in monthly wages four times greater than the country's 450 pesos average, or around $19.
"The earnings of the Opera of the Street are divided among everyone ... including me ... All the artists perform with a subsidy from the Culture Ministry, but as our president has said, salaries do not correspond with the cost of living," Aquino said in his letter.
A government insider said the Playa district's architect and perhaps other officials were opposed to the El Cabildo for various reasons and had apparently used the Reuters story as an excuse to shut it down.
A Cuban economist said El Cabildo's cover charge may have fallen into a gray area in Cuban law. Though private establishments were not prohibited from having cover charges, establishments associated with the Culture Ministry, such as such as El Cabildo, might be more restricted in what they can charge. (Editing by David Adams)
Opera Unfolds When A Cuban Cabaret Is Shut Down
By Nick MiroffJuly 31, 2012
Cuban performers ranging from dancers to opera singers were packing in audiences at Havana's El Cabildo restaurant and cabaret. In a case seen as a test of Raul Castro's commitment to economic changes, government inspectors recently closed the restaurant. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters /Landov)
Ulises Aquino was already one of Cuba's best-known baritones when he founded his own company, Opera de la Calle, or Opera of the Street, in 2006. By combining Cuban rhythms and dance with his formal musical training, he won fans at home and abroad.
Aquino also considers himself a good "revolucionario," meaning he's a loyal supporter of Cuba's socialist system. And when President Raul Castro urged Cubans to increase productivity by starting small businesses, Aquino answered the call.
He cleaned up a vacant, trash-strewn lot in Havana and built a restaurant and cabaret, El Cabildo, where his Opera of the Street could finally have a home.
(Nick Miroff for NPR)
It was a big hit. And true to socialist principles, Aquino split earnings among his 130 employees, held free children's theater on weekends and kept his prices low.
But it didn't last a year.
Aquino says a team of inspectors sent by Havana city authorities interrupted the show on July 21 as the stunned audience looked on.
"They ordered me off the stage and began a four-hour inspection," he says. "They told us to shut down the kitchen and freeze all sales."
Owner Blames Bureaucrats, Not Castro
The officials ordered El Cabildo closed and Aquino's business licenses revoked for two years. His supplies lacked proper receipts, they said, and he had too many chairs. But the most severe charge was personal enrichment, meaning he wasn't authorized to charge a $2 cover at the door.
No hearing. No appeal. Just a stern letter from officials who weren't interested in helping bring Aquino into compliance. But he's not blaming Raul Castro.
"This kind of thing is the exact opposite of what our government has been telling us," Aquino says. "The people behind this are the midlevel bureaucrats who see Cuba changing and know that they're going to lose their power. They are the ones holding our country back."
Raul Castro himself told Cubans in a recent speech that bureaucrats who stand in the way of change will be swept aside. He's laid out plans to resuscitate Cuba's state-run economy by creating millions of jobs in new small businesses and cooperatives.
But the process is dragging. Closing El Cabildo has eliminated 130 of the jobs created for Cubans like Angel Basterrechea, who fears he may have lost the highest-paying job he'll ever have.
"Life has changed for me and for my family since I started working here," says Basterrechea, who Aquino hired to help build El Cabildo and work as a night watchman. "I've made $120 — even $160 — a month and that's more than I've ever made."
A Test For Reforms
No one is getting rich on that sort of wage in Cuba, where the average state salary is a meager $20 a month. But even a modest display of success may have led to Aquino's downfall.
Just before Aquino was busted, the cabaret was featured in a Reuters article that called it "Cuba's largest private business" and laid out his profit-sharing model for socialist enterprise.
Aquino insists he broke no laws and that he's the one on the side of the Cuban Revolution, not the local officials who shut him down.
"I am a revolutionary because I'm not a conservative," he says. "This was done by people who pretend to be revolutionary but are fakers, lacking in any ethical principles. This is not what the revolution is about."
Aquino's case is a test for Castro and his reformers as they begin an experiment converting state-owned companies into employee-run cooperatives. If they intervene and help Aquino reopen, it'll send a message to lower-level officials that small businesses that create jobs deserve support.
If they let El Cabildo remain shuttered, they'll be sending a different signal: that the skeptics are right, and Cuba hasn't changed much after all.
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