Monday, March 24, 2014

Cubans with money revel in booming social circuit

Posted on Monday, 03.24.14

Cubans with money revel in booming social circuit

HAVANA -- It's Saturday night at El Cocinero, a chic rooftop bar that
has arguably become Havana's hippest watering hole in the year since it
opened, and there's no getting in without a reservation.

There are plenty of foreigners, but also not a few sharp-dressed Cubans
lounging in the butterfly chairs, sipping $3 mojitos and talking art,
culture and politics. It's an image that stands in stark contrast to
common perceptions overseas of Communist Cuba as a poor country where
nobody has the disposable income to blow on a night out.

"Where they get the money from, I don't know, and I don't have a crystal
ball," said one of the Cubans at the bar: Lilian Triana, a 31-year-old
economist who works for the local offices of Venezuela's state oil
company PDVSA. She suggested some may have relatives sending money from

Havana is seeing a boom in stylish, privately run bars and clubs like El
Cocinero, evidence of a small but growing class of relatively affluent
artists, musicians and entrepreneurs on an island where many people earn
about $20 a month and depend on subsidized food, housing and transport
to get by.

Cuba's nouveau riche are coming out of the woodwork, if not quite
flaunting their personal wealth.

It's a departure from years past, when Fidel Castro fulminated against
newly rich Cubans who were getting ahead of their compatriots during an
earlier economic opening.

Cuba is still far from a consumer's paradise. Nonetheless, there are
more things here every day to spend money on, from home improvements and
beach vacations to the hordes of smartphones and Xboxes imported for
resale by islanders who are traveling abroad in record numbers.

Foreigners visiting and living in Cuba have long been able to afford
such luxuries. So have Cubans like Triana who work for foreign companies
or embassies that pay hard-currency salaries competitive with elsewhere
in Latin America.

Now they have been joined by the most successful of the 440,000
small-business owners and employees who are working independently of the
state under President Raul Castro's economic reforms.

Some benefit from relatives abroad who send back an estimated $2.6
billion a year.

Then there's the art-world elite, which historically has been a core
part of Cuba's monied class. An artist who sells a single painting for a
few thousand dollars or a musician who performs on an overseas tour is
already earning hundreds of times what most Cubans make.

It's a phenomenon that New York visual artist Michael Dweck documented
in his 2011 book "Habana Libre," the product of nearly three years
photographing the unlikely fashionable lives of Havana's hip creatives.

"They are part of the elite. Not because they are in banking or
importing or real estate — these people are the creative class," Dweck
said. "There is a privileged class living a pretty good life in Havana,
which is the opposite of what we were told as Americans about what's
going on in Cuba."

It's on the bar circuit that Cuba's Yuppies are most visible.

Artists and intellectuals abound at places like El Cocinero and the
Fabrica de Arte Cubana next door, opened last month by renowned musician
X Alfonso as a combination gallery, concert hall and bar with a $2
cover. Others head to Bohemio, a breezy porch-turned-bar, to nosh on
cheese and serrano ham tapas, or Cafe Madrigal, which began the private
bar boom when it was opened by a filmmaker in 2011 and is now a favorite
of the film and theater crowd.

Julio Carrillo, a 52-year-old screenwriter, said in years past he and
his partner went out less because state-run bars tended to be dreary
joints with deafening music and lousy service.

Moreover, displays of personal wealth could be seen as ostentatious and
attract questions about where the money came from. So many Cubans with
means tended to stay in and host private get-togethers.

But as islanders increasingly get their hands on nice things, there's
less stigma attached to the good life.

"It used to be we'd go to someone's house. There's a dinner or a party
and I bring a bottle, and it stays low profile, you know?" Carrillo
said. "Now it's more comfortable. We can go somewhere else and meet
(friends) there. ... It makes me really happy, to tell the truth. Being
able to go to places like these is like a normalization of life."

There are also privately run clubs that cater to the young offspring of
Cubans with wealth and connections: places like Sangri La, an overly
air-conditioned basement nightclub in the tony Miramar district, and
Palio, a smoky offshoot of a private restaurant. Some patrons say they
sometimes see the scions of Cuba's most powerful political clans living
it up in raucous joints like these, as plainclothes state security
agents hang around outside.

The scene is a dramatic change from just a few years ago, when most
Cubans were shooed away from tourist hotels such as the Habana Libre or
Melia Cohiba, both home to expensive nightclubs.

It's still a small segment of the population, however, and a far cry
from the scene along the Malecon seafront boulevard where working-class
Cubans gather by the thousands on weekends to sip from 90-cent cardboard
boxes of rum.

"Here on the Malecon to have fun, look at girls," said Adan Ferro, a
20-year-old street sweeper, adding sarcastically: "Where else am I going
to go? The Habana Libre?"

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Source: HAVANA: Cubans with money revel in booming social circuit -
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