Cuba is in the throes of change – not openly and not fundamentally, but young activists on the culture, gastronomic and skater scene are taking their future into their own hands and using some amazing spaces. A visit to the capital, Havana.
The pounding of jackhammers fills the Paseo del Prado, the main boulevard in Old Havana. Tall, new, glass-and-concrete buildings are springing up amid the magnificent stucco facades and ornate balustrades here, and modern middle-class autos now glide into the parking spaces between Cuba’s ubiquitous, seemingly indestructible, classic cars with their rusty doors and matte paintwork in turquoise and pink.
It’s impossible to ignore: After long years of isolation, the Caribbean state of Cuba is moving into the modern age. The transition is particularly in evidence in the capital city, Havana, where in recent years a young scene has grown up and is now changing the country from within – not with protests or open rebellion, but with new takes on food, modern fashion, unconventional art and the latest sports. They are not interested in getting rich; they want to have fun – and also the freedom to realize their dreams and visions.
The basis for this was laid by Raúl Castro, who took over the business of governing the state from his brother Fidel in 2006. During his time as president, he adopted directives that legalized private entrepreneurship, something that had hitherto been banned. During their meeting in 2015, Cuba’s head of state and U.S. President Barack Obama ended the obstinate silence that had prevailed between the two countries for almost 60 years and relaxed the rules governing travel and the transfer of money across the strait that separates Cuba and Florida. Since the end of 2018, full Internet access has been available to cell phones. And even if the planned economy was reaffirmed by a constitutional amendment in February 2019, private property is now permitted, as is foreign investment, which is so important for economic growth.
Anyone visiting Havana can see and sense the desire of young Cubans for more – and that they are finding ways to fulfill their dreams. Meet the modern revolutionaries.
Even from a distance, you cannot help noticing the building with the geometrical figures on its facade and the golden VW Beetle outside the door. In 2015, the fashion label Clandestina open its store here – and with its designs really struck a nerve. “Cubans are very style conscious, they put a lot of effort into looking good,” says Idania del Río (photo, right), one of the label’s two founders. Her grandmother always wore the lightest, airiest dresses, her mother, the shortest skirts. But the state stores sold only cheap imported fashions, polyester clothes, plastic shoes. “What was missing for a long time was a modern Cuban fashion label,” says the 37-year-old. Now del Río and her partner, Leire Fernández, 53, produce their own designs. For this, they buy old clothes, and then print, embroider or combine them with other fabrics. The result: tops bearing the slogan Nada es perfecto (Nothing is perfect), neon yellow-speckled work boots, bags with silkscreen prints of the Cuban passport that’s beyond many people’s reach. “The new form of self-determination” is what Fernández calls it. With the support of fashion producers in Nicaragua, the pair have meanwhile set up an online shop for overseas customers, but their main customers are Cubans, of course, to whom Clandestina gives a 20-percent discount.
“I want my fellow Cubans to rediscover food,” says Raul Hérnandez González, who’s known to all as Bazuk. One-and-a-half years ago, the 33-year-old opened Grados, his restaurant in Vedado, the modern center of Havana – today it is one of the best restaurants in the country. “ It’s incredible what restaurateurs achieved before me,” he says. Setting up a restaurant without any chef training and creating a free market is an achievement in itself. “But usually, there’s just pork with rice and beans on the menu.” To change that, Bazuk overcame many obstacles to attend a cooking school in Uruguay from 2009 to 2011. Back in Havana, he converted the front rooms of his parents’ house that had previously been rented to tourists and that is now where his guests sit at solid wooden tables with white tablecloths, dining on shrimp served with coconut and mango, lamb with a spicy chocolate sauce, or maybe fish with cassava mash. New spice for standard fare – and at prices of around ten dollars, it’s fairly cheap. But Bazuk also battles with the problem that two thirds of all foods have to be imported. To be less dependent on imports, the young chef plans to grow vegetables himself. Then his cell phone rings and Bazuk jumps up: His friend Eddy has tracked down some bell peppers!
A derelict barracks southwest of downtown Cuba: The roof has fallen in, the roof supports are overgrown. A few smaller kids and teenagers are clattering over the thick planks lying across steps and what remains of walls on their skateboards. Yojany Pérez, 30, sporting long dreadlocks and ripped shorts, leads the small crew at CubaCrete. He’s been skating since he was 14.
The skater scene sprang up in the late 1980s here, when Soviet soldiers left their boards behind. There was no stopping the kids of Havana, but because the government disapproved of the originally U.S. sport, no decent skater parks were ever built where kids could practice. Quite the opposite, in fact, anyone the police caught skating had to pay a fine. On top of that, there was simply not enough “rolling stock” to be had. “Some kids carved their boards out of old furniture,” says Pérez. To remedy this situation, he got in touch with the Amigo skate club in Miami a while back, and it now collects skateboards, shoes and clothes, and sends them to Cuba. He also aims to build proper pipes and ramps with donation money and to run recreational programs for kids. Pérez personally overseas the skaters at the park. “To start with, many parents were skeptical – but we have since managed to convince them that we keep a close eye on each other.”
There are hundreds of skaters in Havana alone. The Ministry of Culture and Sport recently issued official skater passes: With one of these, skaters cannot be fined. “And there’s nothing rebellious about the fact that we dress differently than most Cubans,” says Pérez. “It’s just our style – and we want to offer everyone a community.”
Flashlights flicker, loud music resounds through Estudio 50, a warehouse four blocks east of Avenida Independencia. A cool dude with an afro hairdo is posing in front of a white photo screen, while behind the camera, Robin Pedraja, fully focused on the job, asks us to be patient without really raising his eyes from the viewfinder.
An hour later, Pedraja, 32, wearing gray jeans and flame-red sneakers, calls us into the dimly lit office with the deep sofas at the far end of the hall. He is editor-in-chief of Vistar magazine, which translates loosely as “Seeing Stars.” Pedraja founded it five years ago. Now he a good dozen writers and photographers report in it on Cuban soap actors and salsa musicians, run portraits on ballet dancers and opera stars, as well as doing fashion and concert shoots, providing tips for a good night out and celebrity news – all in bright, jazzy layouts. “Many art forms are stuck in a rut, but in journalism, I can always try out something new.” Because it would be impossible to finance the printing, distribution and photo rights for a print edition, Vistar is a digital publication – and available for free. The money for the production comes largely from investors in Florida – or from Coca-Cola or Marlboro, for which the young creatives also devise campaigns for the Cuban market. Pedraja’s amazing explanation: “Unlike Cuban television, magazines are allowed to publish ads – even for U.S. brands.”
Pedraja points to the wall above his head and the layout plans of the warehouse – over 2300 square meters in area – hanging there, with broken lines indicating projected partition walls. His plan: to set up a TV station, a radio station, and at some point also to sponsor his own entertainment award. “I aim to make Vistar a brand name and Estudio 50 our headquarters,” says Pedraja. Then he would be Cuba’s first media mogul.
But what about the censorship? Nothing, replies Pedraja, after all, they don’t talk about politics in Vistar. “But there are plenty of opportunities to voice an opinion,” he says – and leaves it at that. But some things are obvious: In summer 2018, Aymée Nuviola graced the cover. She’s a Cuban singer who regularly performs in the U.S. and campaigns for better relations between the two countries. The May cover celebrated a group of transvestite stars – an anti-discriminatory signal. Alex Cuba, the man with the afro hair, could be the next to become a role model for readers: born in Cuba, emigrated to Canada, four-times Latino Grammy winner, twice nominated for the U.S. Grammy, but still with close ties to his native country.
Cuba’s artistic epicenter is located on Calle 26 in Havana, surrounded by dilapidated industrial buildings, empty parks and gray prefab buildings. “Culturally speaking, this area was wasteland up to a few years ago,” says Rosemary Rodríguez, 35, who meets us at the side entrance of a brick building with a tall chimney and huge metal gates. Rodríguez is the curator of the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, FAC for short, which is a mix of gallery and nightclub. Watercolors, collages and photo prints hang on the roughcast walls. A play is being rehearsed in one hall with blue light cubes on the ceiling, while in an adjoining room, Charlie Chaplin films flicker across the screen, and in the corridors, posters announce fashion shows and jazz concerts.
Because the renovation of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes took some years to complete, contemporary art disappeared from the scene for a long time. “What’s more, young Cubans weren’t interested in galleries and museums,” explains Rodriguez. That only changed when the musician X Alfonso founded the FAC in 2008, initially as a traveling exhibition. Then in 2014, the authorities handed the old cooking oil factory over to the organizers. In the early days, visitors would play with the artworks – the colorful door keys hanging on a wall on the ground floor, the tape art alongside them. But gradually, they began to take a deeper look at the art. Also, the works of artists from all over the world would in turn attract other celebrities, like U.S. musicians, for example. The R&B singer Usher performed here, as did the electro trio Major Lazer, and even Quincy Jones. When do Cubans normally get to see such stars play live?
But the FAC is also a refuge for anyone wishing to escape the cigar-laden atmosphere of the old town bars and the salsa music blaring from every tourist bar. Rodríguez even has something to offer culture seekers when the streets of Havana have long emptied. On some evenings, the art factory has up to 1000 visitors – and not just on the strength of its cultural offering. “We also want to be a place of integration, says the curator. The art factory donates broken bottles and glasses that would fetch hard cash at recycling centers to charitable causes. A while back, the team spontaneously took on the task of renovating the district’s medical center. And every first Sunday in the month, the FAC runs an open day, laying on hot meals, free concerts, free art courses and discussion groups – as a substitute for the traditional neighborhood parties that are rarely held on Cuba anymore.