Friday, August 3, 2012

This is a test: Will "Opera de la Calle" be allowed to reopen?

In the last few weeks, three of the leading foreign journalists who live in and regularly report on Cuba have published a series of fascinating installments in the ongoing, and as yet unresolved case of the private restaurant and cabaret "El Cabildo" and it's in-house company, "Opera de la Calle."

Opera de la Calle combined a cultural project with a paladar, 
which allowed it to pay the salaries of all its employees 
and cover its other overhead costs.  Photo: Raquel Pérez. 

First, on July 11, Marc Frank of Reuters published a provocative article entitled, "In Cuba, an Opera Singer Builds an Empire." While the article is a great introduction to El Cabildo and its resourceful and revolutionary founder and director Ulises Aquino, perhaps Frank should have left the word "empire" to government propagandists.

Soon after the article was published, Aquino was called to account by the authorities and, apparently unsatisfied with his explanations of his business plan, they carried out a surprise raid on his operation on Saturday, July 21, interrupted his show, pulled him off the stage as the shocked audience looked on, and proceeded to carry out a 4-hour inspection.

As was later reported by BBC correspondent Fernando Ravsberg on his blog "Cartas desde Cuba" (and at Havana Times in English), in the end, Aquino was stripped of his various business licenses for a two year period and accused of a number of economic crimes including having too many chairs (150) for a private restaurant, serving products whose origins could not be determined, having unauthorized employees, and, most galling, of undue "enrichment" since he charged his patrons a $2 cover and paid his employees the equivalent of $80 a month (roughly 4 times the average state salary).

Ulises Aquino is an important Cuban lyric vocalist who has tried 
to promote the genre among his fellow Cubans using the cultural 
project "Opera de la Calle," while also incorporating “folklore and
the typical archetypes of our society.”  Foto: Raquel Pérez 

The latest update on the story was reported by the always intrepid and incisive NPR/Global Post correspondent Nick Miroff. According to Miroff, the case has sent shock waves through Cuba's fledging community of private entrepreneurs since Aquino seems to have been punished for doing exactly what the government of Raul Castro has been promoting: creating well-paying jobs in the non-state sector and reducing the economic burden on the government.

However, it seems that not everyone - especially those Aquino calls "mid-level bureaucrats endangered by all these new opportunities" - is on board with tolerating, much less promoting, Cuba's new entrepreneurial sector.

You can listen to Miroff's excellent NPR story here.

Miroff notes that this is a test case whose outcome will show how serious Raul Castro's government is about the depth and permanence of its economic reforms. "If they intervene to help re-open El Cabildo," writes Miroff in his related Global Post story, "they will send a clear signal that Cuba's new small businesses deserve encouragement, not strangulation."

However, if the operation which employed as many as 120 workers (being perhaps the largest private business on the island) is left to die a bureaucratic death, it will show "that the skeptics are right, and Cuba hasn't changed much after all" (as Miroff notes in his NPR broadcast).

If that happens, Miroff notes that Aquino will have lost, but quotes him as saying:

"The [real] loser here won't be me. It'll be our country."

Ulises Aquino, a prominent Cuban singer, is the owner of 
the caberat and restaurant. He describes himself as 
a strong supporter of Cuba's socialist system and split the earnings 
among his 130 employees. Photo: Nick Miroff for NPR. 

Readers can read more about "Opera de la Calle" on John McAuliff's blog and a bit more about the case at Diario de Cuba. Be sure to check back here or follow me on Twitter @ElYuma to see how the story ends.


  1. Like our friend Yoani once said,Cuba penalizes discrepancy with government and the prosperity of the people

  2. Your blog post really ineterested me, but it also confused me. I was actually at the Opera de la Calle, at El Cabildo show on Saturday, July 21, and the show was not stopped. Are you sure that you have your dates correct? It was a great show, and as tourists we paid $25 CUC to get in. We also purchased DVD's from the group on July 29. Where was the original source of the information?