Opera Unfolds When A Cuban Cabaret Is Shut Down
by Nick Miroff
July 31, 2012
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.
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."
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.
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
"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 ever had.
"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.
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Two self-employed florists prepare bunches of flowers in Havana last
year. The Cuban government is stepping up economic reforms and estimates
that in four or five years, nearly half the workforce will be employed
in the private sector.
Cuba's New Mantra: Viva Private Business
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
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
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.