Posted by Nicki Fleischner- MA Candidate at CLACS/ Global Journalism at NYU
When we arrived there is already a line snaking its way around the block: Cuban girls in heels, boys in gold chains and brightly printed graphic tees, foreign tourists or exchange students sprinkled throughout. At the door a few groups try to grease the impressively built bouncers. Some people are successful just by dropping the right name, or flashing their Biennial art festival badges—available only to those (mostly foreign tour groups) who paid for them ahead of time. It’s the Biennial’s opening night at La Fábrica in Havana, and as several people have emphasized to me, it is the place to be.
I always knew I wanted to do my fieldwork in Havana. Following President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms in 2010 and then President Barack Obama’s decision to renew diplomatic relations with the country last December (and the slew of media hype that has followed), it feels like the right time to be here; a time when Cuba is on the brink of transformation (or not at all, as many of my more cynical Cuban friends will tell me). Leaving for Havana on my direct flight from New York (another change) the check-in line filled with American tour groups headed to Havana’s 12th Biennial— an international art festival that takes place in the city from late May through June—it did feel different, and that an opening up (and commercialization) is actually happening. Now in Havana it is my goal to assess what the “changes” we read about have tangibly resulted in for Cuba’s younger generation: does it impact their daily lives, their aspirations for the future, their conception of themselves?
When we finally make it into La Fábrica, my first thought is that this place embodies the change. A massive old factory that has been converted into a multi level gallery/ bar/ club/ concert hall/ film screening salon, La Fábrica has a little bit of everything, and it is all shockingly new, well-designed, functional, and not completely out of the price range of Cubans (there is a $2CUC entrance fee and drinks range between $1.50-$3.00, on point with other discos). In an outdoor garden people chain smoke while resting their drinks on tires refashioned as tables, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake, and 90’s American hits playing overhead. In another room electronic/ alternative DJs spin in front of a screen projecting bizarre mixes of pop culture iconography. There is a full stage for live concerts in the back; a large screening room for foreign movies with Spanish subtitles upstairs. Every room features a bar, and all are connected by winding mazes of exhibitions by young Cuban artists. Some of the art pushes the envelope, such as a t-shirt that reads “Posible Emigrante” for Cubans to take their picture behind. The place even advertises free wifi on the screens littered throughout its halls (though naturally, it does not work, and no one seems to even bother to try and connect). Generally, La Fábrica is a place young Cubans flock to, a refreshing alternative to the traditional reggaetón or salsa disco, and evidence of the increased levels of capital and disposable income in the country. Of course, every place has its criticism, and several Cubans I spoke to complained that La Fábrica, while ostensibly created to cater to a more alternative and artistic crowd, has come to attract merely members of the scene, who come to see and be seen. It’s authenticity, in their eyes, is tarnished.
It’s been two years since I was last in Cuba, and within just a week it is clear that the biggest change is merely the number of businesses. There are more bars, more clubs, more restaurants, more nail salons. Friends tell me it’s in part because of the economic reforms that have allowed for private businesses, and in part because there are more tourists and Cubans with money who can keep places afloat. But many of the fundamental aspects of Cubans’ daily lives: long lines for bread, cell phone cards, everything; impossible bureaucratic red tape; a frustrating lack of resources and opportunities, persist. While nearly everyone who I have spoken to has expressed tremendous joy at the change in U.S. policy– “The politicians made these decisions, and it’s the people who have suffered. We need this change,” said one man, with tears in his eyes– others feel the pressure to take advantage of new policies but do not have the resources to do so. Socioeconomic disparities—a problem on the island since the dual currency system was introduced in 1993 – will only intensify. My hope is that as my research continues more details, and opinions, will emerge.