Posted on Wednesday, 10.30.13
Communist Cuba's new private industry: 3D theaters
BY MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN
HAVANA -- The streets of central Havana were dark and almost silent as a
young married couple climbed a chipped marble staircase to the top of an
Dubied Arce and Dayelin Perez opened a narrow door to a flood of cold
air, colored light and the twang of a country-and-western video blasting
from a wall-mounted TV. To their right: a private movie theater with a
200-inch screen, glossy leather armchairs and a high-definition 3D
projector. In another room: a half dozen Xbox video-game consoles wired
to flat-screen displays that were hand-carried by Cubans returning from
Cuban entrepreneurs have quietly opened dozens of backroom video salons
over the last year, seizing on ambiguities in licensing laws to
transform cafes and children's entertainment parlors into a new breed of
private business unforeseen by recent official openings in the communist
"It's a cool atmosphere," Perez, 27, said Sunday night as she munched
free popcorn and waited with her husband and four other patrons for the
late-night showing of the 2010 terror film "Saw 3D." "We have some more
options these days, at least."
It's increasingly clear that 3D movie and video-game salons have grown
too popular for the government to ignore. Officials said Sunday that
they were working on new regulations for the businesses, sparking fears
the government might be on the verge of stamping out this flowering of
"We don't have any concrete information yet about whether they're going
to allow it or not. But they haven't come out and said it's prohibited
either," said the manager of the central Havana video salon, speaking on
condition of anonymity because of the murky legal status of the
businesses. "We just don't know."
President Raul Castro has legalized small-scale private business in
nearly 200 fields since 2010 in an effort to rejuvenate Cuba's economy.
The limited opening has created jobs for some 436,000 people, but is
often accompanied by tighter regulations or higher taxes as private
enterprise starts to compete with the government.
Video parlors aren't mentioned among the approved businesses but aren't
explicitly prohibited either. Their owners usually operate under
licenses for restaurants or snack bars, then add entertainment options
that grow larger than the original business.
The Communist Party youth organ Juventud Rebelde published a 3,260-word
article Sunday on video salons that prominently featured officials
pointedly discussing the need to do something.
"What are we to do: prohibit or regulate? I believe in regulating, from
a fundamental starting point: everybody complying with cultural policy,"
Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas told the newspaper.
The paper said Rojas believes the video salons are promoting "a lot of
frivolity, mediocrity, pseudo culture and banality, which flies in the
face of a policy demanding that quality comes first in Cubans' cultural
"Notwithstanding, our interest isn't in limiting these offerings, rather
that they promote, I repeat, cultural products of the highest quality,"
Most video parlors feature recent Hollywood blockbusters like "Star
Trek," "Ice Age" and "World War Z," with children's fare in the daytime
and horror late at night. Cuba's state-run cinemas generally show
higher-brow films in poorly maintained theaters. The current government
fare in Havana includes "Sarah's Key," a 2010 French drama about the
The private video parlors' combination of success and legal ambiguity
makes them a particular conundrum for Cuba's government, which is trying
to improve conditions for ordinary Cubans but protect state enterprises
at the same time.
The theaters are employing a growing number of people, and offering
entertainment for many others, but they're also competing successfully
with state-run theaters.
"There are those in the government who presumably want to see more
private investment, consumers better served, and then there are those
who represent traditional interests and industries," said Richard
Feinberg, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies
private enterprise in Cuba.
"It's a fascinating competition, and that competition will determine the
future of Cuba."
Some parlors have nothing more than a TV, a DVD player, a handful of 3D
glasses and a dozen or so chairs in a family garage or living room.
Others, like the cinema and game parlor where Arce and Perez had their
night out, are professionally designed.
Aixa Suarez, a former purchasing agent for a state-run business, said
the 55-inch LG 3D TV set and Xbox game console bought by her brother in
Florida allow her to support her mother, father and 9- and 16-year-old
son and daughter.
She charges teens in her central Havana neighborhood $1 or $2, depending
on the hour, to play video games or watch a movie in her home. That
income has fully replaced her $45 monthly state salary and added a
significant percentage, but her feeling of independence is even more
important, she said.
"I don't have a boss. I am the boss," said Suarez. "I don't have set
hours. That's the biggest advantage. And that's enough for me."
In the higher-end salon, the equipment alone cost $100,000, all
hand-carried on flights from Canada, where the Cuban-born owner lives,
the manager said, declining to provide details because of the
possibility of a government crackdown. Movie tickets cost $4, which
includes a drink and popcorn. The eight employees share a percentage of
the earnings, and it should take three years to recoup the initial
Employee Junior Armenteros, 26, said he quit university a year before
getting an information technology degree. He struggled to find
interesting work until he was hired by the central Havana salon, where
he and his fellow employees discuss their shared interests in computers,
video games and mobile phones.
"There are other 3D cinema rooms but not with the high quality of these
ones," he said proudly. "This business is a pioneer."
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein
Source: "HAVANA: Communist Cuba's new private industry: 3D theaters -
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