Havana, Cuba: Hola Cuba! Day 7 - Fábrica de Arte Cubano

The sixth instalment of my (shamefully backlogged) Cuba blog posts. Cuba was over, like, two weeks ago.

On our seventh day in Cuba, Luxy, Ciara, and I bid goodbye to the paradise that is Cayo Largo Del Sur and flew back to Havana in the evening. Our plan of attack was to have a proper night out as our Cuban trip so far was less 'gals on tour' and more 'family friendly'. Even the old people staying in Sol Cayo Lago were partying harder than us, they were thumping away to the beats of...I don't know, disco bingo? while we lay in our beds at midnight wondering if we had put on enough organic anti-mosquito body cream. 

We had some serious catching up to do, and what better an opportunity than a Saturday night in Havana? A gorgeous Cuban local we met, who we shall just call Alejandro (don't call mah name, don't call mah name, Ale-ale-ale-jandro! I'm notcha babe I'm notcha babe) valiantly volunteered himself as our guide to the real Havana and not the tourist traps (Buena Vista Social Club? Casa de la Musica? Ptuiii! *spits in your chips*). 

Enter Fábrica de Arte Cubano, the only place to be seen in Havana on a Saturday night. Or Friday night. Or better still Thursday night. Saturday is when all the 'kids' (anyone under the age of 23. I'm old) show up to poster and peacock.

Interestingly, on the one night I intended to disengage from any real 'learning' ie. take a break from historical outings and instead get trollied on £1 mojitos was the night I learnt the most I ever did about 'the real Cuba'. That night we spoke to many Cubans mostly our age who were wealthier or from more well to do families, which was the only way one could afford to frequent Fábrica de Arte Cubano. From speaking to these locals we learnt the truth about the class system, the government, how (sadly) affluence go hand in hand with being well-informed and educated about 'the outside world', and the dissonance among those who believe that a socialist, communist paradise is nothing but a fallacy. It just doesn't work. The only other place where this is more apparent is China, ironically the consumer capital of the world.

But first, an introduction to Fábrica de Arte Cubano, or Cuban Art Factory in English. 

The famous Cuban musician X Alfonso converted a former oil factory into a sort of gallery-theatre-nightclub space. Art installation and gallery by dusk, underground club by midnight, the space is something like Studio 54 meets Warhol's Art Factory, or even Battersea Power Station meets Richmix Gallery (in Bethnal Green). 

The imposing facade of Fábrica de Arte Cubano.

FAC is like a maze. Throughout the old factory you walk through corridors that twist and turn, leading you to small rooms, big rooms, little corners, nooks and crannies, crooks and nannies, all of which could hold anything from sculpture, installation, art, posters of proposed architecture projects, or even live music performances. 

This band was bringing the house down. The regulars were filming away on the latest smartphones, tablets, and cameras, a stark contrast to the technology owned by the average Cuban. Earlier in our trip, a local came up to us and proudly showed us his old Nokia, one of the first that could take photos. Yet here in FAC, everyone had the newest and the best of everything, which only served to highlight the huge disparity of wealth in Cuba, which is all the more shocking for a country whose principle is that all are equal. 

For the most part of this blog post I'm just going to quote from Luxy's excellent blog post about FAC. Not only did she and Ciara hear stories from the locals I wasn't around to witness (I got sick early in the evening and left to go back to our hotel), she's written about FAC and the points I mentioned above about 'the real and darker side of Cuba' more eloquently than I could hope. I highly recommend you read her post in its entirety but for now here are some snippets from her blog (in quotes):

"Entry to the factory at any time of day, whether you're just visiting for the art in the early evening or visiting at midnight for the club, is 2CUC (about £1.25). Our drinks all night added up to around 10CUC, that's half a normal Cubans monthly salary on one night out...The average Cuban earns just 24CUC a month, that's about £15...The average Cuban on the communist government 'income' cannot afford to visit the Fabrica de Arte Cubana, which I think is very sad." 

Instead of paying for drinks at the bar, everyone gets a card which is stamped for each drink or snack you purchase. 

When you leave you hand your card over at the exit, your stamps are tallied up and you pay your tab at the door. God forbid you lost your card, that's a 30 CUC fine, just over the average Cuban monthly salary. Imagine the same in London and having to pay, I don't know, £3000 for losing a slip of a card at the bar? One would not be pleased.

"This is where the wealthy Cubans come to hang out. The government kids, and the upper class in this socialist/communist world. Because despite what the government want people to think, there is a class system, and there is an aristocracy. And if you delve deeper into Havana outside the normal touristy Old Vieja district, it is very apparent and incredibly obvious. Just driving down the streets of Miramar and Vedado you pass huge mansions with brand new Audi's and BMW's sitting on the drives, while in Old Vieja people live in crumbling buildings and tower blocks, their 60-year-old cars pieced together with scraps from other cars."


"Whereas on the streets of Havana you have adverse poverty, where the people aren't even allowed to own mobile phones and are terrified of discussing politics in fear of being reprimanded, here in a club on a street in the Vedado district, there are kids on their iPhones taking selfies, grinding dancing to Robin Thicke, and being very open about the fact they don't like living in Cuba and want to move overseas."

It is sad and scandalous, the very notion that you have to have money to be educated and informed. But from what we saw with our own eyes, from the many locals we spoke to from all walks of life, and what we heard straight from the Cuban horses's mouths it is a fact. I noticed this during our fist day in Cuba and said as much in this post.  The wealthy, educated Cubans we met at FAC are either disillusioned, bored, angry, or resigned to the way things were. We heard all sorts of things, like "Don't go to the revolution museum. It's all propaganda!" or "Those wonderful things said about Cuba only applies to services for non-Cubans. The tourists and foreigners are treated like kings. The rest of us...not so."

An artist's installation of his bicycle tour across Cuba. I wonder if he ever dreamt of cycling up, up, and away in the sky like E.T, away from this 'socialist paradise' and to distant Capitalist lands where the people openly argue about liberalism and what freedom really means?

I have concluded that the 'WTF' toilet sign is a person concealing another person under his giant coat, hence the two pairs of legs, and the arms awkwardly extended as they shuffle through the turnstiles on the London Underground with only one tube ticket between them.

Luxy, Ciara, and I had the pleasure of meeting two very lovely Cubans who exemplified the perfect gentlemen. When I wasn't feeling well and had to leave, these gentlemen wouldn't let me take a taxi home, instead driving me up to the door of my hotel in their 'car straight out of a Tarantino film'. Their cultural obsessions? Quentin Tarantino and Daft Punk (their eyes lit up like stars in the sky when I told them of how I saw Daft Punk live, and they started rapping Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger with me).

Again, from Luxy's blog:

"I'm pretty sure every guy we met was called Alejandro, and all of them claimed to be artists, so let's just call them A1, A2, and A3 for the purpose of this post.  They were also very interesting, one of them had lived in London for a year as his father works here, and next year he's hoping to move to America. Another is currently at university and hopes to move to Canada to become an engineer.

We asked them how they can move to different countries when normal Cubans can't...they told us it's simple, money and connections. It's all about who you know and how you can get out. A1 told us how he hates Cuba, the government, how he sees the terrible things they do and he just wants to get out ASAP. A2 isn't as bitter, he says he loves Havana, but just wants to experience living in different countries. We asked about the healthcare in Cuba as everyone says it's the best in the World. A1 shakes his head and looks to the floor with a saddened smile, "No. The tourist healthcare is the best. The local healthcare is not. The conditions are dreadful, when I tried to film inside the hospital, they threw me out".  

We learnt that to leave the country the average Cuban has to be invited overseas by a citizen of that country, aka, a tourist in Cuba. This is the main reason why every Cuban is so friendly and wants to be your friend, not just because being friendly comes naturally to them, but because if they become friends with people from overseas, those friends can then write to the government and ask their permission to have the Cuban come and stay with them in their home country. It's the only way the average Cuban can ever leave the country."

We were told about how a British girl was treated like practically royalty. Just because she had a British passport, Cuban men were offering themselves to her as husbands. I'm sure it was all in jest but there is some truth to that. I read in a travel guide to Cuba that many locals will try to initiate 'holiday relationships' of a romantic or sexual nature, hopefully to be reciprocated by said tourist inviting their temporary Cuban lover to their country.

Other things about Cuba that we learnt from the locals we spoke to were that self-employment is a recent thing. During Fidel Castro's reign, small businesses like the B&B we stayed in would not have been allowed to exist. And that tabs are kept on everyone's possessions, anything newly purchased or acquired. We left some gifts for Nina, the chambermaid at our hotel, and we had to write a signed note explicitly stating that they were presents from us to her. Otherwise she could have gotten in trouble for having foreign goodies on her. And they were just things like toiletries, makeup, painkillers (which are impossible for locals to buy over the counter), and accessories.

Anyway, I urge you to read Luxy's blog post for more on what we learnt about 'the real Cuba'.

Luxy and I, who daren't tell anyone we had blogs the whole time we were in Cuba. We called ourselves 'restaurant reviewers'. To be honest I'm not even a blogger, just a twat with a blog that people read to remind themselves not to be twats like myself.

Ending this blog post with a photo of myself chilling out on a swing with one of the locals.

I highly recommend a visit to Fábrica de Arte Cubano in Havana. 

When you are there, speak to as many locals as you can to find out for yourself what life in Cuba really is like. It is easy to condemn things we know little about, a special talent that so many lefties and liberals possess. But until you actually go to the country, speak to peoples from all walks of lives, (as we did with the average Cuban on the street, and the nouveau riche/aristocrats in FAC) and hear what they have to say, then only can you come back say with absolute conviction that you have an informed opinion on what you think is right or wrong. 

Until then, stay open-minded and stay curious.


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