Cuban opera singer challenges "jealous" bureaucrats over closed theater
HAVANA (Reuters) - The Cuban government has closed a privately run cultural center, causing consternation among artists and intellectuals in what is shaping up to be the latest test of President Raul Castro's loosening of controls over everyday life.
A week ago government inspectors burst into the El Cabildo cultural center to the shock of patrons, artists and staff attending musical performed by its theater company, the "Opera in the Street."
The local authorities, citing a recent Reuters story on the center that mentioned a cover charge for customers, took away El Cabildo's license on the grounds of "illicit enrichment."
The vast majority of El Cabildo's clients were Cuban, paying a 50-peso cover charge, the equivalent of $2, while foreigners paid more.
The inspectors searched El Cabildo for hours and interrogated its young artists and restaurant staff, but found nothing more amiss than two cooks working on a trial basis without proper papers, employees said.
A protest letter circulating among members of Cuba's National Union of Artists and Writers, and written by owner Ulises Aquino, defends the cultural center against the enrichment charges and instead turns the tables on unnamed bureaucrats.
"The poet says: 'who questions the honorable, clearly signals that he is not,' and a proverb says, 'The thief thinks that everyone is the same as he,'" Aquino's letter said.
Officials at the Cuban government's press office did not immediately respond to a request seeking an official explanation for El Cabildo's closure.
STATE BUREAUCRATS UNDER ATTACK
For many within Cuba's cultural and intellectual circles, the cultural center's fate has become a litmus test of efforts by Castro to grow the state's small private sector while drastically reducing the state bureaucracy.
Since taking over for his ailing older brother Fidel in 2008, Raul Castro, 81, has liberalized regulations for small businesses and farming, and begun leasing small state retail outlets to employees.
Aquino, a 50-year-old opera singer, founded the theater company Opera in the Street in 2006, and taking advantage of loosened regulations on small business and government encouragement of local development projects, opened El Cabildo as a permanent venue for the youthful troupe.
A staunch advocate of socialism, Aquino charged in his letter that the forces behind the closing of his center were "jealous" of its success.
"Those who fear that the worker, the intellectual and the artist might find their own productive road are not revolutionaries, they are conservatives," he wrote.
"They enjoy the benefits of power that gives them the ability, as in this case, to decide the destiny of human works, not to help them flourish, but to destroy them," Aquino charged.
The Reuters story characterized El Cabildo as "perhaps the largest private business in Havana," with the Opera of the Street's 86 artists and support staff, plus 43 other employees in its bar and restaurant.
After the article appeared, the Communist Party's Ideology Department phoned Aquino to ask how El Cabildo worked.
Aquino told reporters that he provided a full explanation and believed all was well, only to be raided by a "commando" of inspectors later in the week.
BUILT FROM SCRATCH
Aquino, a stocky, barrel-chested man who has a powerful baritone voice onstage but speaks softly when he is off, built from scratch the eclectic theater company that mixes traditional opera with Cuban song and dance and popular music from abroad.
He also built the cultural center, investing his savings earned abroad as an opera singer, on the ruins of a collapsed building in Playa, one of Havana's relatively well off districts.
Reuters also had reported that El Cabildo's proceeds were shared after expenses, taxes, and investments, resulting in monthly wages four times greater than the country's 450 pesos average, or around $19.
"The earnings of the Opera of the Street are divided among everyone ... including me ... All the artists perform with a subsidy from the Culture Ministry, but as our president has said, salaries do not correspond with the cost of living," Aquino said in his letter.
A government insider said the Playa district's architect and perhaps other officials were opposed to the El Cabildo for various reasons and had apparently used the Reuters story as an excuse to shut it down.
A Cuban economist said El Cabildo's cover charge may have fallen into a gray area in Cuban law. Though private establishments were not prohibited from having cover charges, establishments associated with the Culture Ministry, such as such as El Cabildo, might be more restricted in what they can charge.
(Editing by David Adams)
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