The American Invasion of Cuba
The American Invasion of Cuba
Artists, entertainment companies and tourists are leading the charge
toward a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations
By ELLEN GAMERMAN AND KELLY CROW
Jan. 28, 2016 6:43 p.m. ET
The U.S. invasion of Cuba has begun.
Following President Obama’s steps to ease travel and trade restrictions
on Cuba last year, the island has been overwhelmed by cultural visitors
on the hunt for the next exotic destination. American art, entertainment
and technology executives are scouring the country for new locations to
shoot, new TV shows to pitch, new artists to market. Visitors with
culturally enriching itineraries and bulging money belts are packing
into tour buses that wobble over Havana’s torn-up streets.
At 331 Art Space in Havana, visitor traffic has gotten so heavy that
it’s cutting into work hours. Adrian Fernandez, who shares the space
with two other artists, said that in the past six months the studio has
received guests from Facebook, Google, UPS, the Museum of Modern Art and
the Smithsonian. “At least we try to have the mornings free—then people
come in the afternoon—but as we have more demand that has gotten
harder,” said the 31-year-old photographer.
Moves by art and culture travelers to reconnect with Cuba are far
outpacing efforts to reopen business with America’s former Cold War foe.
While it could take years for Congress to formally lift the trade
embargo in place since the 1960s, artists and other cultural arbiters
are leading the charge toward a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations.
“Culture always moves faster than the government; laws only change
because the changes are already happening in real life, or need to be,”
said Sara Alonso Gómez, an independent curator specializing in
contemporary art from Latin and Caribbean countries.
Authorized U.S. visits to Cuba rose 50% last year, Jeffrey DeLaurentis,
the head of the U.S. embassy in Havana, said in a briefing last month.
More Americans are on the way: The State Department recently announced
an arrangement with Cuba to permit direct commercial flights to the
island, a move that would allow people to book their own travel with a
few clicks online. This spring, Carnival plans to send the first U.S.
cruise ship to Cuba in more than 50 years.
Tourists and cultural industries are anxious to see Cuba before it
changes and eager to make business deals when it does. Universal
Pictures is seeking U.S. and Cuban government approval to shoot a
portion of the next “Fast & Furious” film in Cuba, according to people
familiar with the plans—a location Hollywood has all but abandoned since
1959 when Fidel Castro came to power. The luxury brand Chanel has
announced it will present its cruise collection in Havana in May. And
Cubans working in the entertainment industry say the Rolling Stones are
trying to stage a concert in Havana perhaps at the end of the band’s
Latin America tour in March. (A representative for the band said no show
has been confirmed.)
The island is seducing art and entertainment VIPs. Architect Frank Gehry
was spotted sailing into Havana last month and getting a rock-star
reception at a lecture for 150 Cuban architects. “Black Swan” actress
Natalie Portman recently hung out in Havana with 94-year-old Cuban
ballet legend Alicia Alonso. Painter Frank Stella is planning to speak
in the city in March. The hosts of the U.S. version of the hit British
TV series “Top Gear” recently tore around the streets outside Havana in
cars filled with jet fuel.
Matthew Carnahan, creator of Showtime’s “House of Lies,” was willing to
show the Cuban government early drafts of his script if it meant he’d be
allowed to shoot the season finale in Havana this month. Cuban
officials, he learned, were only too happy to oblige. “At every point
they were like, ‘This is great, what’s next,’ ” said Mr.Carnahan, whose
team got all its U.S. and Cuban permissions within about four months.
“I’m kind of shocked that it all worked out.”
Los Angeles producer Ross Breitenbach recently returned from a Cuba trip
with at least three ideas for new reality and scripted shows. “I’m
frantically trying to put together a bunch of pitches,” said Mr.
Breitenbach, whose credits include “The Bachelor,” “Big Brother” and
“Brat Camp.” He saw the potential for fabulous shots everywhere: “The
buildings are wonderfully weathered—we would pay thousands of dollars to
get that effect on a set for a scripted show here.”
As Americans gulp down Cuban culture like so many cold mojitos, the
island is struggling to keep up. Waits at the main airport for U.S.
flights routinely last more than three hours and Havana’s rooms in
hotels and guesthouses often are booked solid (the most recent available
figures from the Cuban government put the number of rooms at nearly
9,700, though some experts estimate only about 3,500 of them are
usable). Around Havana, hotel lobbies are jammed with Americans
squinting at 24-digit login and password codes on one-hour Wi-Fi cards
that don’t always work.
Adventurous tourists and artists from the U.S. have been going to Cuba
for years. But what was a quiet trickle in the last 12 months has turned
into a torrent because of the administration’s recent moves to ease
relations. All that could change, experts note, after Mr. Obama leaves
office in 2017. Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb
Bush condemned the reopening of the U.S. and Cuban embassies last
summer. Mr. Rubio is calling for a reversal of the administration’s
recent policy changes.
The logistics around cultural visits are daunting. Americans doing
business in Cuba must carefully navigate U.S. and Cuban laws to avoid
violating the embargo. They bring their own supplies, from forklifts to
paper clips. One Cuban film executive said there are just six “not so
bad” trucks for transporting movie equipment in the whole country—and
maybe a dozen more in worse condition—and any major Hollywood production
that comes to the island will not have enough vehicles to shuttle all
the Cuban crew members who don’t own cars. Artists run out of paint,
paper and canvas. Electrical equipment for concerts is dangerously
outdated. Nobody can find nails.
And then there is the bureaucracy. One morning last week, a Los
Angeles-based Fox Sports crew making a Cuban baseball documentary ran
into a snag outside a Havana school, a squat building in the shadow of a
power plant. The crew had gotten permission from a baseball trainer to
shoot inside a classroom, but the request never made it up the chain of
command. Complicating matters, one government ministry controlled the
half of the school with the baseball field and another oversaw the half
with the classrooms.
Negotiations began. The baseball trainer lit a cigarette. Eventually,
Boris Crespo, a Cuban production manager trying to negotiate what he
called “this embarrassing situation,” sent the crew to a different
school, a more photogenic building painted swimming-pool blue with a
portrait of Fidel Castro staring from behind the bars of the
Laws have long allowed Cuban visual artists to sell their work abroad,
making them a wealthy class that has nudged Cuba toward private
enterprise. Performers are among the country’s best traveled citizens
after decades of foreign tours. Visual artists, often stylishly dressed
with accessories like Ray-Bans and the latest iPhones, are renovating
their homes, buying new properties and creating art programs and art spaces.
Movie location scouts have started to complain that wealthy Cubans are
ruining the best dilapidated homes by investing in extensive
renovations. Those homes are an essential part of Cuban tourism:
Americans can be seen posing in front of the crumbliest buildings,
snapping pictures for their Facebook friends.
Cuba has two currencies, one for residents and one for visitors. Prices
for foreigners are soaring. Corey McLean, a 28-year-old Los Angeles
filmmaker shooting a Cuban surfing documentary, said the Havana house he
and two collaborators were supposed to rent for $140 a week suddenly
went up to $820, the amount paid by a different film crew that just
left. “There are so many people throwing around so much money, people
are like, ‘Let’s just charge more,’ ” he said.
Some Cubans are trying to keep the American onslaught at bay. The
internationally known artists Los Carpinteros and the up-and-coming duo
Celia & Yunior do not invite cruise-ship passengers and other anonymous
crowds for studio tours. Other artists place restrictions on guests or
build entirely new showrooms—cocktail-and-schmooze areas that get
Americans to buy artwork the same way vineyard tours encourage visitors
to buy wine.
Late last year, Italy’s Galleria Continua became the first European
gallery allowed to operate an exhibition space in Havana, although the
government still forbids Continua from making art sales in Cuba. “Our
opening was a hit,” said gallery co-founder Lorenzo Fiaschi, adding that
as many as 5,000 people showed up the first night.
Such stories rankle artists who want similar opportunities extended to
Cubans. Under current laws, Cuban nationals are unable to own commercial
galleries; only government-run galleries can sell art. “There are great
Cuban dealers who are working for dollars a day but selling art worth
millions. When do they get to start their own galleries?” asked artist
Marco A. Castillo. He and Dagoberto Rodriguez comprise Los Carpinteros,
a team whose work has gone for more than $85,000 at auction.
On a recent afternoon, about a dozen New York tourists filed into a
Havana studio that serves as a de facto gallery for three artists known
collectively as the Merger. “Come on in, make yourself at home, don’t be
shy,” Cuban guide Alain Rubio told the group. A woman asked to see the
watercolors, another tried on a $60 buffalo-horn necklace in the gift
shop, others flipped through a rack of canvases. The artist Mayito—the
only member of the Merger not in the U.S. that day—stood on the back
porch with a glass of rum, watching people examine his $50,000
stainless-steel sculptures in the gravel courtyard below.
A few minutes later, a bus pulled up holding travelers from Iowa. “We
wanted to come here before it got commercialized,” said Heidi Chico,
president of a vending-machine company in Des Moines. An assistant for
the Merger in a silk blouse and pearls quoted prices of the artwork in
fluent English—several visitors remarked on the $45,000 urinal in the
shape of a naked woman—and answered their questions.
Many American collectors have an antiquated view of Cuban art, said
Howard Farber, a Miami-based collector and former real-estate developer
who has amassed one of the U.S.’s biggest collections of Cuban art. “I
find many people in the art world still haven’t been but want to go, and
their vision of Cuban contemporary art is still Carmen Miranda with a
guitar and a palm tree,” he said. “They have no idea it’s really a
Major collectors like Miami’s Ella Cisneros, who returned to her native
Cuba six years ago, are emboldening other art-world insiders to come and
learn more. On the eve of last year’s Havana Biennial, Ms. Cisneros
threw a party that Ohio collector Ron Pizzuti said rivaled any in
Beverly Hills. At her modern Havana home with a Range Rover parked out
front and a 17-piece band playing, guests dined on “probably more food
than most Cubans see in a month,” Mr. Pizzuti said.
FIVE TIPS FOR TRAVELERS TO CUBA
First step: Cuba is far easier to get to now, but tourism remains
illegal for U.S. citizens, so a week on the beach with a coconut drink
is off limits. The White House has sped up the process by expanding
travel authorizations and simplifying paperwork. U.S. cultural travelers
still must fit into one of 12 categories for legal trips to Cuba,
including “people to people” exchanges that bring Americans into contact
Get a visa: At the moment, U.S. government-authorized tour operators
offer the easiest route to a Cuban tourism visa, providing the
documentation with the plane tickets and charging for the package.
Bring cash: Credit and debit cards are all but impossible to use in
Havana at the moment, thought the situation is loosening up. Bring U.S.
dollars and convert them to Cuban currency upon arrival.
Book a flight: Most Americans fly to Cuba on U.S. charter flights;
tickets can be purchased through travel agencies and tour operators. New
non-stop charters now fly to Havana from New York and Los Angeles, and
regularly scheduled commercial flights on American carriers are expected
to begin later this year.
Save the paperwork: The U.S. requires Americans to hold onto receipts
and other travel documents for five years in case they need to offer
proof of their compliance with U.S. trade and travel laws
Source: The American Invasion of Cuba – WSJ –