The American invasion of Cuba


Ellen Gamerman and Kelly Crow, The Wall Street Journal


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 ground-floor windows.


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 different world.”


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.



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