The U.S. Travel Invasion of Cuba Has Begun

08 February 2016 11:02am
The U.S. Travel Invasion of Cuba Has Begun

Following President Barack 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. Most of them are Americans.

American art, entertainment and technology executives are scouring the country for new locations to shoot, new television 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 become so heavy that it’s cutting into work hours. Adrian Fernandez, who shares the space with two other artists, says 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,” says the 31-year-old photographer.

Moves by art and culture travellers 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 towards a new era in US-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,” says Sara Alonso Gomez, an independent curator specializing in contemporary art from Latin and Caribbean countries.

Authorized US visits to Cuba climbed 50 percent last year. 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.

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 US and Cuban government approval to shoot a portion of the next Fast & Furious film in Cuba, 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.

The island is seducing art and entertainment VIPs. Architect Frank Gehry was spotted sailing into Havana recently 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 US version of the British TV series Top Gear recently tore around the streets outside Havana in cars filled with jet fuel.

Matthew Carnahan, creator of 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 last month. Cuban officials, he learned, were only too happy to oblige. “At every point they were like, ‘This is great, what’s next’,” says Carnahan, whose team got all its US 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,” says 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 US 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 9700, though some experts estimate only about 3500 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 US have been going to Cuba for years. But what was a quiet trickle in the past 12 months has turned into a torrent because of the administration’s recent moves to ease relations.

All that could change, experts note, after Obama leaves office next year. Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush condemned the reopening of the US and Cuban embassies last summer.

The logistics around cultural visits are daunting. Americans doing business in Cuba must carefully navigate US and Cuban laws to avoid violating the embargo. They bring their own supplies, from forklifts to paperclips.

One Cuban film executive says 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.

Then there is the bureaucracy. One morning last month, 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 received permission from a baseball trainer to shoot inside a classroom, but the request never made it up the chain of command. One government ministry controlled the half of the school with the baseball field and another oversaw the half with the classrooms.

Negotiations began. 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 prominent portrait of Fidel Castro.

Laws have long allowed Cuban visual artists to sell their work abroad, making them a wealthy class that has nudged Cuba towards private enterprise. Performers are among the country’s best travelled citizens after decades of foreign tours.

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, says 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.

Some Cubans are trying to keep the onslaught at bay. Internationally known artists Los Carpinteros and 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 a space in Havana, although the government still forbids Continua from making art sales in Cuba. “Our opening was a hit,” says gallery co-founder Lorenzo Fiaschi, adding that as many as 5000 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?” asks artist Marco A. Castillo. He and Dagoberto Rodriguez comprise Los Carpinteros, a team whose work has gone for more than $US85,000 ($120,000) at auction.

Many American collectors have an antiquated view of Cuban art, says Howard Farber, a Miami-based collector who has amassed one of the US’s biggest collections of Cuban art.

Collectors such as 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, Cisneros threw a party that Ohio collector Ron Pizzuti says 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”, Pizzuti says.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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