Cuba's hint it may reverse home-cinema ban seen as unusual, sign of entrepreneurs' influence

HAVANA – Something unusual appears to be happening in Havana.

The Communist government may be backing off an unpopular economic crackdown barely a week after it was announced — a feat of political dexterity that islanders say they are not used to seeing from a leadership in power since the 1950s.

The brouhaha centres on a ban announced Nov. 2 on the dozens of private home cinemas and video game salons that have mushroomed in recent months, becoming a popular diversion for entertainment-starved residents.

The government denounced the cinemas as spreading uncultured drivel to the young, and ordered them closed for stretching the boundaries on the kinds of private businesses allowed under reforms instituted by President Raul Castro.

Then came the backlash, with entrepreneurs bemoaning thousands of dollars in lost investment and moviegoers saying they were exasperated by heavy-handedness toward a harmless diversion. The official reaction was swift, and unprecedented.

An article in the Communist Party newspaper Granma on Monday acknowledged there was wide disapproval of the ban, and hinted it was being rethought.

Analysts said the reversal could signal a greater willingness by the government to heed the desires of private entrepreneurs and their customers, as well as their growing influence in a country where the government still controls as much as about 80 per cent of the economy.

“It’s extraordinary because the government made a very clear decision, and now it seems it’s being walked back,” said Philip Peters, a longtime Cuba analyst and president of the Cuba Research Center. “That’s not something that happens every day.”

The article in Granma said the paper had gathered more than 150 opinions on the ban and surveyed the backlash on social media. It acknowledged there was wide disapproval and said some considered it to be “a step back” for President Raul Castro’s program of limited economic liberalization.

Islanders interviewed by The Associated Press have repeatedly defended the salons as healthy entertainment options for teenagers. It’s commonly held that they should be reopened, regulated and taxed just like the thousands of other private businesses launched since Castro’s reforms began in earnest in 2010.

In Cuba, decision-making tends to happen from the top down, even if authorities stress that popular input is sought again and again in public gatherings. Official opinion polls are essentially nonexistent here, and it was surprising that authorities would take the temperature of the masses in such a public way.

“I think they realized how much people were bothered,” said Rolando Orejuela, a 52-year-old government worker who previously enjoyed treating his grandson to 3D movies. “It’s good that they study and reconsider such a radical decision.”

Others cautioned not to read too much into the about-face. The same Granma article also offered a full-throated defence of another recently announced ban, this one on the reselling of imported hardware and clothes. Many Cubans depend on the small clothing boutiques to keep fashionable, and lamented their demise.

But Peters said the article is still a reflection of the increasingly powerful role of the 436,000 private-sector workers operating today, about triple the number that existed before the reforms.

“It could mean that this is a constituency that the government wants to take into account,” Peters said. “Raul Castro’s government does not view these entrepreneurs as a necessary evil … They’re viewed as necessary to the economy.”

In recent years Cuba has rolled back other unpopular rules that once barred most islanders from having cellphones or staying in tourist hotels. Both decisions were made under Raul Castro after he took over from ailing elder brother Fidel in 2006, and after years of complaints.

Today there are 1.8 million mobile phones for a population of around 11 million. And it’s common to see Cubans lazing at plush beach resorts like Varadero, at least for the small percentage with the financial means to afford it.

“It’s not just about doing the reforms, but walking hand-in-hand with the political rhythm of society,” Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuban economist at the University of Denver, said of the government’s apparent change of heart on home cinemas.

“It gives a bit of a measure of how the Communist Party is changing its prior arrogance, where (authorities) dictate what’s best and there’s no other choice but to accept it.”


Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez contributed to this report.


Peter Orsi on Twitter: