In my doctoral research I studied the relocation of Havana’s social scene from the street, the solar and the Malecón to the new private music and entertainment venues mushrooming across Cuba’s capital since 2011. I argued that neighbourhood gatherings and parties in public locales no longer occupy such a significant part in the social life of habaneros, as Cubans are now more interested in frequenting the new private bars across Havana. Their modern interior, cocktail menus, entry which requires a fashionable dress code and sharing the same entertainment spaces as foreigners were a novelty to Cubans and one that inspired hope the country was changing for the better. Cultural and entertainment projects such as Fábrica de Arte Cuba (FAC) became symbolic of a new cosmopolitan and eclectic Cuba versus its old image of an isolated island and a last remnant of the long-gone Soviet era. From the perspective of artists, this shift represented growing opportunities for work and international audiences regardless of the genre they were creating in.
The global Covid pandemic came in 2020 and put Havana on mute. Venues were closed, social gatherings were prohibited, and despite a very slow and expensive internet connection, Cubans became more active on digital platforms and social media for the first time in their history. The first online concerts and festivals took place and Cuban artists entered the global cultural circuits in real time. Habaneros also became more accustomed to follow and consume artists digitally.
Following the pandemic, music and entertainment venues reopened, and while tourism had practically died away and there were no signs of a return anywhere near to pre-pandemic levels, artists continued to seek more work at private venues and Cubans kept on frequenting these establishments as a matter of choice. Trying to create a chartography of the new private bars across Havana became an impossible task as they were opening at scale and at times also closing down rapidly.
Other international factors impacted Cuba following the pandemic, the most significant of which has been the Russia – Ukraine war which limited Cuba’s fuel imports from Russia and the inability of Venezuela to produce sufficient refined oil to meet the island’s demands. Cuba imports all its oil and most of it comes from Venezuela despite U.S. sanctions; however, the island has little and largely outdated and inefficient equipment to refine crude oil which obliges it to import refined oil. This fuel shortage led to significant power cuts across the country since 2022, vastly reduced public transportation (waiting 90 mins for a bus has become a norm) and mile-long queues, often lasting for days, at petrol stations. The tropical disease of dengue has had its apogee in the past two years as buildings are no longer fumigated for mosquitos, the carrier of the illness, due to fuel shortages for the fumigators. Most recently, even garbage collection trucks are not at work, often making collections only once a month, even in the richer neighbourhoods of Havana such as Vedado and Miramar.
Havana has been crippled, it is dark and drowning in its own garbage, which is also putting the city back on mute. Sound is disappearing not only from the street but also from the venues, old or new, state-owned or private. When working at the Cuban Rap Agency during 2021 and 2022, I learned that one of the key responsibilities of its director was to limit electricity consumption. He could only have a certain number of events per month and lighting was never the strongest feature of the peñas. He had a lot of explaining to do, the months the recommended electricity consumption limit was exceeded. Of course, air-conditioning in the offices or the concert area was out of the question, despite the scorching heat and high humidity on the island. In the past few months, due to power cuts concerts have been continuously cancelled at different venues across Havana. The latest news is that even the most modern and emblematic venue of the new Cuba – FAC – has been asked to close for a period, because it spends too much electricity. At the same time, government-owned five-star hotels such as the Grand Aston, which operates at less than 10% occupancy due to diminished tourism levels and spends as much electricity as half of Vedado (the barrio the hotel is based in) are kept open.
While sound is moving away from venues, it is not returning to the public spaces either, as the street as a social space has transformed. Parks are dark as public lighting is scarce. The image of Havana’s streets bustling with habaneros going about their daily business under the warm sunshine, living in colourful even if run-down houses, chatter everywhere, music coming from open doors and windows, is no longer the vibe of the island’s capital. Havana is drowning in its own garbage. Shortages do not stop at fuel. Water has been a problem, making public sanitation an even bigger challenge. Cubans are moving around tired from walking long distances or waiting for hours to get public transport. The street as a communal social space of music, culture and entertainment has broken down, its vibe has changed.
There is certain romanticisation of these shortages being compared to the Special Period of the 1990s, which followed the collapse of the USSR and subsidies to Cuba and brought serious food and basic good deficits to the island. Besides the fact that the world has changed since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, another important facet which characterised Cuban people previously and gave the street its vibrancy is also dying away. I speak to elderly Cubans who have lived through the Batista regime, the Revolution, the Special Period and the new Cuba and argue that it is the first time in their lives, they have seen their compatriots, and especially the young lose hope. The vibe of the street had always embodied hope and the relentless ability of Cubans to persevere and keep on surviving despite all odds with some humour, music, dance, and rum. By contrast, the street is now characterised by apathy, which is why it has no sound, no dances, no vibrant tune to turn into a soundtrack. Music has been Cuba’s biggest cultural legacy and contribution to the world, and it is rapidly losing its places and position of power on the island.