Camaguey Takes the First Step Towards the Return of Private-Sector Cinemas in Cuba

The old Encanto Cinema, located on Camagüey’s Callejón de los Milagros, will be accepting development proposals until November 15. (Adelante)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Madrid, November 1, 2023 — A brief announcement in a provincial newspaper indicates a ten-year-old ban on privately run cinemas is being lifted. Makeshift theaters showing 3D movies and run by private individuals had been proliferating on the island when the government shut them down.

The only certainty leaves no room for doubt. The Provincial Cinema Center of Camagüey has solicited bids for the interior of the old Encanto Cinema, located at 410 Ignacio Agramonte Street, in the provincial capital. The news appeared in the official publication Adelante, which outlines the requirements.

“The institution invites artists living in the region and local developers to present proposals for socio-cultural entertainment projects with film screenings as their main focus,” notes the director, Yenisley Sáez de Flores. Interested parties must include an image of their proposed design and a breakdown of estimated investment costs. They may visit the property prior to submitting their proposals. The submission deadline is November 15.

Repairs being made to Havana’s La Rampa Cinema in Havana in October. (14ymedio)

Sáez de Flores adds that the invitation represents “an opportunity to showcase a space in line with our public policy of greater citizen participation in the strategy of promoting audiovisual culture.” Though she does not mention it, the project comes with an array of potentially profitable storefronts and, ultimately, the chance to oversee programming.

There is no indication that any of the hundreds of Cuban cinemas that have closed or have struggled in recent decades have solicited similar bids. However, the news has raised hopes that similar policies will begin to be adopted throughout the country in order to revive, through private management, theaters that were once a window to the world for its citizens.

Paradoxically, however, that is not the case with the structure itself. Since late 2013, the Encanto theater has housed a self-managed, self-financed project known as El Circuito (The Circuit), which hosted several cultural events, most importantly the Camagüey International Video Arts Festival (FIVAC).

The Encanto opened on February 24, 1934 in a 19th century building that had housed everything from a grocery store to a photography studio to several other businesses. The Camagüey historian Marcos Tamames attributes this remodel to the architect Francisco Herrero Morató, and its later incarnation as the Cinematographic and Variety Hall to the theater entrepreneurs Castillo, Barillas and Cía. After years of success, the establishment was remodeled in 1955, doubling its capacity and placing a marquee on its façade that was considered, at that time, one of the most elegant in the country.

The Revolution brought decline, both to the property and its programming. Nevertheless, it  managed to survive for years, offering an entertainment venue to the people of Camagüey until its closure, which left large areas of the premises empty. In November 2023 the government of Raúl Castro ordered the cessation of film screenings “in any type of private-sector venue.” At the same time, a group of young people and artists were given permission to use the premises to host El Circuito, which has since been a refuge for alternative art in the city.

After years of success, the building was remodeled in 1955, doubling its capacity and adding to its facade what was then considered one of the most elegant marquees in the country

It was announced in August that the building was closing for repairs and staff vacations but that FIVAC, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in November, would go on. Last Tuesday, however, its director and founder, Diana Rosa Pérez, announced the end of El Circuito. In a Facebook post, she expressed both gratitude and regret in equal measure.

“We chose this image from the beginning, from when we took over the building, to develop our project because everything that happened after that was real magic and love. El Circuito is ending but we are also satisfied to have left here, in our city, a space with so many possiblities for the public, for other projects,” she wrote.

Pérez acknowledges that El Circuito, which does not receive state funding, could not continue operating under current conditions but adds that there is more than one answer to the question of why it is shutting down. “It’s like the other questions making the rounds in Cuba right now, which are more painful than this closure. Why are young people leaving? Why is leaving the only thing people talk about? Why is life so expensive and difficult? Why are we not allowed to talk about it? About pain and hunger? Why the blindness? Why… ?”

Among the dozens of posts lamenting the sudden closure, there was one asking about the possibility of renting the space. “We have no idea but it’s good that you ask,” they said. The response came just seven days later when the request for bids was announced.

Renovation work on the cafe of Havana’s Yara theater as of November 1. (14ymedio)

The question now is whether the practice of reviving other cinemas by turning to this alternative form of management will become widespread. In recent weeks, Havana’s Rampa Cinema in the Vedado district has been undergoing renovations. Scaffolding covers its façade and the roof over the entrance, which had been falling down, has been repaired.

The building has been closed for several months. Rumor has it that, when it reopens, it will be under private management, which would confirm that officials have opted for the new approach. This is a very different situation from that of the Yara (whose cafe is being remodeled), the Chaplin, and the 23 y 12 cinemas.

Due to the current energy crisis, these theaters have greatly reduced their schedules during the period leading up to the Havana Film Festival, which runs from December 8 to 17. Also endangered are such internationally popular events as the Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC), which refuses to comply with the energy conservation measures and will continue to rely on its generators and any light its attendees can provide.

Cinemas, by contrast, do have have the same characteristics. Until 1959 Havana was one of the world capitals of film, with more theaters than New York or Paris. Only Buenos Aires had more. In 1955 there were some 600 movie houses in the country, 147 for a populaion of under a million.

Dirty and aging venues, programming that — even when worthwhile — cannot be screened properly due to lack of resources, and pirated copies do little to lure back an audience that has developed new ways of consuming visual media and has lost the desire to do it in theaters. As long as they don’t offer you something better.


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