14ymedio, Nelson García, Havana, 14 November 2023 –Havana’s nightlife has its Bermuda Triangle on Galiano Street, where the Cumbaking*, 212 and V&S bars are concentrated. In that circuit of Central Havana, very close to the House of Music – the state establishment that many foreigners visit – handsome men and thugs, addicts and drunks, prostitutes and pole dancers stop by. The three establishments reach their boiling point at two in the morning, when security personnel prohibit customers from turning on their phone cameras.
In nightlife slang, places like this are still called “clubs,” and the name does them justice. In the surrounding area, everything – from a young body to a marijuana joint – is available for the right price and with the right signs. Precaution is essential: every night, half a dozen police officers stand guard in the vicinity, check identification cards and arrest some “character,” who disappears into a small gray truck.
“Of the three bars, 212 is the most ’quiet’,” insists Yoan, one of its employees, in conversation with 14ymedio. It is true that the hookers fight for their respect and that in the early morning – cell phones banished – two young people go up to the bar to dance while the public throws money at them, but even so, he believes, “there is not as much debauchery” as at the V&S or, down stairs, in the Cumbaking.
Caution is essential: every night, half a dozen police officers stand guard in the vicinity, check identification cards and arrest some “character”
The owner of 212 is called Ismael and he was imprisoned for two years. He had converted a house in Playa into a bar, which he called Las Piedras. It didn’t last long: the Police closed the business because drugs and prostitution had reached unacceptable levels, even for the underworld of Havana, they alleged. ##”The authorities made a fool of themselves,” says Yoan, “and they couldn’t prove anything on him.” However, Ismael was imprisoned for two years. This did not prevent him, along with his wife, Yeni, from obtaining the license to open 212 in 2019.
Cumbaking, on the ground floor of 212, serves as a hamburger and beer stand during the day. At night, the loud music and the strongest alcohols – although never of good quality – lead the Police to take frequent “walks” through its doors.
Neighbors’ complaints about loud music reached the official press on November 9. In a note about the capital government’s agenda, a user residing in Galiano denounced “night brawls,” “ingestion of narcotics,” “insecurity,” and “prostitution” and demanded the “closure of all the bars on the block.” On their social media account the poster also lamented that the residents’ proposals have been presented without success to the authorities of Central Havana and various popular councils. The lack of solutions to such a scandalous reality could only have one explanation: “Our decision-makers have deaf ears.”
In theory, all bars in the capital must close their doors at three in the morning, explains Yoan. Only LM and Tuyo y Mío escape from this law, and can operate until six in the morning “because they are associated with El Cangrejo,” says Yoan, alluding to Raúl Guillermo Rodríguez Castro, Raúl Castro’s bodyguard grandson, whose nickname is “The Crab.”
However, the time of the “last bell” is the least relevant difference between Galiano’s “clubs” and the bars of the “good people” associated with the regime’s leadership. If in Playa and El Vedado you can get drugs and alcohol of superior quality – and no rank-and-file police officer would dare to show up there – in Central Havana the prostitutes have to “fight” to get in and the squabbles are resolved on the street.
Those who manage to “classify,” says Yoan, hug the customer as soon as she enters the V&S – the roughest of the three bars – and shoot him the offer point-blank: “Are you up for something, papi? For 5,000 I’ll go with you the whole night.”
We know how that story begins, but not how it ends, says the employee of the neighboring bar. “From there you can actually leave for the prostitute’s room, which for that price can be considered ’low cost’, but it can also be the beginning of a scam.” She is just a bait for the client to let his guard down, go to a certain place and, once there, the woman’s “relative” appears, knife in hand and searches his pockets until he finds the wallet.
“Public fights” are the business of the security guards – when they occur inside the bar – and of the Police, when the “gorillas” lift the “troublemakers” and throw them onto the street, so that they can finish resolving their differences there. The agents finish the situation with tonfas, handcuffs and the little gray truck. “But the normal thing is that they don’t get involved,” says Yoan.
The neon lights of 212, the cheap wooden gate of Cumbaking and the black and white façade of V&S have become symbols of an increasingly harsh, decadent and dangerous city. They are the last station of a deterioration that not even all the alcohol in Havana can anesthetize.
Translator’s note: In the photo the venue appears to be named “Cumba King” but its Facebook page is titled “Cumbaking”
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