Cuba cracks down on private cinemas, game salons

Cuban authorities are bringing down the curtain at the privately run cinemas and video game salons that have mushroomed on the island recently, saying Saturday that the businesses are unauthorized and proprietors must halt such entertainment immediately.

The movie and video parlors have been operating in a legal gray area often under licenses for independent restaurants, offering basic food and refreshments even though the entertainment is the main draw. They are not mentioned on the list of nearly 200 areas of independent enterprise authorized under limited economic changes begun by Raul Castro, but until now they were not explicitly prohibited either.

An announcement published in Communist Party newspaper Granma said the show is over.

“Cinematic exhibition (including 3D rooms) and computer games will cease immediately in whatever kind of private business activity,” said the message from the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers.

Many private cinema operators spent thousands of dollars to launch their businesses, which range from modest to flashy and offer the latest Hollywood blockbusters and fast-paced video games.

“Economically, this really hurts us. This (business) was a relief for the family,” said Orlando Suarez, speaking in front of a marquee listing Saturday’s entertainment program at his San Rafael 3D cinema in central Havana. “We don’t understand why they didn’t give us a window of time instead of taking this stance of ‘close down now.’ “

Private theaters have become increasingly popular as an alternative to poorly maintained state-run cinemas, which tend to show more staid, high-brow fare, and moviegoers were also dismayed at the news.

“It’s a lack of respect. What are we going to do now?” said Lionny Gonzalez, a 15-year-old high school student. “Now the only thing left for us is to go to a disco. There’s nothing else.”

“Young people need these salons,” said Rafael Gonzalez, a 53-year-old father of five. “They spend time there instead of being on the streets.”

Recently the Communist Party youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde published a lengthy article quoting Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas as saying the video salons promote “frivolity, mediocrity, pseudo culture and banality,” raising fears of a crackdown.

Cuba also recently announced a ban on private commercialization of imported goods, and Saturday’s message said small business owners who have been selling products brought from overseas will have until Dec. 31 to liquidate their inventories.

The ban affects people who took out licenses to produce and sell clothing or household products, but in reality made money mostly from reselling foreign goods imported into Cuba one overstuffed suitcase at a time.

“The government ratifies its firm determination not to permit violations of any kind,” the announcement in Granma read.

Under Castro’s limited economic reforms, begun in 2010, the government has legalized the buying and selling of homes and used cars and done away with a longstanding exit visa requirement.

It also authorized a slate of permitted independent jobs, everything from gardeners and manicurists to massage therapists and taxi drivers. Critics lament that for the most part, white-collar professionals are still excluded from the private sector.

The note in Granma said the bans on selling imports and running home cinemas were instituted to ensure the economic reforms proceed in an orderly fashion.

“This is not, in any way, taking a step back,” it said. “On the contrary, we will keep advancing decidedly in the updating of the Cuban economic model.”

About 436,000 Cubans are currently working in the private sector, according to government figures.