First, on July 11, Marc Frank of Reuters published a provocative article entitled, "In Cuba, an Opera Singer Builds an Empire." While the article is a great introduction to El Cabildo and its resourceful and revolutionary founder and director Ulises Aquino, perhaps Frank should have left the word "empire" to government propagandists.
Soon after the article was published, Aquino was called to account by the authorities and, apparently unsatisfied with his explanations of his business plan, they carried out a surprise raid on his operation on Saturday, July 21, interrupted his show, pulled him off the stage as the shocked audience looked on, and proceeded to carry out a 4-hour inspection.
As was later reported by BBC correspondent Fernando Ravsberg on his blog "Cartas desde Cuba" (and at Havana Times in English), in the end, Aquino was stripped of his various business licenses for a two year period and accused of a number of economic crimes including having too many chairs (150) for a private restaurant, serving products whose origins could not be determined, having unauthorized employees, and, most galling, of undue "enrichment" since he charged his patrons a $2 cover and paid his employees the equivalent of $80 a month (roughly 4 times the average state salary).
The latest update on the story was reported by the always intrepid and incisive NPR/Global Post correspondent Nick Miroff. According to Miroff, the case has sent shock waves through Cuba's fledging community of private entrepreneurs since Aquino seems to have been punished for doing exactly what the government of Raul Castro has been promoting: creating well-paying jobs in the non-state sector and reducing the economic burden on the government.
However, it seems that not everyone - especially those Aquino calls "mid-level bureaucrats endangered by all these new opportunities" - is on board with tolerating, much less promoting, Cuba's new entrepreneurial sector.
You can listen to Miroff's excellent NPR story here.
Miroff notes that this is a test case whose outcome will show how serious Raul Castro's government is about the depth and permanence of its economic reforms. "If they intervene to help re-open El Cabildo," writes Miroff in his related Global Post story, "they will send a clear signal that Cuba's new small businesses deserve encouragement, not strangulation."
However, if the operation which employed as many as 120 workers (being perhaps the largest private business on the island) is left to die a bureaucratic death, it will show "that the skeptics are right, and Cuba hasn't changed much after all" (as Miroff notes in his NPR broadcast).
If that happens, Miroff notes that Aquino will have lost, but quotes him as saying:
"The [real] loser here won't be me. It'll be our country."
Readers can read more about "Opera de la Calle" on John McAuliff's blog and a bit more about the case at Diario de Cuba. Be sure to check back here or follow me on Twitter @ElYuma to see how the story ends.