It is Saturday night at El Cocinero, a chic rooftop bar that has arguably become Havana’s hippest watering hole in the year since it opened, and there is no getting in without a reservation.
There are plenty of foreigners, but also not a few sharp-dressed Cubans lounging in the butterfly chairs, sipping US$3 mojitos and talking art, culture and politics.
It is an image that stands in stark contrast to common perceptions overseas of communist Cuba as a poor country where nobody has the disposable income to blow on a night out.
“Where they get the money from, I don’t know, and I don’t have a crystal ball,” said one of the Cubans at the bar: Lilian Triana, a 31-year-old economist who works for the local offices of Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA.
She suggested some may have relatives sending money from abroad.
Havana is seeing a boom in stylish, privately run bars and clubs like El Cocinero, evidence of a small but growing class of relatively affluent artists, musicians and entrepreneurs on an island where many people earn about US$20 a month and depend on subsidized food, housing and transport to get by.
Cuba’s nouveau riche are coming out of the woodwork, if not quite flaunting their personal wealth.
It is a departure from years past, when former Cuban president Fidel Castro fulminated against newly rich Cubans who were getting ahead of their compatriots during an earlier economic opening.
Cuba is still far from a consumer’s paradise. Nonetheless, there are more things here every day to spend money on, from home improvements and beach vacations to the hordes of smartphones and Xboxes imported for resale by islanders who are traveling abroad in record numbers.
Foreigners visiting and living in Cuba have long been able to afford such luxuries. So have Cubans like Triana who work for foreign companies or embassies that pay hard-currency salaries competitive with elsewhere in Latin America.
Now they have been joined by the most successful of the 440,000 small-business owners and employees who are working independently of the state under Cuban President Raul Castro’s economic reforms.
Some benefit from relatives abroad who send back an estimated US$2.6 billion a year.
Then there’s the art-world elite, which historically has been a core part of Cuba’s monied class. An artist who sells a single painting for a few thousand US dollars or a musician who performs on an overseas tour is already earning hundreds of times what most Cubans make.
It is a phenomenon that New York visual artist Michael Dweck documented in his 2011 book Habana Libre, the product of nearly three years photographing the unlikely fashionable lives of Havana’s hip creatives.
“They are part of the elite. Not because they are in banking or importing or real estate — these people are the creative class,” Dweck said. “There is a privileged class living a pretty good life in Havana, which is the opposite of what we were told as Americans about what’s going on in Cuba.”
Artists and intellectuals abound at places like El Cocinero and the Fabrica de Arte Cubana next door, opened last month by renowned musician X Alfonso as a combination gallery, concert hall and bar with a US$2 cover.
Others head to Bohemio, a breezy porch-turned-bar, to nosh on cheese and serrano ham tapas, or Cafe Madrigal, which began the private bar boom when it was opened by a filmmaker in 2011 and is now a favorite of the film and theater crowd.
Julio Carrillo, a 52-year-old screenwriter, said in years past he and his partner went out less because state-run bars tended to be dreary joints with deafening music and lousy service.
Moreover, displays of personal wealth could be seen as ostentatious and attract questions about where the money came from. So many Cubans with means tended to stay in and host private get-togethers.
However, as islanders increasingly get their hands on nice things, there is less stigma attached to the good life.
“It used to be we’d go to someone’s house. There’s a dinner or a party and I bring a bottle, and it stays low profile, you know?” Carrillo said.
There are also privately run clubs that cater to the young offspring of Cubans with wealth and connections: places like Sangri La, an overly air-conditioned basement nightclub in the tony Miramar District.
Some patrons say they sometimes see the scions of Cuba’s most powerful political clans living it up in raucous joints like these, as plainclothes state security agents hang around outside.
The scene is a dramatic change from just a few years ago, when most Cubans were shooed away from hotels such as the Habana Libre or Melia Cohiba, both home to expensive nightclubs.
However, it is still a small segment of the population and a far cry from the scene along the Malecon seafront boulevard where working-class Cubans gather by the thousands on weekends to sip from US$0.90 cardboard boxes of rum.