HAVANA (AP) — Cuban track and field legend Javier Sotomayor has launched a sports bar named for the height of his world record high jump. An Olympic volleyball champion has opened a swanky new Italian restaurant, and salsa star Hugo Morejon has a first-rate automotive repair shop.
Armed with money and name recognition, Cuban athletes and artists who have long enjoyed a far more luxurious lifestyle than their compatriots on the Communist-run island are embracing the new world of private enterprise. In doing so, the celebrities have exposed themselves to more than a little envy from a population already weary of the perks they’ve long had.
At least a dozen athletes and artists have started private businesses since President Raul Castro began opening Cuba’s economy to limited capitalism in 2010, and others have quietly invested in such establishments. Many of the spots have opened in recent months.
At Sport-Bar 2.45, patrons sip icy-cold Cuban beer and eat pizzas while perusing memorabilia from Sotomayor’s career, such as a white athletic shoe he used in competition and several of his awards and medals. The bar is named after the height in meters (equivalent to 8 feet, 1/2 inch) of Sotomayor’s world record high jump, set in 1993.
The record stands 20 years later, but the 45-year-old Sotomayor has moved on from his past as one of the Communist world’s great athletes, and now considers himself a businessman. He opened the bar in the front garden of his home, with his ex-wife as a co-investor, and it is often filled with young Cubans and tourists.
“I feel good about what I am doing now; for me it is a challenge,” Sotomayor said. “I had success in competition in the high jump. Now, we will see if the bar reaches these same heights.”
Salim Lamrani, a professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris who writes extensively about Cuba, said the embrace of the reforms by such stars sends a strong message to other islanders that change is here to stay.
“These celebrity businesses are powerful publicity for the new policies of the Cuban government,” Lamrani said, which “in the future will be increasingly based on the private sector.”
At the Van Van Garage, gleaming Fiats, Mercedes and Peugeots overflow into the street outside, and uniform-wearing mechanics use a desktop computer to show clients which parts need repair. The garage, owned by trombone player Hugo Morejon, is a striking departure from most Cuban repair shops, which labor to keep hulking 1950s Chevys on the road using homemade parts fashioned from scrap metal.
Morejon, a member of Cuba’s most famous contemporary salsa group, Los Van Van, doesn’t need the money. But he says he’s always loved cars and opened the shop after the Cuban government legalized some forms of private enterprise in 2010, hiring several young mechanics to handle the workload.
“We work like a cooperative,” Morejon explained. “I am the owner but I don’t earn any more than them.”
He acknowledged his recognizable name helps draw clients, but said more has been needed to make them regulars.
“Musical fame has helped me, but only the first time,” said Morejon, who recently returned from a European tour, his suitcases filled with spare auto parts unavailable in Cuba. “After that, one must give quality service or the clients won’t return.”
Other Cuban stars have joined the party: Singer Kelvis Ochoa has a restaurant, and comic Robertico has opened a cafe. Even former Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina, who was fired by Fidel Castro in 1999, has opened a popular restaurant called Chaplin.
Cubans love their music and sports stars, but they also envy their new cars and grand homes, their international travel and the imported goodies they bring back. Musical stars can sign record contracts abroad, but they must pay the state part of their earnings. Even athletes, who earn tiny salaries by global standards, often get perks such as cars and travel stipends that are out of most Cubans’ reach.
The perception of artists as part of a jet set elite was captured in the 2011 Cuban comedy “Habana Station,” a prince-and-the-pauper tale that compares the son of a poor family and the child of a Cuban musician living a life of relative luxury in a country where the average worker earns $20 a month.
“Most people couldn’t even dream of opening a bar like Sotomayor’s,” said Roberto Blanco, a 29-year-old used books seller. “In fact, most people on a salary don’t even have the money to buy a drink or a pizza at these places.”
The celebrities shrug off the criticism, saying they are doing what the Communist government wants: investing money at home and creating much-needed jobs.
“I am contributing to my country,” said Morejon. “I am giving work to three young men and offering a useful service.”
Triple Olympic volleyball champion Mireya Luis has hired five people at her Italian restaurant in Havana’s upscale Miramar neighborhood. Chef Orlando Montoya said that with tips he earns many times the $14 a month he got at his last state job.
“I came to ask for a job here when all I had was a pair of tennis shoes,” he said. “I work from midday until early in the morning, but now I have six pairs of tennis shoes and a little girl who doesn’t want for anything.”
Follow Anne-Marie Garcia on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/AnneMarie279