HAVANA Cuban performers ranging from Broadway-style dancers to classical opera singers are packing them in at El Cabildo, a recently opened entertainment center that is pushing the limits of the communist country's still-unfolding economic reforms.
With about 130 employees, the club tucked into one of Havana's posher neighborhoods is believed to be the largest private business in Havana and perhaps a harbinger of things to come under the initiatives of President Raul Castro.
El Cabildo, which has an outdoor theater, bar and 150-seat restaurant, is a throwback to life before Cuba's 1959 revolution, when Havana teemed with cabarets and theaters.
It has nightly entertainment, anchored by an eclectic troupe called "Opera of the Street" that mixes traditional opera with Cuban song and dance and popular music from abroad.
On Sunday evenings, disco music reigns and other nights four opera tenors perform.
Unlike the ritzy clubs of the pre-revolutionary past, El Cabildo is built atop the ruins of a fallen building and a thatched roof covers part of the area.
Cuba has always had an active nightlife of theater, cabaret and music shows, including the famous Tropicana night club which is popular with tourists. But performers have traditionally worked for state-run operations, with the exception of an elite group of artists and musicians allowed to earn their own pay.
El Cabildo is the product of one man's moxie and of changes in government policy aimed at improving Cuba's struggling economy.
Ulises Aquino, a 50-year-old opera singer who founded Opera in the Street in 2006, was looking for a home for the company, so when President Castro announced a series of reforms two years ago promoting private businesses he decided to seize the opportunity.
One reform designed to promote municipal development encouraged local leaders to come up with their own ideas instead of waiting for direction from the national government.
In 2011, Aquino, whose performers were accustomed to playing in rudimentary conditions, including in the street, convinced authorities in Havana's upscale Playa district to let him use the remnants of one of the city's many collapsed buildings.
Aquino, a stocky, barrel-chested man who has a powerful baritone voice onstage but speaks softly when he is off, transformed the rubble into a permanent venue for his group.
"The country has moved on from a tendency to degrade things," he said on a recent night at El Cabildo. "The government's policy is to support this type of phenomena and that an artist, or a worker, or a farmer can put his own means of production to work to help meet the goals of the nation."
Aquino kept the company afloat financially by taking it abroad and performing in local tourist venues to earn hard currency, and became adept at working within the Cuban system.
While Castro's reforms have encouraged private initiative, they come with loaded with restrictions to try to ensure that Cuba does not return to a society of haves and have nots. Aquino mixes individual initiative with community activism, hosting free children's activities weekend mornings and keeping his prices affordable.
The new entrepreneurs had to get a license for their business and private restaurants were limited to a maximum of 50 seats.
Aquino got around the limit by taking out three restaurant licenses, which enabled him to put in 150 seats, and then another as an "organizer of events and other activities."
Using the latter, he plans to expand the business by offering boat rides on the Almendares River, which flows beside El Cabildo just before opening into the Straits of Florida.
"It is not enough to have an ugly socialism. It has to be more beautiful than the other systems so everyone will embrace the idea," he said.
Cuba says it now has 387,000 self-employed workers, most of whom have tiny home-based businesses.
GOOD SALARIES; HIGH COSTS
El Cabildo is no mom-and-pop operation. Aquino has 60 performers and 26 support staff in Opera of the Street, plus 43 employees in the bar and restaurant.
They all earn 1,800-2,000 pesos a month, about four times Cuba's average monthly salary of 450 pesos, equivalent to $19, he said.
Aquino pays about 20,000 pesos, equivalent to $833, a month for his licenses and sales taxes, but does not know yet how much his annual income tax will be.
Running costs are high, mostly because he like other private business owners has to buy all food, beverages and other items from state stores at retail prices.
It is a common complaint that the state provides goods at wholesale prices for government businesses, but not yet to the private sector.
The vast majority of El Cabildo's clients are Cuban, paying a 50 peso cover charge, the equivalent of $2, while tourists pay the equivalent of a $10 cover Sunday through Thursday and $25 for the show on weekends.
According to Rafael Betancourt, a specialist on local development at the National Association of Cuban Economists, a number of similar private entertainment projects are in the works pointing to the importance that individual initiative will play in building Cuba's future.
"There are many artists that want to do projects like this," he said. "El Cabildo is just the beginning."
(Editing by Jeff Franks and David Adams; Desking by Cynthia Osterman)