By Rosa Tania Valdes
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cubans are upset over decrees by the communist government shuttering private 3D movie theaters and banning the private sale of imported clothing in a land where venues to screen films are scarce and well-made, stylish clothing is hard to come by at affordable prices.
Discontent over the crackdown runs so deep that even Granma, the usually conformist Communist Party daily, ran a long article last week recognizing the "broad social debate" - an unmistakable sign of the government's sensitivity to the issue.
The newspaper backed the government's measures on the grounds the would-be entrepreneurs were unlicensed, and it insisted that the "non-state" sector, authorized over the past few years, must abide by the law.
Even so, urgent meetings to discuss the closures are being held at the highest levels of government on the Caribbean island, according to several cultural officials who asked not to be identified.
So far there is no indication the authorities will back down. Still, the very acknowledgement of the controversy highlights the growing pressure on the government for meaningful economic reform.
"The Cuban government misfired, not only by sidelining the interests of consumers, but also in underestimating the growing political clout of the emerging private entrepreneurs," said Richard Feinberg, a senior fellow of the Washington-based Brookings Institution and author of a recent study on "Emerging Entrepreneurs" in Cuba.
President Raul Castro, who replaced his ailing brother Fidel in 2008, has introduced a series of free-market reforms aimed at reducing the financially strapped state's enormous burden of running 80 percent of the economy.
The debate within the regime over how to deal with the discontent over the unlicensed businesses suggests deeper divisions still exist between orthodox bureaucrats and pro-market reformers.
Some analysts say that raises questions about the government's commitment to opening up the economy. At the same time, it suggests the Cuban government can no longer turn a deaf ear to a restive public.
"We are now witnessing high drama in Havana, as the government struggles to find its way," Feinberg said.
Taking advantage of a loosening of regulations on small businesses under Raul Castro, hundreds of Cubans have borrowed money or invested their savings in 3D projectors and screens, goggles and even popcorn makers to open mainly home-based theaters.
One of them is Jardiel Gonzalez, a popular comedian who rented an abandoned, 100-seat movie theater from the government, installed a 200 inch (5 meter)-wide screen and turned it into what he said was a successful business.
"I didn't leave my house for three days after they shut it down," he said. "Packing up here was a little depressing, because it took a tremendous sacrifice to open," Gonzalez said, as he looked at his now darkened and silent theater.
Cinema, as with most culture in Cuba, is controlled and heavily subsidized by the government. The crisis that followed the demise in the early 1990s of the Soviet Union, the island's former benefactor, led to the closures of most theaters countrywide as austerity measures sapped funding.
The state has loosened up on what can be seen, cognizant perhaps of the unstoppable flow of black-market DVDs imported by tourists and Cuban relatives living abroad.
The sale of clothing, as with all imported goods, is monopolized by the state. Featuring poor-quality garments at a mark-up of more than 200 percent, state-operated shops are a source of cash that the government can ill afford to lose.
Deregulation of small business in 2010 has led to a booming "non-state" sector that numbers about 450,000 "self-employed," a euphemism in Cuba for small businesses. The sector includes employees of the small businesses and those in the building and other trades.
Cuba has authorized about 200 private economic activities, from running cafeterias and bed and breakfasts to party-planning and shoe-shining. Running movie theaters and selling clothing have remained off-limits.
Even so, entrepreneurs used licenses for operating "equipment for childhood entertainment" to show films, while others used licenses to work as a "seamstress" to open the clothing shops.
Hundreds of entrepreneurs saw an opportunity in the 3D theaters, paying, for example, $2,000 for a 60-inch 3D television brought into the country by family and friends from abroad.
The public flocked to the private film showings, the first 3D offerings in the country, where they could watch movies like "Avatar" and "Shark".
Fascinated by the magic of the third dimension, children and teenagers became the biggest fans.
What was a dream come true for Cuban film buffs came to a sudden end on November 2 when the Council of Ministers ordered the theaters to close on the grounds that they had never been officially authorized.
The 20,000-odd clothing vendors and their employees that have opened in Cuba have been given until the end of the year to liquidate inventory and shut down for the same reason.
"The superior interest of all citizens in preserving legality and order ranks higher than any temporary impact that the adopted measures may cause to one sector of the population," Granma opined in support of the government crackdown.
Many Cubans don't see it that way.
"It is really too bad they shut them down," teenager Orlando Fernandez said. "It was a healthy form of entertainment; I don't see anything wrong with it."
Gonzalez is facing a big loss on his investment in the theater, located in the Marianao district of Havana, though he declined to say how much. He not only had to buy the 200-inch screen but had to repair the roof, bathrooms, lighting and ventilation before opening for business.
"Now the five young people I hired are sitting at home, looking for whatever to make ends meet when here they had legal employment," he said.
While the government insists it is not backtracking on reforms, even Granma admitted many residents are not happy. Some Cubans are calling for entertainment licenses to include showing films and a new license category for the clothing shops.
Cuban authorities had criticized the 3D theaters even before they were shuttered, using adjectives such as "frivolous," "mediocre" and "trivial." Many intellectuals and artists publicly disagreed, a rare sign of defiance.
"The extraordinary social impact these establishments have produced should be a motive for reflection, not silence or oblivion," Gustavo Arcos, a film professor at the University of Havana, wrote in an open letter published by a local film blog.
"Imposition, without dialogue, will never save the national culture," he added.
(Additional reporting and writing by Marc Frank in Havana and David Adams in Miami; Editing by Frank McGurty and Grant McCool)