A stone’s throw from the Fábrica de Arte Cubano in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana is a large, century-old Cuban villa. Eighteen years ago, it was dilapidated and nearly empty save for an old landlord who could not afford to keep it up. An American expatriate named Pamela Ruiz saw it and fell in love. Due to Cuban law at the time, she could not purchase it outright, and spent the next eight years on a journey of permuta to acquire the house.
Buying and selling private property was not allowed in Cuba, so all transactions had to occur through trading objects of equal value. Over the course of nearly a decade, Ruiz found somebody with whom to swap her apartment so she could offer a residence that the villa’s landlord thought would be a suitable trade. The landlord, after all, was climbing in years and could no longer ascend the kind of stairs that led to Ruiz’s apartment.
The three-way switch had the languorous rigidity commonplace among Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Now, this house is a brick and mortar emblem of the tide of change in the island nation that was once overcome by the economic stall. Cuba’s finances were so poor after the end of the Soviet Union (who had diligently supported their ally in the west) that by the time Ruiz found her dream home, horses drew carriages down the street in lieu of taxis that ran on nearly unobtainable gasoline.
Since the regime has been handed to Fidel’s brother, Raul, Cuba’s economy has opened up to more and more capitalist enterprise, leading in part to a newfound vibrancy that draws artists back to their homeland. Before the likes of Ruiz and her husband, many Cuban artists left the country to pursue their fortunes elsewhere. In Europe, they were not forced to hand their money over to the regime and could create work without the watchful eye of the government. Now that that property can be owned, bought and sold, Cuban artists have hopes for making a living and a name for themselves in places like Havana instead of Berlin.
Ruiz’s home stands in the middle of this new world. She has created a salon a la the Paris after the First World War. Then, poets, painters, writers, and other such intelligentsia would gather in the house of an enigmatic host or patron to discuss art and culture, and to collaborate and sell their work. Artists met patrons in these spaces, and the upper crust could socialize and be seen with the wave-makers of the art world. Most famous of these hosts was writer Gertrude Stein, whose salon often invited the likes of Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway into its rooms. Paris had Stein, Cuba has Ruiz.
Nearly each month, Ruiz hosts parties in which Cuban artists mingle with the rich and powerful–Jada Pinkett and Will Smith reportedly enjoy Ruiz’s company– in a way that Cuba hasn’t seen since before Castro. In addition to her salon, Ruiz organizes a non-profit that helps bring Cuban and American artists and patrons closer together, further deepening the roots of the blossoming arts movement in Cuba.