HAVANA – A community project in the Cuban capital’s Santo Angel neighborhood is transforming the lives of dozens of young people through hairdressing and bartending courses, serving as a sort of oasis amid complex and harsh daily living conditions in Old Havana.
With the backing of companies like rum maker Havana Club and state-owned institutions, “Artecorte” organizes free courses for local residents, who are “the neighborhood’s most important asset,” Gilberto Valladares, the initiative’s creator and driving force, told EFE.
“Every kid who comes through our courses is a family member who we’re helping,” the entrepreneur affectionately known as “Papito” said.
The operator of a hair salon for the past 20 years, he initially launched his micro-enterprise to dignify that trade and it has naturally evolved into a movement within the community.
What local residents once called “the ugliest street in all of Havana” has been reborn thanks to the enthusiasm and the values of “belonging and pride in the neighborhood” championed by the project.
This district known as “Callejon de los Peluqueros” (Barbers’ Alley) has been transformed into a colorful pedestrian walkway where some 20 small businesses now operate.
With the support of Havana’s Office of the City Historian, restaurants, private bars and cafes, art galleries, rental houses, barber shops and hair salons exist side by side along a 100-meter paved lane filled with colonial homes.
Those residences now house enterprises launched since then-President Raul Castro “updated” Cuba’s socialist model in 2011 by expanding the scope for self-employment and small businesses.
That same street has been the home since 2010 of the Artecorte school, a center that – though it is not recognized as an academic institution and its diplomas are not considered to be valid professional qualifications – is striving to “offer new horizons to kids with social disadvantages and provide them with a trade,” Papito said.
Some 200 young people have received instruction inside its small classrooms, which in the case of the bartenders’ school extends to the nearby “Lucero” pub.
Havana Club Internacional, a joint venture between state-owned Cuba Ron and France’s Pernod Ricard, provides 80 percent of the funds for the practical necessities of the workshops.
“Corporate social responsibility is talked about today. Havana Club is a socially responsible company and we’re a social project. These are non-profit courses. They’re free of charge, and so this partnership is natural and very beneficial for both,” Papito said.
The fifth edition of the bartenders course began less than a month ago and, unlike in previous editions, includes students who live outside of Santo Angel.
Papito said that for him and his associates it is very important “to provide an opportunity for kids from other neighborhoods so they are able to extend the philosophy of Artecorte to their districts” and this empowerment initiative is not restricted to the Callejon de los Peluqueros.
The goal is to ensure that all of the young people involved in the project are able to find gainful employment. Partnerships that Artecorte has established with Cuba’s Transportation Ministry and Geneva-based MSC Cruises have enabled its graduates to work on cruise ships and earn a salary that far exceeds the average state salary of less than $45 a month.
Free instruction is not the only service Artecorte offers to improve the quality of life in Santo Angel, a neighborhood that was home to famed Havana residents such as 19th-century poet Julian del Casal and acclaimed 20th-century painter Marcelo Pogolotti.
Initiatives of that community project have included a so-called “Barbeparque” playground featuring equipment in the shape of barbers’ tools, while a social center will open soon to provide services to handicapped individuals.
“Our dream is that one day a book will be published on the history of the neighborhood. I wouldn’t want this project become an oasis. I want to share it with others and inspire them. Now is the time for the private sector and people to commit themselves to social undertakings,” Papito said.