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Magic, mojitos and mobsters: The promise of Cuba's first magic conference - Genii Online

Cuba: 90 miles from Florida, fifty years in the past. Once an illicit playground for Hollywood stars and mobsters, it now stands as a forbidden island of socialist revolution.

That’s how Americans see it, at least.

Cut off from the United States since the Eisenhower administration, Cuba has gained a mythic status in the American imagination through the hard truth of history and the soft lies of cinema. When we look at it we see Tropicana dancers and rum, fine cigars and linen suits, classic cars and secret missile bases. Revolutionaries storming into Havana as Michael Corleone grabs his brother and gives him the kiss of death.

Say it with me now:

I know it was you, Fredo… you broke my heart!

What you don’t imagine when you think “Cuba” is magic.

But that may change if John Rose has his way. For the last few months he’s been working on an event that will not only give American magicians perhaps their only shot at visiting Cuba, but may reinvent the entire concept of what a magic conference can do.

After all, this is Cuba—it would be a waste to do something less than revolutionary.

MagiCuba

MagiCuba flyer

“I'm looking forward to bringing people to [Havana] and showing them something really special,” says Rose, outlining his concept for MagiCuba.

At most magic conferences, he says, people spend a lot of time inside watching panels or performances. They mill around vendor tables and compare gaff decks. Maybe they hang out at the bar later at night, showing off tricks or swapping stories.

Which is all well and good, and MagiCuba will have that. But he’s also designing the event to show off the best of Cuban culture and Havana’s unique historical center.

“We didn't want to have people come to Cuba and put them into conference rooms,” he says. “The idea was to get people to experience Havana at the same time.”

The event has unprecedented access to historical venues. Attendees will stay at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, famous as the site of the mafia’s 1946 Havana Conference, depicted in The Godfather Part II. There, attendees can walk in the footsteps of famous guests like Churchill and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. The grounds contain a tunnel system from the Cold War, complete with a periscope Cuban intelligence used for espionage activities.

When conference sessions are over for the day, attendees will spill out on the hotel’s colonnaded terrace for an afternoon “Magic and Mojitos” event. It’s not to be missed—particularly since the bar at the Hotel Nacional still serves mojitos in the old style preferred by American mobsters. And even there, the show won’t stop.

“You'll see magic behind the bar and magic out in the garden,” says Rose. “We're going to use the environment to create something special.”

And the magic will continue far past the grounds of the hotel.

Rose envisions an event with all Havana as a stage. Attendees can opt to visit a cigar factory, where women still hand-roll tobacco leaves to the sound of a speaker-amplified employee reading a classic novel. In another option, they’ll tour plazas amidst the Spanish colonial architecture of old Havana, watching pop-up magic performances along the way. On each night, guest magicians will perform at the massive, 3,000 seat Teatro Nacional de Cuba (National Theatre), which sits on plaza where Fidel Castro delivered his legendary multi-hour speeches.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba

Front of the hotel

This kind of access to Havana is unprecedented. Though locally organized events sometimes take over the city, this is the first time the government has partnered with a private group to put on any sort of event. (The very concept had to be approved by the Castro regime.) But once Rose secured government backing, he found himself able to book venues—and local assets—that would never be possible in another country.

Dealing with this kind of stuff is Rose’s specialty. While working for a Boston marketing agency in 1984, he got the assignment to go to Moscow and start the first advertising agency in the Soviet Union. 33 years and one fallen wall later, his own marketing agency, the self-titled “Rose,” handles the Eastern European market for clients as diverse as Lufthansa and Starbucks. It made sense, then, for Rose to be the first to open Cuba up to modern event promotion.

But there was no reason it had to be magic—that was Rose’s idea. A former magician who worked at a magic shop in high school, he considers MagiCuba a way of fusing his two longtime passions. He’s already recruited a group of headliners including John Archer, Jorge Blass, Mike Caveney, and Michael Goudeau to take part.

But in Rose’s mind the headliner will always be Cuba, and he’s excited to provide an insider tour to the city he’s been visiting for over a decade.

“I love Havana, it's become like a second home to me,” he says. “It's not like I just spun the globe and put a pin in it and booked a hotel. It’s different for me. I've learned a lot about the nation and I want to bring people there and expose them to it.”

Part of that exposure will come from the event’s partnership with the Ministry of Culture, which has assigned two local groups—the Cuban Circus, and the Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba—to collaborate with event. Shows will heavily feature Cuban performers, and guest magicians will, for the first time in Cuban history, share the stage with local performers, especially at the nightclubs.

Every night when the big shows at the National Theater let out, attendees will trickle into late-night shows at Havana’s smoky cabaret nightclubs. There they’ll find smaller 100-150 seat theaters that offer more intimate shows. These performances will weave magic in with cabaret dancers and one of Cuba’s greatest points of cultural heritage—its music.

In fact, most of MagiCuba’s acts will have some form of musical accompaniment, which is increasingly rare in North America, where the cost of hiring bands and licensing venues have skyrocketed.

But in Cuba, musicians are on nearly every street corner, so access to musicians is no problem. “In certain parts of Havana it’s like the whole island is swaying to a Cuban beat. There's live music everywhere.”

Taken together, this blend of visiting and local magicians, circus performers, and musical acts positions MagiCuba to be a cultural exchange event unprecedented in the magic community. And when the shows are done, attendees will be able to mingle with Cuban performers at after-hours events, opening conversations and bridging political gulfs in a way never attempted at a magic conference.

Mojitos at a Cuban bar

Mojitos at a Cuban bar

But that exchange also brings with it the opportunity to help Cuba’s magical community, which has been cut off from magical knowledge for over 50 years.

Explaining the US trade embargo against Cuba would take far more time than we have, but here’s the postcard version: When Castro overthrew Cuba’s right-wing dictator in 1959, the Eisenhower administration suspected him of being a secret Communist and refused to sell his new government arms. Ironically, this caused Castro to increasingly turn to the Soviet Union as a patron. Eisenhower punished this realignment by cancelling Cuban sugar exports to the US in hopes of squeezing Cuba’s fragile economy, and Castro retaliated by nationalizing $6 billion worth of US businesses and personal property in Cuba, without providing compensation. In 1960, Eisenhower answered with an economic embargo, forbidding any shipments to Cuba other than food or medicine. Despite annual votes of condemnation at the UN, that embargo remains in place today.

The embargo has shaped almost every aspect of Cuba, from the way people watch movies to the beauty of its unspoiled reefs. But it’s also ensured that the Cuban magic scene exists in a time capsule.

“Like much of Cuba, there’s a bit of a time warp,” says Rose. “There are lots of exceptions, but much of the magic we've seen is a bit retro.”

In addition to new cars or iPhones, the embargo cut Cuban magicians off from magical knowledge. It’s impossible to get magic books or equipment, and internet access isn’t widespread or strong enough to access how-to videos or tap into the community of illusionists online. Visiting magicians have brought a little knowledge here and there, but many acts—particularly at the resorts, who like to play up Cuba’s retro appeal—recall the floorshows of 20 to 40 years ago.

Exacerbating the problem is the country’s low per-capita income (less than $100 a month, according to some estimates), which bars local magicians from building or purchasing the “big box” illusions many audiences have grown accustomed to. As a result, there’s been more evolution on the close-up magic side, where props are cheap and knowledge of a trick can spread from magician to magician.

But that doesn’t mean Cuban magicians reject outside knowledge—in fact, they’re hungry for it. And to help them out, Rose and the Ministry of Culture have designed a sort of conference-in-a-conference to spread magical knowledge among local performers.

“We’re going to create at least one day that offers special sessions—either for free or very little money—for the Cubans,” he says. That way, even if local magicians can’t attend the paid side of the conference, they can at least get training from Spanish-speaking guest performers who’ve flown in for the event.

It’s part of a multi-pronged, international outreach effort to assist the magic community in Cuba.

MagiCuba organizers also plan to pay travel expenses for any Cuban performer picked for the conference, and Rose is arranging for magic dealers to donate books, tricks, and other magical tools to local magicians that need a leg up. Every major performance at the National Theater will provide low-cost seats for locals.

“Half the house we're selling to tourists and so forth,” says Rose. “But the other half is open for Cubans. Any Cuban magician that wants to come in will be able to see all those performances basically for free.”

Streets of Havana, Cuba

Streets of Havana, Cuba

With its mix of culture, shows, and social mission, MagiCuba sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime event—and unfortunately, that may be the case.

MagiCuba was born during the “Cuban Thaw” of the Obama administration, when the US was in the midst of softening its position toward the Castro regime. Tourism became less restricted. Direct flights resumed. A deluge of curious American visitors spilled off cruise ships and boarding ramps.

But earlier this month the Trump administration reset travel restrictions to the pre-Obama standard. For many Americans, the dream of a Havana vacation withered on the vine. To obtain a visa, Americans once again need to travel under government-approved cultural exchange programs.

“But MagiCuba satisfies that requirement,” says Rose, with a hint of satisfaction. “This is now one of the few legal ways for Americans to go to Cuba. If you're into magic, this is the only show in town.”

It also, he says, may be the last show in town. Between the new travel restrictions and the legwork required to set up the event, MagiCuba may turn out to be a completely unique experience.

“It may be the only time this is ever done. This might be your one chance to come to Havana and experience magic with all this official support. You'll get to see things that you'd never be able to see, have access to facilities you'd never be able to use... it's special.”

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