Havana’s National Hotel hosted 500 people — with an estimated 80 percent being American citizens — for a lavish feast known as “Le Dîner en Blanc,” or “The Dinner in White,” on Saturday amid a growing food shortage problem that has Cubans recalling the post-Soviet “special period” poverty of the early 1990s.
Le Dîner en Blanc is an international event that began in Paris, as its French name suggests. Founder François Pasquier developed the concept as an invite-only “secret” picnic in which guests were told to bring their own food and dress in white, the only two rules of the event.
“It is an event meant to bring friends together, it does not have any specific message,” Pasquier said of the party, according to Miami’s Martí Noticias. “Those invited come to bring their own message and share a moment of friendship.”
Aymeric Pasquier, the founder’s son, attended the party in Havana.
The event has taken place in over 90 cities around the world. But the Cuban iteration, which reportedly cost up to $1,000 to attend for those who wished to have travel groups buy their food for them rather than have to pack it and bring it to the hotel, took on a different significance under the auspices of a repressive communist regime facing growing accusations of courting foreign tourists to enrich its elite at the expense of the impoverished majority.
The Agence France-Presse (AFP) describes the Havana affair as an ostentatious celebration: “Extravagant dress, masks and feathered hats were on display for the dinner, animated by an orchestra and more than 500 revelers, 80 percent of them Americans and most of the rest Cubans.”
One American attendee who spoke to AFP considered their presence on the island for the event a display of “unity,” though she did not specify with what.
“It’s beautiful, it’s a sea of colors, a sea of nationalities, and it comes together here in Cuba,” Floridian Kay Barnes told AFP. “What a wonderful symbol of unity … Dressing in all white — the ambiance, the Champagne, the sparkles — I love it.”
François Pasquier has reportedly stated that the choice of white as a color for the party was intended as a symbol of equality. In Cuba — where the primary color of the ruling regime is red — white has taken on two outsized cultural meanings. One is religious: in the Lukumí religion, commonly known as santería, one of the best-known initiation rituals for those elevating into clerical status is to wear only white for a year. Politically, white has become the color of the anti-communist dissident movement, particularly associated with the Ladies in White – a group consisting of the wives, mothers, daughters, and other relatives of political prisoners who wear white and attend Catholic Mass on Sundays to advocate for human rights. Political dissidents are not allowed to attend events such as the Dîner en Blanc, however, nor is there any indication that the event took on a religious meaning.
Organizers advertised the event with a slickly produced viral video meant to depict it as a festival:
Elsewhere in Cuba, Cuban citizens struggle to access basic food goods like bread, eggs, and milk. For two decades, Cuba has heavily relied on the socialist regime in Venezuela to finance it, largely through free oil. Venezuela’s economy today is in free fall, however, and has largely taken Cuba’s economy with it. The result has been the exporting of hours-long supermarket and bakery lines, for years prevalent in Caracas, to Havana.
Speaking to the Diario Las Americas in a column published last week, a Cuban man named Lázaro described having to wake up at 2:00 a.m. to get on a supermarket line to buy bread.
“I am never the first one. By then, there are usually five or six people before me. I take the opportunity to stake out a place in the bakery line, as well, since the soft bread my grandchildren like comes out at 5:30 a.m.,” Lázaro explained, adding that he fueled his early mornings with a longtime Cuban poverty staple: coffee laced with inexpensive ground split peas.
“Sometimes we get in line for no reason, because nothing comes in,” he lamented.
The shortages are occurring nationwide. In Guantánamo, the independent outlet Cubanet reported this week that most restaurants in the city are closed because they simply have no access to food. Local journalist Roberto Jesús Quiñones Haces noticed widespread closures in the city and called the restaurants one by one, each time hearing the same explanation for the closings: there is no food.
Several reports have compared the current troubles to the “special period,” the term for the economic collapse Cuba suffered following the fall of the Soviet Union. The special period triggered a wave of thousands of Cubans building makeshift rafts, lending them the nickname “balseros,” or “rafters,” and attempting to sail to the United States for a better life. Cuba recovered from the special period only following the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.