The sun sets on Havana as male dancers carrying colourful fabrics, sequin lace dresses and peacock feathers rush into Las Vegas nightclub, located just steps away from The Malecon, a seaside promenade serving as the city’s unofficial nightly gathering point.
Just a few years ago, Cuba would never have allowed the LGBT-friendly venue to exist in such broad visibility. After Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, the state persecuted gay men and women for years, sending people to labour camps, forcing the repression of millions by outlawing homosexuality and implementing strict laws which led to widespread harassment of the LGBT community during the 1960s.
But the cabaret performers have no spare time tonight to reflect on their nation’s history, or even to share a Havana Club with some of the regulars who have begun flooding into the bar. The show is running slightly behind schedule due to a last-minute ordering issue. Dancers race against the clock to jump into their tight costumes while applying bright makeup. Nearly a hundred guests have somehow packed into the room within minutes of the club opening its doors, as the lights are lowered for show time.
Imperio, a Havana-based drag queen and one of the island’s most famous transgender entertainers, has garnered an impressively-sized fan base over the years, all while lacking the resources and internet followings amassed by notable RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants like Sasha Velour or Shangela.
There is no question of her stardom, as she attempts to quietly walk through the club’s front doors to get backstage. Patrons kiss Imperio’s hands as she walks by, admiring her freshly-painted nails and overall glamour. If she was at all stressed about her late arrival, that anxiety had already been tucked away under a coating of professionalism and glitter long before she made her entrance.
However, recent announcements from John Bolton the national security advisor at the White House, will likely set such progress back. At the start of November, Mr Bolton labelled Cuba part of a ”troika of tyranny” alongside Venezuela and Guatemala, imposing new sanctions and making clear that the policy of the Obama era is over.
“In Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, we see the perils of poisonous ideologies left unchecked, and the dangers of domination and suppression,” said Mr Bolton during a speech in Miami. “The troika of tyranny in this [Western] Hemisphere –Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua – has finally met its match”.
While there is still much to be done over human rights in Cuba – and diplomatic relations with Washington have not totally been cut – there is worry about what the new Trump administration policy will mean in the long term.
Imperio provided a simple, albeit blunt message to Donald Trump and the US government in an interview with The Independent: “Lift the embargo”.
After a dynamic and animated performance that included polishing off nearly an entire 12-pack of local beers, Imperio left up the stairs from the side of the stage to thunderous cheers and applause.
I followed shortly after, making my way through a smokey room with security towards an admittedly far-less glamorous dressing room than I was used to, for a queen of Imperio’s stature. She didn’t seem to mind, and had already began to take off her makeup by the time I had arrived.
I wanted to speak to her about what it was like being a transgender person in Cuba, as well as a drag queen, and hear her opinions on a range of important issues impacting her community. There was just one rule: No pictures were allowed to be taken during her transformation process at any point, she had told me in Spanish.
Imperio says she began discovering her identity as a transgender woman “30 years ago, when it still wasn’t permitted in this country”.
“Thankfully, it was because of the support of a woman back then who worked for [the National Assembly of People’s Power], her name was Fefi, she helped me push for it,” she says. “Years went by. Thanks in part to CENESEX and Mariela Castro, they have managed to dignify us and put us up at the forefront of our revolution through theatre.”
She adds, “It’s because of their initiatives on these issues that this cabaret is able to exist”.
During the show, Imperio chats with guests and calls on members from the crowd to join her on stage for a dance or song. Unlike a local drag brunch performance, however, the cabaret show at Las Vegas is a spectacle for tourists from across the globe; at one point, Imperio flirts with a Jamaican man who identifies as straight and had come to the bar with a group of friends, who laugh and record him as he shyly chats with the drag queen on stage.