South Korea’s K-pop enthrals Cuba’s youth, 5 years after dawn of mobile internet on communist island

There are ride and food-delivery apps, social media, and access to some entertainment sites such as YouTube.

Some Cubans now celebrate Halloween, one of the most quintessential festivals of the United States – which has upheld sanctions against Caribbean nation for more than six decades.

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Caballero’s friend Samyla Trujillo has been a K-pop devotee for the last four of her 14 years on Earth.

“When I saw BTS … I told myself: ‘I want to dance like them,” Trujillo said, her hair dyed bright red in homage to the fashion of her idols.

“And then, when they showed me Blackpink, I thought: ‘Ooh, they’re girls, I want to be like them!”

She has posters and T-shirts plastered with K-pop artists’ faces, and watches K-dramas with subtitles.

K-pop merchandise pictured at a gathering of young K-pop fans at the San Fan Con square in Havana. Photo: AFP

In the house she shares with her grandmother in the capital Havana, Trujillo regularly transforms the lounge into a dance floor for her and Caballero to practice the steps for their K-pop routines.

It is serious business: one day, Trujillo – who was in a traditional Caribbean dance troupe as a child – hopes to become Cuba’s first home-grown K-pop idol.

For Trujillo and Caballero both the dream is to go to Seoul one day. “I like everything from there,” the 17-year-old said with bright eyes.

Cuba has diplomatic ties with fellow-communist nation North Korea, but not with its democratic neighbour to the south.

Cuban students take classes at the Korean Cultural Centre and Language School in Havana. Cuban teenagers are becoming passionate about K-pop, joining the millions of other fans of the South Korean phenomenon around the world. Photo: AFP

Alejandro Achin, 21, said K-pop “is a completely new experience” for Cubans, who are “used to always the same rhythm, the same routine” of salsa and Reggaeton.

In 2019, Achin realised a personal dream of performing in Seoul after winning an amateur K-pop competition with his group in Havana.

For Hohyun Joung, who teaches at a South Korean cultural and language centre which opened its doors in the Cuban capital last year, K-pop has a universal appeal that transcends politics.

“In Korean songs … most of them express the concerns of young people, what they think, their concern about the future,” said the South Korean national.

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The centre where she teaches with four Cubans has 150 students and not enough space to admit more as the appetite for everything South Korean just keeps growing.

Student Ia Gonzalez, 20, has been learning Korean at the centre for several months and gets excited every time she recognises a word in some of her favourite K-pop songs.

“Korean is not difficult. There are difficult parts, but when you really love what you’re doing, you invest impetus and passion and you can learn,” she said.

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