14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 5 July 2018 — A few yards from the busy Rampa in Havana’s Vedado district, is quiet Humboldt Street, once filled with dozens of tourist and Cuban diners who came in search of the paladar (private restaurant) Huron Azul, now taken over by the authorities and converted into a state restaurant.
“Ten years ago they killed us in this neighborhood,” says Eduardo, a retiree who claims to have earned “plenty in tips” looking after the vehicles of those who came to enjoy one of the most important gastronomic businesses in Havana at the turn of the century.
Now, the blue facade with naval motifs that attracted attention is covered by a scaffolding and two builders are covering the old ornaments with cement. “A capital remodeling is underway to reopen it soon with a new menu,” one of them explains, reluctantly, to 14ymedio.
Since the restaurant was transfered to state management, its name disappeared from tourist guides and among customers the place has entirely lost its reputation as “a good table and pleasant atmosphere,” says Eduardo. The block has also suffered from that fall and now, he says, “doesn’t attract a single peso.”
In December 2008, the Technical Directorate of Investigations (DTI) opened a case against the owner of Hurón Azul, Juan Carlos Fernández García, then 47 years old. The accusations against him accumulated, fueled by presumed illegalities in the management of the business, as he had “acquired several homes” and had a “high standard of living.”
In the Cuba of those years, it was strictly forbidden to buy and sell homes, to have more than 12 chairs in a private restaurant, and to sell dishes based on lobster or shrimp. Some of those restrictions were abolished shortly afterwards with the so-called “Raulist reforms,” but for Fernández García it was too late.
“They started to investigate and ask the neighbors, until one day we woke up and there were a lot of patrol cars out there,” says a resident of the upper floors of the building. “As soon as we saw the police, we knew it was against Juan Carlos, because the business had prospered greatly and it was a matter of time before they acted against him,” she says.
In a Power Point presentation made by the police and filtered to independent media in mid-2009, a photo taken inside the paladar showed more tables than allowed. Fernandez Garcia had been buying part of the adjoining houses and managed to expand the space, initially small.
“What most annoyed the authorities were the trips abroad that he made with his wife to import supplies, in addition to an exhibition that he financed as an art patron in homage to Carlos Enríquez.” When some leader saw his face on television, he ensured his own disgrace,” says the sculptor and painter Mario, a fictitious name for this article for fear of reprisals.
Fernández García had developed an interesting system to attract fine artists to the place. “You gave him a work and he paid you for it in quantities of meals and diners. It was a good deal for everyone, the painter could invite his friends to a good meal, and the piece was exhibited in the restaurant,” recalls Mario.
“In five of the occupied dwellings, hundreds of works of art were found,” the investigator wrote in the report prepared after the operation. “An important part of these works were by different contemporary artists, who in many cases delivered them on consignment to write off the costs,” adds the text.
During the raid, two more paladares fell into the hands of the authorities, which, according to the officers, were also owned by Fernández García. The prosperous businessman ended up in jail and the Huron Azul began a new phase, characterized by empty tables and uneven service.
In the app ’A la mesa’, a tool that offers an extensive list of places to eat across the entire whole Island, where the former paladar converted into a state-run restaurant does not appear. “The food is bad, the rice overheated and the workers always seem tired,” says Yudiel, a 42-year-old tour guide who makes independent routes, summarizing his experience.
“The first time I went, in 2007, it was a paladar and they served us in the wine cellar, it was a spectacular night,” he recalls. “After that I came back with some tourists about four years ago and I wanted to cry, most of the paintings on the walls were gone and there was a stink of reheated fat everywhere.”
Above the premises an hand-lettered “For sale” announces that the owners who live upstairs are looking for a new place. “In this neighborhood there were several rental houses, guides, Spanish teachers and even masseuses, who all made a living from all the activity around this paladar,” says Eduardo the car-parker.
“There are many good restaurants in this area and tourists prefer to visit the private places, because the state does not have the same quality,” says a waitress from nearby Toke, a private place frequented by foreign visitors. “The Huron Azul was a reference point, we were all a little inspired by him, but now there are only memories left.”
On the streets of Havana, the case of Huron Azul provoked all kinds of opinions. “That man should have been appointed Minister of Tourism, not put in prison,” was one of the most frequently heard comments. Others criticized what they considered “hoarding” and luxury. Today, opinions are still divided.
During these years other restaurant owners have, like Fernández García, been prosecuted for irregularities. Many have emigrated in search of new horizons and a handful survive in spite of the constant difficulties.
Since last August, the authorities have launched a process of restructuring “self-employment” and temporarily stopped issuing licenses to private restaurants and tourist rental houses, among other activities, to curb illegalities and “deviations” and to “correct deficiencies.”
Almost a year later there are no signs of when these permits will be issued again, but “entrepreneurship is in his blood and Juan Carlos Fernández García left prison years ago and runs a business in Havana,” says Eduardo. “He opened a paladar on 26th Street, which has done very well.”
This newspaper tried to get an interview with him, but the former owner of Huron Azul now avoids the media. He knows that excelling has a high cost.
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