14ymedio, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 16 November 2016 — Rarely does the official press offer journalistic work of any interest, so a report that was published a few days ago is greatly appreciated. The work was published following controls recently directed by the Government to a total of 32 private restaurants in Havana (“Private Restaurants in the Capital Control and Success, in that Order?” by Yudy Castro Morales), a piece that reflects, in an unusually objective manner, some of the limitations that hinder the performance of private restaurants in Havana.
Weeks earlier, the State press monopoly had made mention of certain irregularities that had been detected in the sector, such as violations in urban planning regulations, illegalities in procedures for the sale of homes, “the importation of goods for commercial purposes,” tax evasion and violation of established limits related to activities for which licenses were issued.
The unprejudiced use of terms as demonized as “private restaurants,” “business” and “prosperity,, among others, is surprising
Indirectly, it also suggested that some of these establishments had become “scenarios for the dispensing of drugs, pimping and prostitution,” as well as for money laundering, which collaterally constitutes tacit acknowledgement of the proliferation of unspeakable evils within the impeccable socialist culture.
All of this, in addition to the closure of numerous restaurants and cafés and the suspension of the issuing of new licenses for this type of self-employment business created a climate of uncertainty about the fate of the private restaurant industry, popularly known as paladares*.
This uncertainty is now beginning to dissipate, at least partially, when the most official newspaper of Cuba not only deals with the results of the mentioned inspection in the capital, but disseminates critical testimony and demands from several owners of some of Havana’s privately owned restaurants.
The absence of revolutionary slogans and of political-ideological allusions of the kind that usually overload articles in the official press is another unusual feature of the article, and equally surprising is the unprejudiced use of terms as demonized as “private restaurants,” “business” and “prosperity,” among others.
Some insightful rumors considered that the official strategy consisted in selecting certain prestigious restaurants and offering them legal advantages in exchange for adhering to certain norms
In fact, problems detected by the State audit during inspections do not, in themselves, constitute a novelty: closing schedule violations, direct hiring of performers that liven up some private locations –without going through a State Agency where they are required to be registered – problems with employees’ contracts, noise pollution, illegal merchandise, smuggling and the crime of receiving stolen goods are real and well-known transgressions, in both the private and the State sector.
For that reason, some insightful rumors considered that the official strategy consisted in selecting certain renowned restaurants and offering them legal advantages in exchange for adhering to certain norms and commitments with sectors of the State entrepreneurship. The State-Godfather protects those who are loyal to it, in its best Mafioso style.
Should this rumor be true, it would not be anything new. It is popularly spoken of – though obviously unverifiable – that the owners of some of the most successful paladares have some kind of link with the power authorities and have enjoyed official tolerance in exchange for political compliance, whether fake or not.
The ideological commitment/control mechanism is (also) a longstanding practice in the gastronomic sector. During the decades of the 70’s and 80’s, restaurant, bar and cafeteria management – all of them State-owned – were very coveted jobs, since they were consistent and secure sources of illicit proceeds from the smuggling of products diverted from the official network and resold at premium prices in the black market.
Whoever has not lived in a society accentuated by shortages and subjected to a ration card to acquire their sustenance may not understand the enormous economic power that is derived from the management of foodstuffs.
So significant were the gains in the gastronomic industry that the Upscale Restaurant Enterprise in the capital gave those jobs to “team-players” of the Communist party and to intermediate leaders with a proven historical track record of loyalty to the system.
So significant were the gains in the gastronomic industry and so coveted the management jobs at prestigious restaurants, such as El Polinesio, La Torre, El Conejito, el Mandarín, Las Bulerías, Montecatini, among many others – some of the famed restaurants as well as many others – that the Upscale Restaurant Enterprise in the capital gave those jobs to “team-players” of the Communist party and to intermediate leaders with a proven historical track record of loyalty to the system.
This clientele-centered procedure created a sort of undercover middle class, whose advantages over the working class were based on their ability to access consumer goods and services that were just not available to the latter, in the same way that the standards of living and the ability of the current private owners of the most successful paladares are far beyond the possibilities of the vast majority of Cubans.
The difference between those State administrators of yesteryear and the current owners is that the former dealt with public goods, since private property was banned then, and the latter operate with private capital, but the common denominator among them is that the power — which arbitrarily dispenses approvals, punishment or pardons — controls and manipulates them from the point of view of their dependence on improprieties in following the laws in order to thrive, on both sides.
Thus, the prosperity of the ‘Private Manager’ depends, to date, on his ability to misappropriate State assets entrusted to him without being discovered, while the success of the ‘Private Owner’ depends on his ability to violate the law, be it accessing the underground market to acquire the goods that he needs or through the evasion of taxes and other regulations.
The prosperity of the ‘Private Manager’ depends, to date, on his ability to misappropriate State assets entrusted to him without being discovered, while the success of the ‘Private Owner’ depends on his ability to violate the law
But what is really novel in the journalistic report in this case is that it has given space to the voices of the presumed victims in the Government press — the ever-demeaned private owners, or “entrepreneurs” — and that these voices have expressed themselves so critically and so freely about the multiple constraints imposed by the State system that regulates self-employment.
Included among the major constraints that were listed are the lack of wholesale markets and the insufficient supply of the retail networks, the unfeasibility of joining importing entities in order to acquire consumables and equipment that are lacking in retail networks, the express prohibition for the private sector to import products that are not commercialized in the State entities, among them, certain types of alcoholic drinks that are in high demand, the restriction of allowed seating (50 chairs in total, whether under a cafeteria or a restaurant license) which “negatively affects the business,” especially those that provide services to the official tourist agencies which, on occasion, in the face of the great demand and the limits on authorized seats, push the license-holders to violate those limitations.
Criticisms were even directed at State and cooperative management nightspots, described by owners of paladares as deficient in “not offering quality services,” which makes one think that perhaps soon, and in light of the growing wave of tourists, this kind of establishment, which at the moment is exclusively State owned, might become privately owned.
What is really novel of the journalistic report in this case is that it has given space to the voices of the presumed victims in the Government press and that these voices have expressed themselves so critically
“We are willing to pay the established taxes (…) but we want profitable businesses,” stated an owner, implicitly demonstrating the financial capacity that the elite in the industry has attained.
But, in addition, the report allows us to perceive certain nuances that make a small but significant difference, in a journalism that is habitually flat and uncritical. There is a case, for example, of an owner who, as a taxpayer, demanded to know more about the fate of the taxes he pays the State, something that was considered a heresy until recently.
Of course, these are wispy and sparse signals, but they forecast the possible evolution of private capital, though reduced to an elite sector that, despite its fragility, begins to feel independent and to consider itself useful and necessary for the survival of an obsolete and unproductive system in crisis.
Of course, official responses to the claims of private owners have not been published. No one knows for sure how much was “allowed” or how audacious this infrequent journalistic report and these demands really are. At the moment, it is worth paying close attention to the direction of private Havana restaurants. Let’s not forget the old saying: “God writes straight with twisted lines.”
*Translator’s note: Paladar (plural: paladares) (Portuguese and Spanish for “palate”) used in that sense in the Spanish speaking world, however in Cuba, it is used exclusively to refer to restaurants run by the self-employed. Mostly family-run businesses, paladares are fundamentally engaged to serve as a counterpart to State-run restaurants for tourists seeking a more vivid interaction with Cuban reality, and looking for homemade Cuban food.
The term in popular usage has its origin in the Brazilian soap opera Vale Tudo”, broadcast in Cuba in the early 1990s. Paladar was the name of the chain of restaurants. The airing of that soap opera coincided in time with the first issue of licenses for the self-employed in Cuba, so popular culture gave this name to the then-new type of establishments.
Translated by Norma Whiting