14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 16 June 2017 – The closure of three private restaurants in Havana last week has sparked doubts among owners of food service businesses. The fact that the three paladares – private restaurants – were rated “excellent” on Trip Advisor, one of the most important travel sites on the web, has fueled fears that the authorities are acting against the more prosperous businesses.
The police closed El Litoral, Dolce Vita and Lungo Mare, all located in the Vedado neighborhood, after a high-profile operation and the seizure of many goods, 14ymedio was able to confirm.
Alejandro Marcel Mendevil, the visible face of El Litoral, which operates under the name of his mother, Nardis Francisca Mendivil, had previously had legal problems when working for a company linked to the Ministry of Tourism, according to an employee of the place who preferred to remain anonymous. On that occasion he was “under investigation with other employees” for an alleged diversion of resources detected in the entity, which operated with foreign capital.
That investigation ended without charges but according to the same employee “the suspicion clung to him that he was laundering the embezzled money through El Litoral.”
Nardis Francisca Mendivil, legal owner of El Litoral, refuses to talk to the press so as not to harm her son, who is imprisoned in 100 and Aldabó and subject to a warning from State Security, but she does deny the version published by some media according to which he was the proprietor of the three closed paladares.
“We have nothing to do with Lungo Mare,” said the mother of the detainee. Other sources stated that her son also managed that paladar at one time, but had sold it “a few months ago.”
In addition, Señora Mendival complains that it is not the first time that they have tried to impute false crimes to her son; in the past he was accused of the death of a police officer who, according to Señora Mendival, shot “himself in a patrol car,” a few yards from the restaurant.
The closing of the restaurants took place after an exhaustive search by the Technical Department of Investigations in cooperation with police forces.
The news of what happened circulated through emails in the Cubapaladar newsletter on food service businesses. Its organizers were quick to remove the premises from their list of recommendations and asserted that they will never include an establishment that is “under a legal investigation or involved in any case that violates any Cuban law.”
This Thursday, an improvised sign with the word “Closed” was the only visible sign to customers at door of number 161 Malecón between K and L where until recently the El Litoral was overflowing with activity. The area is now deserted.
The operation and the confiscation of numerous belongings from the premises were the subject of comments from the whole neighborhood. “I saw many things: air conditioners, drinks of different brands they had in the cellar, chairs, tables, they even took the cutlery away,” says a neighbor.
According to an employee who spoke to 14ymedio, agents also took everything that was in the basement where a new space was going to be inaugurated for “tasting exquisite drinks and Cuban cigars.”
The site, with a wide-ranging menu specializing in seafood and fish, soon became a emblem of the new era for Cuban entrepreneurship after the flexibilizations for the self-employed sector promoted by Raúl Castro’s Government as of 2010.
“From the moment you walked through the door, you felt that you were not in Cuba because of the variety of dishes and the efficiency of the service,” says Grégory, a Frenchman who has visited Cuba more than a dozen times in the past decade, where he has “two daughters and many friends.”
However, those times of bonanza and glamor seem to have ended in the large house with a view directly to the sea.
The scene at El Litoral is repeated in the restaurant Dolce Vita, specializing in Mediterranean food and also located on Havana’s Malecón. The restaurant, which was a bustle of waiters and customers, is now closed, lock stock and barrel.
At the corner of Calle 1a and C, in Vedado, silence has also taken over the outside terrace and the interior area of Lungo Mare. Underneath its distinctive red and white striped awning there is no longer the noise of the silverware or the clinking of the glasses. “This is dead and it will take a long time for it to rise again,” jokes a newspaper salesman who mourns the situation.
“The whole neighborhood benefited from this restaurant because many people came and I could sell some of my newspapers at a slightly better price,” he explains.
“This happened because it stood out a lot,” says Luis Carlos, a young man who delivers agricultural products for several restaurants in the area. “El Litoral became a reference point and many foreigners and diplomats came,” he explains. “Here they sold the best croquettes in Havana and that’s not a joke.”
No other private restaurant or coffee shop owner in the area has wanted to comment on the case.