EFE/via 14ymedio, Lorena Canto, Havana – Private restaurants, popularly known as paladares (palates), are under the scrutiny of the Cuban government, which has temporarily suspended the granting of licenses in the sector due to alleged breaches of rules in a booming industry that perfectly illustrates the new economy of the island.
“There has been very strong growth in a short time and it has gotten out of hand,” the self-employed owner of a very famous private restaurant in Havana told EFE, as she prepared for inspections by the authorities in the coming weeks.
In Cuba where, with the lack of official confirmations, the rumor mill runs riot, a few days ago alarm spread among paladares on hearing that the owners of the most prominent had been called to meetings – by neighborhood – with government officials.
There they were told that there would be no new licenses for private restaurants in the capital, and that there would be a round of strict inspections to ensure that those now in operation were complying with the law: no more than 50 seats, respect for the established hours, and provisioning only with products purchased in state stores for which they can show the receipts.
«The atmosphere is now very unclear,» another owner of a pioneering paladar, who also asked not to be named, told EFE.
So, the dining industry’s private proprietors, awaiting the dreaded inspections, fell into a paranoid spiral, which included hiding any merchandise not obtained through official means and redoing the menus to include only dishes and drinks made with ingredients for which they can show the receipts.
Bottles of premium liquor that came to Cuba in a suitcase, exotic ingredients or the celebrated lobsters, almost impossible to acquire by legal means and bought directly from fishermen, remain under lock and key these days, waiting for the dust to settle.
The problem is that the regulations governing self-employment, which are part of the economic reforms introduced by Raul Castro in the last decade, still have large gaps, like the lack of rules governing private workers on the communist island, or a wholesale supply market.
“It’s about sorting out a sector that started out as a part of the family economy and has become an important part of the country’s economy,” explained the same owner.
For some time now, the paladares have no longer been in the living rooms of a private house where the lady of the house cooked for four tourists, who in this way were given a peek into the daily life of a Cuban family.
There are 1,700 licensed paladares in Cuba, hundreds of them in Havana, restaurants that rival international standards in quality, in original décor and in service, and that from the beginning of the thaw with the United States two years ago have received visitors such as Barack Obama, Madonna and The Rolling Stones.
But in addition to competing with each other, they also compete with ordinary Cubans at the supermarkets, because one of the great problems of the industry is that it must be supplied at the same outlets as the rest of the population, given the lack of any wholesale market, the opening of which would be in the state’s hands alone.
“The competition for products creates unrest among the population, although it is not the direct fault of the self-employed,” says the same source.
In the state supermarkets – the only kind that exist in Cuba – EFE was able to observe how national brands of beer barely last an hour on the shelves, as the restaurants carry them out by the box full. The same thing happens with soft drinks and products like chicken breasts and milk.
Hence, she adds, the private restaurants have long demanded a wholesale market, which would also benefit the authorities “because it would allow better fiscal control over the purchase invoices.”
Another nuance of the situation, says one source, is the «special sensitivity» of the government to issues such as prostitution and drug trafficking, banned and severely punished on the Island, or access for minors to places where alcohol is served.
The current legislation provides licenses only for restaurants and cafes, so under these categories night bars have begun to proliferate, some of which have been closed down in recent weeks, although this has not been confirmed by any official source.