14ymedio, Natalia Lopez Moya / Manuel Garcia, Havana / Holguín, 12 October 2023 — For decades, chewing gum, corn chips and hamburgers were very much frowned upon by the Cuban government as symbols of American culture. Enjoying these products in public could lead to anything from a reprimand to more severe penalties. Though attitudes have changed a lot since then, some of that resentment remains among the most diehard officials.
A new, privately owned establishment called San Pepper’s Burger* was about to open it doors in the city of Holguín when it got some angry reactions on a government-run news site. An op-ed in Cubadebate criticized the restaurant — basically a hamburger joint — for promoting “a culture which is not our own.” The article’s author goes further, asking, “What happened to fighting the culture war?”
Located on Luz Cabellero Street, between Maceo and Libertad, and next to the José María Ochoa Correa Conservatory of Music, the building has been undergoing repairs for roughly seven years. The renovation process involved some internal structural changes but parts of the original facade, including some colonial-style entrance doors, were preserved to be enjoyed by passersby or people sitting on a bench in the nearby Park of Flowers.
“Word is that its prices will also be high, that the owners will have to recoup their entire investment and that the sign must have cost an arm and a leg”
That corner was very depressed so I’m glad this is going to, at least, revive it somewhat,” says Heidy Laura, a 28-year-old Holguín resident who lives a few yards from the new business. “But word is also that its prices will be high, that [the owners] will have to recoup their entire investment and that the sign must have cost an arm and a leg.”
“The wings coming out of the hamburger say it all, that the prices will be sky-high,” she jokes. Of course, unlike the author of the critical article, “Market and Culture with an English Accent”, Heidy Laura welcomes the fact that the city of Holguín will have this type of place. “But I’ll have to save all year to eat the cheapest combo on the menu,” she adds.
Cándida, a 61-year-old engineer who is also the young woman’s mother, believes, “This won’t last long because there are a lot of extremists in Holguín.” She believes that, given the critical article in the official press, it is very likely that the owners will change the name or delay the opening. “The thing is that people here carry a lot of ideological baggage and it’s very difficult to let go of that.”
Cándida remembers that the first hamburger she ate in public was in the late 1980s. “It was when Fidel Castro decided to open some cafes to sell the famous Super-Zas. On the face of it, it looked like a McDonald’s burger. Until then, saying that you wanted to sink your teeth into a hamburger with a bun, sesame seeds, mustard and cheese was like admitting you were a counter-revolutionary,” she says.
“So far, there’s been nothing in the local press about it I’ve but I have heard about some party members complaining about the English name because they say it sounds capitalist to them”
The new, privately owned establishment, which is next door to the state-run restaurant 1545 and the Benny Moré Room, “has raised the ire of people in the Communist Party,” says another Holguín resident who prefers to remain anonymous. “So far, there’s been nothing in the local press about it but I’ve heard about some party members complaining about the English name because they say it sounds capitalist to them.” The man notes that, until now, the building has always been used as a residence and that it probably will not open until next month because the furniture layout is still being worked out and the exterior in particular needs some more work.
“If you’ve already put a sign on the facade, it’s because you’re about to open. People walk by and take photos,” he says. “It’s quite large. It takes up half of one side of the block. It used to have a big inner courtyard but it looks like that part of the house has been roofed over and will have tables in it.”
The man shares his concerns about how high the prices might be given what he has seem with other privately owned businesses. “There are differing opinions in Holguín. Many people can’t afford those places but others are glad to have the option,” he says.
The rhetoric surrounding San Pepper’s Burger extends even to preservation of Holguín’s architectural heritage and the impact the recent changes have had on the urban fabric. The house, one of the oldest in the city still standing, was originally the residence of Fr. Antonio Santiesteban, and later of master builder José María del Salto y Carretero, according to experts consulted for this article.
“I don’t like how they’ve remodeled it. They’ve changed the original shape of the roof and now there’s almost nothing left of the colonial style,” complains Juan Ramón, another local resident who believes the city is losing too many historic buildings this way. “They’ve added too many modern elements that are not a good fit for this area.”
Young people, on the other hand, are optimistic that the it will become a popular gathering spot. The nearby Conservatory of Music, its central location and the dearth of public spaces suggest that the new business could become a place in high demand. Ultimately, price will be the determining factor but so will the quality of the ingredients.
“I don’t like how they’ve remodeled it. They’ve changed the original shape of the roof and now there’s almost nothing left of the colonial style,” complains Juan Ramón
“Will the hamburgers be made of beef or pork?” asks Javier, a rancher from Holguín’s Calixto García district. The cattleman describes the problems that the sector is having and the challenges of insuring a stable supply for a restaurant like this. “Will they be importing the product from abroad? Unless they do that, I see them having big problems.”
The theft of livestock, the lack of pasture land and the shortage of supplies and equipment — for example, wire for building fences and hydraulic pumps to provide water to the animals — have led to a significantly smaller livestock population. “Conditions here don’t allow anyone to sell high-quality meat on a consistent basis,” Javier says.
In July, the officials from the Ministry of the Interior arrested three people in the Martillo neighborhood, which is also in Calixto García, as they were transporting 200 pounds of beef on two motorcycles. According to official sources, they had allegedly obtained the meat through theft and the illegal slaughter of cattle.
For her part, the Cubadebate columnist warns that the problem is not the hamburgers — “they are not the enemy,” she writes — and does not want some “extremist commentator” misinterpreting her criticisms.
*Translator’s note: This article was written earlier than, but translated after, the linked article which speaks to the fate of the enterprise.
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