June 29, 2012 4:48 PM
Cuba both fuels, fights new private restaurants
By Portia Siegelbaum
(CBS News) HAVANA – As Cuba attempts to retool its economy,
contradictions pop up, some of them seemingly inexplicable.
Last year, the state eliminated 140,000 jobs. This year, it is slated to
eliminate another 170,000. The newly opened private sector is supposed
to provide opportunities for laid-off workers, and one of the most
popular areas for the "self-employed" is the food service industry.
Private eateries range from homemade pastries and pizzas sold out of a
"businessman's" front door to upscale designer restaurants catering to
tourists and diplomats.
Many of the better restaurants, known in Spanish as "paladares," have
been opened by chefs and others who have gotten their experience in
state-owned establishments but who are finding it much more profitable
to strike out on their own under economic reforms set into place by
President Raul Castro.
It's also profitable for the government, which collects taxes from these
and other private businesses.
However, there seems to be an unofficial but powerful resistance to
these businesses, which are seen as creating stiff competition for the
restaurants owned and operated by the state that previously held a
monopoly on visitors to Cuba.
Americans coming on group tours to the island naturally want to try some
of the new private restaurants. To their surprise, tour bus drivers
refuse to take them to any paladar, and the Havanatur agency guide
accompanying them everywhere else is not allowed to eat with them at
Alejandro Robaina, owner of the paladar La Casa, said this policy is
really hurting his business.
Open since the 1990s, La Casa is popular with American travelers and has
long been visited by groups of Jewish delegations visiting Cuba. A
majority of these Americans are senior citizens, and many of them find
it difficult to walk the five or so blocks from where the Transtur bus
company will sometimes decide to drop them off. Often the bus driver
will not even do that.
A Havanatur guide who asked not to be identified said the Ministry of
Tourism has not put anything in writing but all guides have been told
private restaurants are off limits.
The guides normally share meals with their clients at state-owned
places. The guide said the tour bus drivers have told him they were
shown a memorandum from their employers ordering them not to take
visitors to paladares.
So, on one hand, the government is issuing licenses to open private
enterprises so owners hire staff, some of whom have lost their state
jobs. On the other hand, elements in the state bureaucracy are
interfering with the progress of this non-state sector.