The Power and Paladares*, an Ambiguous Relationship / 14ymedio, Miriam
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
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.
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
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 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
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
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
"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
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
Translated by Norma Whiting
Source: The Power and Paladares*, an Ambiguous Relationship / 14ymedio,
Miriam Celaya – Translating Cuba -