Once almost suffocated by regulation and ideological taboos, Cuba's
small private restaurants are now mushrooming in a more market-friendly
atmosphere spurred by President Raul Castro's economic reforms.
New restaurants, cafeterias and fast-food stands are opening in porches,
terraces and living rooms across the island as Cubans, looking to make
more money, begin changing the communist-led nation's urban landscape.
The government has said 35,000 licenses for self employment were
approved in the first month since the reforms kicked in, with about 20
percent of those for food-related businesses.
Most will be small enterprises aimed at a Cuban clientele, but the
number of more expensive "paladares" that cater to foreigners with hard
currency is expected to rise, too.
Small restaurants were first allowed during a short-lived experiment in
the 1990s but excessive regulation and ideological stigma — they were
seen as too capitalist — squeezed most of them out of business.
Only about 100 out of an estimated 1,500 survived.
That could change now that the government has taken steps to encourage
private business, recognizing its importance in the new economic scheme.
Castro expects the private sector to absorb many of the workers who will
be laid off as the state, looking to reduce its costs, moves ahead with
plans to slash 500,000 jobs in the next few months.
After cooking in state-run restaurants for decades, chef Justo Perez
opened his own place last week at an elegant house that stands out in
otherwise dilapidated central Havana.
"There were a lot of people waiting for this opportunity. This is only
the beginning. I am sure we are going to see a lot of interesting
proposals," said Perez, 68.
The walls of his restaurant, La Comercial Cubana, are covered in
black-and-white pictures of Nat King Cole, Carmen Miranda and Celia
Cruz, evoking the glamour of Havana in the 1940s and 1950s. Patrons can
dine on dishes such as roasted pork criollo style for US$7.56 and creole
shrimp, which costs US$19.44 or roughly an average Cuban's monthly salary.
Perez said he had long considered opening a restaurant, but finally
jumped in when the government issued new regulations that made the
prospects for success more likely.
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