Reports from Cuba: Private restaurants closed, owners in jail

Ignacio de la Paz in Translating Cuba:

Private Restaurants Closed, Owners in Jail

Me Son paladar in La Ceiba.
Me Son paladar in La Ceiba.

14ymedio, Ignacio de la Paz, Camaguey, 11 November 2016 — Closed and silent. Thus are several of the most successful private restaurants – known as paladares – in Las Tunas and Camaguey these days. Their proprietors are accused of several economic crimes and are in jail awaiting prosecution, despite requests from their lawyers to release them on bail.

Last month, after a thorough search of the Me Son paladar, ten miles from the Las Tunas capital, the authorities took Valentin, its owner, to El Tipico prison. It didn’t help Valentin that he has in his own house the presidency of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, according to the residents of the town of La Ceiba, in the municipality of Majobacoa.

“The police took everything, they only left what they couldn’t take, we don’t know if we’ll go back to work,” lamented an employee of the paladar. “Customers come from Holguin and even farther. We also function as a site for parties.”

Juan Carlos, a young farmer in the area who supplied the paladar with “food and vegetables every week,” confirmed that “the place had become very famous” and that “it was a question of time before the police came down on it.”

According to the source from the provincial prosecutor’s office, Valentin is accused of “having committed serious illegalities, like having products without proper receipts*, workers without contracts, and arrears in tax payments to the National Office of Tax Administration (ONAT).”

In recent months the authorities have warned that licenses for private restaurants don’t include authorization for cultural activities, hiring artists, or bars. In Havana, several paladares have been closed for violating these rules.

Valentin’s legal problems are accompanied by the arrest, last summer, of Roberto, the owner of La Moncloa, the most successful paladar in Las Tunas. The arrests and severity of legal actions against the accused set off alarms in the private sector. “Everyone is keeping their heads down,” said a relative of the owner.

In neighboring Camaguey, at least three owners of paladares have also been arrested and prosecuted in recent months.

 Mi Hacienda paladar. (Ignacio de la Paz / 14ymedio)
Mi Hacienda paladar.

About 500 people work in the 74 legally registered private restaurants in the province. In the face of the fears running through the self-employment sector, an official of the Council of Provincial Administration, Jesus Polo Vazquez, clarified that the searches and arrests are simply actions to “maintain legality in the exercise of non-state management,” and that “in compliance with the law, no installation will be closed without justification.”

Polo Vazquez described those arrested as “the unscrupulous who are enriching themselves,” with tax evasion. “Cuba has a right to defend its taxes, because that it what pays for education, health, culture and other social services.”

The family of Alberto Raiko disagrees with the official and insinuates that the month’s detention of the owner of the Mi Hacienda paladar in the Alturas del Casino neighborhood, is “an extreme measure to frighten successful self-employed entrepreneurs.”

Employees of Rafael Papito Rizo’s La Herradura, one of the most famous paladares in Camagüey, share that perception. The name of the small businessman went on to become synonymous with quality and fine dining thanks to a history of more than two decades. Today, the restaurant located in the Villa Mariana neighborhood is closed.

The most famous case, however, has been the centrally located restaurant 1800 Plaza de San Juan de Dios, winner for two consecutive years of TripAdvisor’s excellence award. The place was closed a few weeks ago after a search of several hours. The police “loaded up even the air conditioner,” says a relative of the owner, Edel Fernandez Izquierdo.

“They seized 150 boxes of beer and 200 bottles of wine Edel had bought over the counter without being given a receipt at the Tourism Fair in Havana,” says the relative. “They also took bottles of liquor that were gifts from Edel’s customers and friends.”

Fernandez Izquierdo is accused of having containers of liquefied gas without a receipt* for their purchase and valuable works of art that were not listed in the Heritage Register. In his neighborhood many suggest that the trigger was the Peugeot the successful businessman managed to buy and other property he owns in Camagüey. “That’s when everything exploded,” says a neighbor, Ramon Buenaventura.

The owner of 1800 is in the Ceramica jail and his father, retired from the Interior Ministry with the rank of colonel, still hasn’t gotten over his surprise at what happened. “The uniform hasn’t done him much good, because it’s not about something his son did, but about setting an example so others don’t cross the line,” said Buenaventura.

*Translator’s note: Private businesses are required to present receipts to prove that they bought their supplies in state stores, not in the underground market.