A Family Bar

Daisy Valera 

Cuban state-run cafeteria. Photo: Caridad

The bar at the pizzeria at 23rd and 12th street and the tables of the G St. café, with its unbeatable “alcoholic” drinks without alcohol, were the nearest things to my concept of true bars.

Still, to me these places seem surprisingly distant from those bars that were so plentiful in those Havana nights prior to 1959, the ones referred to in books (novels like Tres Tristes Tigres, by a non-friend of the revolution, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, but who’s now published here).

The jukeboxes began to disappear with the eradication of neighborhood bars.  Boleros, trova and son — along with undiluted shots of rum — would later begin to be marketed only to tourists.

The old bars, signs of a tradition inherited from Spain, now lie in ruins or were decorously transformed into stores for the selling of subsidized products.

But today, as we witness the slow death of the ration book, is wouldn’t be strange to expect the rebirth of bars.

I discovered an embryo of this a few nights ago.  Don’t ask me to say the name of the establishment or its location.  I won’t commit the sin of being inconsiderate or an informer.

Establishments that sell alcoholic drinks are illegal when they’re not property of the government. The private ones have to request special permits for the sale of these products in restaurants or cafeterias, there are no private cantinas or taverns.

I went to the place I mentioned which has a long dark passageway.  I didn’t plan to pay high prices charged by state-owned facility to hang out, tabs that are only paid by little rich kids or foreigners, people whose wallets are much deeper than most students and young workers here.

I got in line to go in, where seemingly nothing happens; in fact, the door looked like one to any home on any dark street.

But when I walked to the end of the house, everything began to take on meaning.  The place was full of people who were laughing, listening to music and playing dominos.

Also overflowing was the bar, where they sold a finger of rum for 10 pesos, a mojito for 20,  sangria at 25, and a can of beer for 1 CUC (a little over one dollar USD).

Though everybody was drinking, there wasn’t a face in the house that showed any sign of aggressiveness.  Many people were talking among themselves while sitting on benches located among plants, candles and figures of Buddha.  Those who were the most entertained were dancing while chanting along to songs by Queen, The Police, Led Zeppelin and others.

My friends and I enjoyed a pleasant family business where the grandfather poured the beer, the granddaughters prepared and served the shots, and the father (a hippie from the ‘70s, now with a gray beard) was the one who took care of the music.

Bars were eliminated in 1959 as a means of counteracting the evils of alcoholism and prostitution.

Now we have a strange country where state-owned cafeterias have more alcohol than food and tap beer steals the money and souls of more than a few alcoholics, though we’re trying to eliminate alcoholism.

It’s a country where girls will strip naked in discos for a case of beer (like in the Guanimar Cabaret incident) and shake their butts to entice tourists or Cuban ricachones, yet it’s a nation where we prefer not to speak of prostitution.

I’ll stay with the family bar, where you can read interesting phrases on the walls but where you don’t see an unhappy face on any of the workers.


Daisy Valera

Daisy Valera:Soil scientist and blogger. I write from Mexico City, where Havana sometimes becomes so small that it disappears. However in others, the Cuban capital is a city so past and present that it steals your breath.

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One thought on “A Family Bar

  • A delightful article, Daisy. This neighborhood bar seems to be like a US “Speak-Easy” during alcohol Prohibition, 1920 to 1933.

    Alcohol Prohibition in the US demonstrated the wrong way to try and deal with a negative social phenomenon. The well-intentioned moralists here believed that outlawing alcohol would solve the problem of alcoholism. It did not. It taught the people to disrespect the law. It gave underground criminal organizations a vast revenue stream and allowed them to grow to phenomenal size.

    The same thing as happened with alcohol prohibition has happened with narcotics prohibition. US drug laws are destroying our country, and many others.

    Socially negative things like alcoholism and prostitution should be dealt with intelligently and humanely. If done in a ham-handed, moralistic, legalistic way, more social harm is done in the long run that could ever be done by alcoholism and prostitution.

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