A few weeks ago I walked into an Infotur restaurant in the Cojimar community ready to spend some time with friends downing a few beers. I can’t tell you how disappointed we were when an ill-mannered clerk told us that he couldn’t sell us any beer because the refrigerator was broke.
Only a few yards away we found a paladar [a small, family-owned restaurant] that had apparently just opened recently. A beer there cost 1.50 CUC, which is .50 CUC more than the price of the same beer at a state-run bar or restaurant.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, the refrigerator in the paladar worked fine (“fortunately” because at least we were able to get something to refresh us in the sweltering heat, and “unfortunately” because it came out to be 50 percent more expensive).
I had to ask myself: How is it that a family-owned business that’s starting up can do a better job than an operation owned by a government that practically monopolizes all the business on the island?
Let’s remember we’re talking about Cuba: a country where capital typically doesn’t circulate through private hands and where the “petty-bourgeoisie” was uprooted (at least apparently) more than fifty years ago.
Although this issue of a few nickels and dimes might seem trivial, one has to remember that coming up with 1.00 CUC (about $1.10 USD) in Cuba is equivalent to two days of wages.
There are small communities in Havana where it’s impossible to conceal things. Cojimar is one of them. A few days later the questions that were bouncing around in my head were cleared up thanks to a friend who knows one of the clerks at the paladar.
It seems there’s a pact between the Infotur manager and the owners of the paladar. The manager makes sure that his clerks tell people the refrigerator is busted while he sells the beer to the family-owned business; they can then sell it for more and pay a kickback to the crooked manager.
The upshot? The sales level of the government-run business stays high and the owners of the paladar — with no competition from the Infotur restaurant — are able to inflate their prices and their profits. The Infotur manager and clerks simply pocket their cut.
So, who comes out losing in this apparently enriching deal? The customers, which is to say the people, who like always are the ones who work and pay.
What’s sad is that this is hardly an isolated case in how businesses operate here on the island; I can say this from direct experience after having worked for a tourism company for two years.