By Eileen Sosin Martinez (Progreso Semanal)
HAVANA TIMES — Niuris Higueras, the owner of Atelier restaurant, was notified a week beforehand. She had to go to a People’s Power meeting in the Revolution Square municipality on September 28th at 3 PM. “The time of day when they killed Lola,” she said to herself, and suddenly she felt a bad omen.
When she got there, there were state officials from the National Tax Administration Office of Cuba (ONAT), the Police, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) and inspectors from the Supervision Integral Direction (DIS)… On the other side, sat the owners of the neighborhood’s most famous restaurants, and hers was one of them. When she saw this, she thought that it would be like lions fighting a monkey.
But it wasn’t. “I was shocked, because the first thing they told us was that we made up a significant percentage of the economy and jobs; that we were important to them,” she recalls.
In mid-October, the government in Havana announced that it had stopped giving out new licenses to open privately-owned restaurants, as the ones that currently exist were being inspected at that time. She found out later that, according to Isabel Hamze Ruiz, the vice-president acting as the provincial executive, that foreign media were creating a “negative consensus of opinions”, pointing out “that a war would unfold against private enterprise.” She said that if the official media had reported on the situation in a timely manner perhaps this confusion would have never happened.
Reasons for inspections: a series of 14 “small problems” which included drugs, prostitution, money-laundering, hiring artists without a government agency as the intermediary, urban use violations, illegal means of getting merchandise, tax evasion, closing after hours, poorly located parking, fraudulent purchases of furniture, noise, operating as a club, workers without contracts…
In spite of the initial warning, Niuris claims that she didn’t feel the hostility they normally felt at previous meetings. “I lived during the time when we were only allowed 12 seats, I know what inspections were like before, and today it’s different. If they wanted to do it, they would have just turned up without giving us notice.”
First there was the meeting, and then there was the inspection, which in her case went on from 9:30 PM until past 3 AM the next morning. And they looked at absolutely everything.
Even though there is only one group of restaurants that are being investigated with audits, the majority of owners are restless. “As there isn’t any specific information, people are making up all kinds of things,” points out Niuska Miniet, the owner of Decameron restaurant. While she hasn’t been inspected as of yet, she warns us that the general atmosphere oozes worry and anticipation, “because we’re not 100% sure about what’s going to happen.”
Hamze Ruiz stated that the measure to not approve any more private restaurants is temporary* while inspections take place; although she didn’t say when these inspections would end. “The government wants them to be successful, but within the legal framework they’ve established,” she highlighted.
The key maybe lies in the fact that however rigorous the process is, how will they measure these problems? “If there is prostitution, drugs or money-laundering then of course this is completely punishable. If they’re going to penalize what’s wrong, then go ahead. But if it’s about you not having the receipt for a bottle of rum – and there’s nowhere to buy it either – it isn’t appropriate or ethical that they tell us that we can’t have it… Because then what do I do, if on top of all of this, I’m paying a great amount of tax,” questions Niuska.
An economist has referred to the State’s food service industry as a black hole, because of the amount of resources that “are lost” in this sector. He then underlines the differences when demanding information from private owners.
It’s assumed that private restaurants are strictly that, only restaurants, therefore they can be prosecuted for operating as bars or nightclubs. Far from banning them from changing their legal status, the solution seems simple: give bar licenses.
According to the vice-president of the Havana government, up until now, they’ve only revoked the license of one establishment, which journalist Fernando Ravsberg later identified as the Shangri La in Playa. Drug consumption, prostitution and pimping were the alleged causes. They closed down the Shangri La but they didn’t close down the state-run Casa de la Musica or the Salon Rosado at the Capri hotel. What’s the difference, asked Ravsberg?
The owner of Atelier told me that, during the meeting, officials stated that these irregularities also arise in state-run establishments. “When they spoke about drugs and prostitution, they said that a lot of the time this had nothing to do with the place, or the owner, or even the employees, but with the crime that was taking place there. And they asked us to please help them so that this wouldn’t happen.”
The way the opening of the private sector was conceived has influenced the situations that are now being attacked. For example, the absence of a wholesale market, which entails serious supply problems and which also leads to a boom in the black market. Hamze Ruiz claimed that this doesn’t justify people buying products through contraband networks or receiving stolen goods.
Days later, it was announced that the self-employed who make food products, are hairdressers or give massages, and don’t have the corresponding diplomas, will have to take an aptitude test at the Ministry of Education’s centers in every municipality. Those who fail will have to study a course which will provide them with the necessary skills.
According to Mirurgia Ramirez Santana, the general Services director at the Ministry of Domestic Trade, over 1800 workers have already taken this exam. On the contrary, an official at the municipal education center in Plaza, where a large number of Havana’s businesses are located, stated that nobody has come to take the test there. Furthermore, he explained that they can’t take on testing people in tasks that their education system doesn’t cover, such as massage and hairdressing.
Ultimately, many of the contradictions that have now come to light stem from the private sector’s own development. The question now is how far the government is willing to let this sector grow.
Niuris, for example, needs more than 50 seats in her restaurant: “because one day I can have 50 people, but another day I can have noone, or I might have a group of 70 people, who don’t want to come if they aren’t all together. That is to say, I need them to get rid of these restrictions. There has to come a time when they give us an import license, when they give us legal status.”
“We can’t say we’re worse off than we were before, things have got better,” summarized Niuska. The thing is though that once you reach a certain level, you always want more, because that’s human nature. This is what we call evolution; dialectics even say so.”
(*) The decision that you can ask for licenses in the gastronomic sector again was announced on November 7th, during the broadcast of the TV show Buenos dias which was shown on Cuban TV.