HAVANA TIMES — Months ago, I discovered Lo dulce de Italia en Cuba (“Italian Sweetness in Cuba”), an ice-cream parlor located on 23 street, wedged between 6th and 8thstreets, in Havana’s neighborhood of Vedado. The look of the different ice-cream flavors caught my eye, but the prices pushed me right out of the store.
However, I promised myself a future indulgence (pleasure is something we Cubans often postpone before more immediate needs, such as buying cooking oil, detergent and soap). A foreign friend ended up treating me to the ice-cream.
Her reaction to the coconut-flavored ice-cream was a look of ecstasy. The two scoops of chocolate-nut and Nutella I tried were beyond description. It wasn’t just the balance between chocolate and nut, but also the creamy texture, the fact one could savor the ice-cream without biting into a chunk of ice, as often happens in Coppelia, Havana’s largest State-run parlor.
From our table, we could see a tall, middle-aged man with an aquiline nose. We guessed he was the owner. We assumed he hadn’t noticed us. After our third visit, he gave us two pastries on the house.
We learned his name – Gaetano Cantania – days later, when he sat down at our table and brought us a lemon cupcake, a nut-flavored ice-cream for my friend and a strawberry one (a tad more sour than what we are used to in Cuba) for me. For us, the perfect combination is one scoop of caramel and one scoop of mocha ice-cream. Gaetano told us the latter is his favorite. According to him, Cubans prefer the guanabana, mango and mamey flavors. The yogurt-flavored ice-cream, also one of his favorites, wasn’t well received by our compatriots.
So what drew this Italian wine, liquor and beverage wholesaler to settle in Cuba and set up a business there?
Gaetano: I fell in love with Cuba when I first visited the country in 1987. I love the ocean drive and the old town. I didn’t come before because I had a family and responsibilities back home. Now my children are grown-up and I can follow my interests in life.
HT: Why an ice-cream parlor, when there are plenty of these in Cuba already?
Gaetano: There’s ice-cream, but none like mine, which is high quality, classic Italian ice-cream.
HT: What makes it different from Coppelia ice-cream, for example? I don’t mean the one sold in Cuban pesos, which isn’t real Coppelia ice-cream. I mean the one sold in hard currency.
Gaetano: I got to know well the good Coppellia ice-cream that was being made in the nineties. They don’t make it anymore. Mine is made with the quality raw materials ice-cream requires. I use real fruit to make the fruit flavors and real Nutella to make the Nutella flavor (Nutella is very expensive here, so I can’t sell that flavor cheap). My competition is Palenque, they make good quality ice-cream there. But my fruit flavors are better because I use natural fruits: I use real strawberries and guanabanas for those flavors. They use syrup or canned pulps.
HT: How have Cubans responded?
Gaetano: I have customers who came once, loved it and are now regulars. Not everyone can come and enjoy my ice-cream because it’s sold in hard currency.
HT: Do you import the raw materials or do you buy them locally?
Gaetano: The basic ingredients, including the nucciola and pistachio nuts, come from Italy. I get my fruits and cocoa here. I prefer buying whatever’s available in Cuba here.
HT: Is the business profitable?
Gaetano: Not so much now, but you have to be patient in Cuba.
HT: Was obtaining a residency in Cuba easy?
Gaetano: I am not a permanent resident. I am a temporary resident. Under the current legislation, I can’t get permanent residence because I am not married and have no children in Cuba. However, I am convinced that Article 114 of the Immigration Law that came into effect in January of 2013 entitles me to permanent residence. I put up a fight to get it, but it got me nowhere in the end.
HT: Do you believe this is a good time to settle in Cuba and open up a business?
Gaetano: To live in Cuba, you have to really want it. It is a lovely country, but it is complicated. There’s far too much bureaucracy, they place a million obstacles in your way. If you’re not patient, forget about it. If they don’t change that mentality, there’ll be less foreigners willing to come and invest here.
HT: There’s a new foreign investment law aimed at encouraging foreign investment in the country.
Gaetano: It’s an important step, but it isn’t enough. The mentality has to change, the restrictions and the bureaucracy has to be eliminated.
HT: What would be your advice for someone who wants to obtain Cuban residency and open up a business?
Gaetano: I have no advice. I can only say that if you’re not committed and patient, you won’t get anywhere. Till now, foreigners have been seen as a cash register to take money out of and nothing more.
HT: You came in 1987 for the first time and continued to do so afterwards. You were witness to the country’s changes. What’s your opinion about them?
Gaetano: I got to know the positive side of things when the Russians were still around. There was a good standard of living in Cuba, people were relaxed and happy. It was different from what it is today. I witnessed the Special Period, the economic improvements after 1996, and the Cuba of today. A great thinker, Rafael Correa, the heir to Chavez and Fidel Castro, says we need an “up-to-date socialism, socialism looking towards the market.” Cuba cannot continue to close itself to the market. It must open up, not only in terms of law, but in terms of mentality as well.
HT: I get the feeling you’re from the Left…
Gaetano: The extreme Left. I am a great admirer of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.
HT: So you agree with the single-party system, the lack of freedom of the press…
Gaetano: I was born in the West, in a capitalist country. I was born free, I voted for the first time when I was 18 and I want to be the owner of my destiny. But you have to be careful here. I don’t like the United States and they can buy the country with their money. How long should the one-party system be maintained? I don’t know, but I prefer that to the United States becoming the owners of the country.
HT: Do you think those are the only two alternatives?
Gaetano: The alternative is socialism open to the market. Cuba isn’t ready to have elections offering another alternative, because the alternative now is the United States and its money.
HT: You said Cubans were doing well when “the Russians were still around.” But, back then, one couldn’t open up private businesses. If you had come then, when you fell in love with Cuba, you might not have been able to open up your ice-cream parlor.
Gaetano: It’s true, but, over time, the revolution has authorized the issuing of licenses for private business, and the Foreign Investment Law has now been passed. Cubans are different from Russians. There, after the fall of socialism, 10 percent are millionaires and 90 percent are poor. Here, you have to get to free elections and all of that gradually, without any interference by the Americans. If there are elections now, they’ll throw a truckload of money at it and buy the votes. I would rather have Raul Castro than Obama.
HT: The Cuban president would be Cuban, not American…
Gaetano: They would do what they did in Afghanistan, place someone who serves the United States and not their country.
Gaetano does not conceal his hostility towards the United States. He tells me that, in his beloved Sicily, when they had almost won the war against the mafia, the United States breathed new life into it with it its money. He is aware many freedoms are missing in Cuba, but he is confident they will arrive.
It’s been a month since my last visit to the store, and I’ve returned, not to have ice-cream, but to conduct this interview. I wanted to ask this man from the extreme Left, an admirer of Rafael Correa, what he thinks of the Ecuadorian president’s condemnation of abortion. But I see him go back to his obligations in the store and I don’t want to disturb him.
Before I leave, I succumb to the temptation of ordering two flavors I hadn’t yet tried: Guinduia (chocolate with dry fruits) and Nucciola (a nut similar to almonds).
I still have to try the lemon and guanabana flavors. Ice-cream is not the only dessert from Italy Gaetano brings us: there are also pastries, croissants, sweet-bread and cakes of different flavors and with different designs. He also sells pizzas, which are less sweet but no less delicious. The ice-cream, however, is the house specialty.