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Cuba struggles with the runaway success of private restaurants in Havana ... puts freeze on new licences

Published:Tuesday | October 25, 2016 | 10:00 AM
Tomas Erasmo Hernandez, centre, owner of the private restaurant Mama Ines, chats with his customers in Old Havana, Cuba.


Cuba is freezing new licences for private restaurants in Havana as it struggles with the runaway success of one of the most important openings in the state-run economy.

The country was once famed for its dire state restaurants and cafeterias, but it has developed a vibrant dining scene since private restaurants were legalised two decades ago. A sector that began with enterprising Cubans setting up a handful of tables in their backyards has expanded into an industry of hundreds of restaurants, with offerings ranging from freshly caught sushi to sophisticated interpretations of classic Cuban dishes.

However, the private restaurateurs lack a wholesale market or legal way to import supplies and equipment. So they have been emptying the shelves of retail shops and buying other goods on the black market. That has led to rising food prices and shortages of goods for other Cubans.

Acting Vice President Isabel Hamze told state media on Wednesday that Havana's provincial government is temporarily freezing the approval of new licences and is inspecting restaurants to detect violations ranging from prostitution, drug use, and excessive noise to illegal importation and purchase of stolen goods.

She said one business had been closed because it was operating a bar and nightclub in violation of a licence exclusively meant for restaurants.

not a crackdown

Hamze's statements appeared intended to reassure restaurant owners and Havana residents that the measures were not a crackdown on private restaurants, but rather an attempt to impose common-sense regulations on issues ranging from closing times to parking spaces.

"We recognise the importance that these businesses have for the city, and the Government wants them to be successful, but within legal limits," she said.

The city is also starting to impose more limits on private bed-and-breakfasts, another flourishing sector of the new private economy. Draft regulations being circulated among bed-and-breakfast owners and real-estate agents would limit the number of bathrooms and kitchens built in private homes and the division of high-ceilinged old homes into de facto apartment buildings with the use of concrete intermediate floors.

A boom in tourism set off by the declaration of detente with the US has fuelled furious growth in both private restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts.