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Salon Tropical ‘Paladar’ in Santiago de Cuba Is Still Afloat

Salon Tropical ‘Paladar’ in Santiago de Cuba Is Still Afloat
April 17, 2014
By Norges C. Rodríguez Almiñan (Progreso Weekly)

SANTIAGO DE CUBA — In 1996, the Cuban government decided to allow some
economic activities theretofore exclusively handled by the State to be
developed by private workers or self-employed entrepreneurs.

Among the activities allowed, one of the most popular was the
preparation and commercialization of food. The places where this
activity was carried out became known as “paladares,” thanks to a
Brazilian soap opera broadcast on Cuban TV at the time.

During that period, the opening was very timid. The State restricted the
number of customers (only 12 at a time) and the hiring of the labor
force, stating that only relatives living on the premises could work in
the restaurant.

In the early 2000s, the government took several measures that adversely
affected the private workers and many of them gave up their work
licenses. In 2011, the regulations on private workers were relaxed and
self-employed entrepreneurs again became actors of importance in the
country’s economy.

One of the private restaurants that survived all these waves, one of the
oldest in Santiago de Cuba, is the Salón Tropical in the November 30
neighborhood, known to everyone as “the paladar in the 30th.” Its owner,
Nilda Gil, has managed the place from the start, as best as the rules of
the game allowed her.

Norges Carlos Rodríguez: When did you found the restaurant and why did
you choose that activity and no other, like lodging for instance?

Nilda Gil: In March 1996. I began with this because, although I never
studied food preparation, I always liked it. Lodging did not attract me.
At first, I worked and my sister took care of the kitchen. When I
returned from work, I’d remove my uniform and helped her in the kitchen.
We began with a small seating capacity. I used the first room in the
house and began with four tables and six chairs.

NCR: How did you handle the hiring of workers, the preparation of the
menu, and how did the customers behave?

NG: At that time we couldn’t hire workers, only members of the family
who had to live in the same house, and were members of the same CDR
[Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, a neighborhood watch
network]. The menu consisted of spaghetti, pork chops, smoked loin, and
lamb, which were the only things we could sell. Seafood could not be
sold; it was banned. I had to reinvent and lay out different menus for
three days with the same ingredients: pork, lamb, rabbit and chicken.
One day we’d make Italian food, the next day Chinese. At the time, many
customers came, both Cuban and foreign. There were a lot more customers
than today.

NCR: The Cuban government has acknowledged that the 1996 opening was
done as a palliative. It assumed that self-employed work was a necessary
evil. This made many people look at self-employed workers with
suspicion, and many prejudices were formed regarding you. What
experiences did you have with this?

NG: All kinds. I was inspected three times over the sale of lobster and
shrimp, which were forbidden. I was detained by the police. If anything
was missing at some state-run place, they’d come here, looking for it.
The inspectors came day in, day out. We could barely work.

NCR: When did the taxes go up and by how much?

NG: That was in 2000. At first, we all paid the same: 500 national pesos
[CUP]. Then someone did a study and said that some paladares should have
their taxes raised because of their location. Those that were in midtown
should pay in CUC [convertible pesos]; those that weren’t, would
continue to pay in domestic currency.

I had to pay in domestic currency but that problem was that I was
situated in a neighborhood with many boarding houses. So I asked the
ONAT [internal revenue office] to do a study and give me a license for
hard-currency trade, so I could serve foreign tourists, because I
couldn’t do business in hard currency if I didn’t pay taxes in hard
currency. At the end, I had to pay 700 CUC [about $700]; restaurants in
midtown had to pay 860 CUC.

When the taxes went up, many paladares in Santiago de Cuba disappeared.
From the existing 120 paladares, only eight remained, then only two,
Las Gallegas and the Salón Tropical. The customers either came here or
went there.

NCR: Why do you think the taxes went up?

NG: Well, remember that this was a necessary evil and people knew that
self-employed workers worked here.

NR: In 2011, new activities were approved. In the case of restaurants,
the state allowed an increase in the number of chairs and allowed you to
hire workers from outside the family. What benefit did those changes bring?

NG: Those measures were very favorable because in the past only the
relatives could work in the business, and that entailed problems with
discipline. Now we have the possibility to hire specialized personnel
who know the trade.

Now we notice a slight change. In the past, we self-employed workers
were almost accused of being counter-revolutionaries; now, we’re
described as the rescuers of the nation. I don’t know what we’ll be
tomorrow, but I do notice a tendency to help us. We’ll see.

NR: In comparison with 1996, how’s the attendance and the access to
supplies and foodstuff?

NG: The clientele has shrunk a lot. In the past, we started work at noon
and worked till night. Today, we have very few customers at noon, and
only at night can we do something. The subject of supplies and
foodstuffs is tough on us. It was as difficult in ’96 as it is today. We
don’t have a market that can supply us, so we have to buy the food at
the hard-currency stores — that’s expensive.

NR: One of the changes forecast for the country is the opening of
wholesale markets. What do you think?

NG: I won’t believe it until I see it. I’ve been waiting 17 years for that.

NR: One of the options in this new opening is a link between private
businesses and state-run enterprises. What do you think of that?

NG: Well, I’ve already gone through that and didn’t fare well at all. I
had a contract with Oriente University that was not favorable to me. I
always abided by the contract but they didn’t, so there were past-due
bills that they never paid.

NR: Many private businesses in Cuba are taking seriously the role of
advertising and marketing, especially on the Internet. What do you think
of this? Is it important to you? Have you delved into it?

NG: That’s extremely important and, yes, I have delved into it. I’ve
appeared in the magazine Excelencias Gourmet, in the issue published for
the Caribbean Festival, and that helped a lot because many tourists and
participants in the festival came to dine here.

The Gourmet television network, which broadcasts to Latin America and
the United States, did a documentary on us, too. They filmed an ordinary
day in the paladar: how we go to the store, how we shop in the market,
our day’s work until the closing at night. It was a very pleasant
experience.

As a result, I received customers from Uruguay and Argentina. We also
have a presence on the Internet. The restaurant’s Web page is updated
regularly. We have a profile in Tripadvisor, a page in Facebook and one
in Twitter.

NR: What personalities have you hosted?

NG: Actor Jim Carrey came here, also many Cuban actors and many
diplomats. We’ve had SINA officials [U.S. Interests Section], and the
French ambassador. The musicians in the Charanga Habanera came and I had
to roast a ham for them. We also had [Cuban actress] Luisa María Jiménez
and others who I don’t remember.

NR: Today, American tourists cannot come to Cuba because of the
restrictions imposed by Washington. What benefits do you expect for your
business if the laws that prohibit the travel of U.S. tourists to Cuba
are lifted?

NG: It would be very beneficial, because I know that many would come.
This city would fill with them, and that’s beneficial not only for
self-employed entrepreneurs but also for the country at large.

The author is an engineer living in Santiago de Cuba. He hosts the blog
‘Salir a la manigua,’ where this interview first appeared. Progreso
Weekly has published an abridged version.

Source: Salon Tropical ‘Paladar’ in Santiago de Cuba Is Still Afloat –
Havana Times.org – http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=103069

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