Bars in full effervescence, black lights and music set the stage for a night life that awakens when the city goes to sleep. Reportedly, they are prohibited, but private bars in Havana speak the language of supply and demand and give the city a different texture.
Full almost every night, these places operate under the license issued to “paladares,” private dining rooms: they sell food, drinks, cigars and cigarettes. Occupancy is limited to 50 tables and they have a license from the health department.
According to the description of the activities of the “Maker/vendor of food and beverages performing gastronomic services in restaurants (paladares)” contained in a resolution signed in 2013 by the minister of Labor and Social Security, Margarita M. González, there are no contradictions.
But beyond the set rules, many of these places call themselves “bar-restaurant” in advertisements and signs for which they also have a license. They do not hide. Once inside, the femme fatale, the friends on the sofa or the couple sitting in a corner know that they are not in an ordinary restaurant. What they’ve been looking for is the bar, the night club, the musical shows (approved but not yet implemented), a space for socializing.
The document that regulates self-employed activities and their extent says nothing more about this. It does not say, in so many words, if the bars are allowed or forbidden. For example, it doesn’t say that it’s not right for the customers — young people, in general — “to consume alcoholic beverages and dance till dawn.” But that’s the opinion of a functionary appearing at a recent Round Table TV show, not the legal expression.
In January 2014, the Council of State approved Decree/Law 315, which lists the infractions for which a self-employed entrepreneur (a “cuentapropista”) can be fined or even lose his license. The first violation would be “to engage in an activity that is not authorized by legislation.” That’s all that could be associated with the current operation of bars and, in any case, it could be misinterpreted, so it’s neither sufficient nor clarifying.
Very cautiously, I begin to interview one of the owners of a bar, without using a tape recorder. It is clear that he doesn’t want to climb out on a limb.
“Here, laws can be interpreted very broadly, that’s the problem. Nobody knows what may be done and what may not. A license to sell alcoholic beverages is extremely expensive everywhere, I know that all too well. Set a price for it and allow it. As long as the standards of respect and harmony are observed, there won’t be any problems.”
As he changes the decorations in his bar, the man recalls that the policy governing self-employment has not been stable in Cuba for half a century and that the vision of private business continues to be permeated by ideological prejudices associated with capitalism.
The new private bars in Havana are also the places that attract clients with different income levels, “from the young man who drinks a beer and eats a “tapa” [appetizer] to the client who asks for a Johnny Walker blue label.”
Those places are a window to the worlds and lifestyles that used to exist in Cuba with a more discreet profile. Many interviewees point out that it’s not in the bars that new social differences are produced; they’re merely exhibited there.
But the private bars are an added offer, accessible to a larger number of customers, by comparison with the state-run cabarets, which usually impose a cover charge and offer worse service.
Those clients — as explained by Denisse Delgado, a researcher at the Center for Psychological and Sociological Research — are social groups that are increasingly more heterogeneous, identified with the middle levels of life. The owners are usually adult males, professionals, white and with some experience in the world of business and gastronomy. The national market begins to show a face.
Somewhere else, another voice speaks for the private bars. “Self-employment is not capitalism. If you were to ask Marx himself, he would agree, because everything here is done on an individual basis. Capitalism exists when you serialize production, but nobody has set up a factory here.”
That was a conclusion reached the day in March when Isabel Hamze, Havana director for the Labor and Social Security Ministry, said on a televised broadcast of Round Table that “it is not permissible for a paladar to become a cabaret or a disco. Today, there are no licenses for either activity — or for ownership of a bar.”
The functionary’s words, probably the first explicit and public enunciation of a NO to the bars, sowed the first seeds of alarm.
Many react with suspicion. Another bar owner said he had operated one of the 3-D cinemas that were shut down in November 2013. He thinks that the images of his place of business, when published by the foreign press, precipitated the government’s decision.
As a result of this precedent of prohibition without dialogue, and considering the barely legal activities of many of these “cuentapropistas,” a wave of paranoia and uncertainty has spread over them.
Denisse Delgado has met with that attitude during her research for her Master’s degree on self-employed entrepreneurship. Some responses to her queries: “I can’t talk about that.” “It’s not convenient for us to give interviews.” “I won’t say that this is not a restaurant, even if you killed me.”
The sociologist explains the existence of “support networks” among some bar owners, especially the founders of the first establishments, to deal with the high cost of supplies, the lack of information and the competition.
One of the bar owners we interviewed recalled the recreational options he had as a youth. “In Havana, there was no place to go. The dearth of options is no secret to anyone, which is why this phenomenon of the restaurant-bars, or whatever they’re called, is proliferating so. If you don’t believe me, go to the Malecón at dawn.”
Prostitution and drugs are flaws of society, not caused by the bars, he said. And it is true that girls with their clients are seen in private bars, in state-run bars, on the Malecón, in taxis. After all, it’s the world’s oldest profession, he said.
“To repress those problems is the task of the security services, which are trained and paid to do it. Of course, I cooperate, and to do so, I reserve the right to admit customers to my place of business.”
The fear that the bars might be shut down by the government has led to the creation of a sort of entrepreneurs guild. The Bar Aqua, on Avenue 26, closed last February. Now, it’s a quiet restaurant, often empty, “but we still get people who ask for the disco.”
The man in charge said that two other bars had closed in the municipality of Plaza de la Revolución, which — along with Playa and Centro Habana — is one of the municipalities with the largest concentration of paladares, bars and coffee shops in the city. “I decided to shut down the bar and the dance floor, because I can’t afford to lose my license,” he said.
There has been speculation about the reasons for the shutdown of the Melen Club, which reopened some weeks ago in a different form and “is keeping a low profile,” according to a client.
The owner of the Bar Bohemio has applied for a change in the sign over his store, eliminating the word “bar,” another indication of the prudence exercised when it comes to a considerable investment of money and effort.
As happens in other aspects of daily life in Cuba, marginal legality is associated with the existence of these places of business and their owners. Some survive by under-declaring their revenues, by turning to the black market for supplies, by charging prohibitive prices.
The shutdown of bar-restaurants would mean the loss to clients of a different option for consumption and recreation, and the loss of income to the families of bar employees. And, until the intention of certain changes is made perfectly clear, it will mean a loss to the nation.