To those who do not espouse the trickle down theory of economics, following is a case study of what has transpired since President Barack Obama’s overture of rapprochement through the lens of one particular paladar in the El Vedado neighborhood of Havana.
I make frequent trips to the island in order to help family with their nascent cuentapropista enterprises there, and have been noting significant change year-by-year, and lately month-by-month.
A great study of the decades of ebbs and flows of the paladar has been done by Prof. Ted Henken. These restaurants, originally licensed in the 90s, have evolved considerably so that dozens of uniformed staff in privately-run kitchens are now legal.
Just three years ago, the area along Calle Primera in the Vedado neighborhood was a wasteland of stray dogs and garbage in the streets. Nearby was the Galleria Mall, a government attempt to provide some sort of shopping experience to those who could afford it, and across the street, was a State-run bar that no one went to. Then one Cuban, an entertainer, had the foresight to start a small restaurant on the patio of a small three-story building facing the Malecón with direct ocean views. He called it La Chucheria (stuff).
I have been a customer for several years, and could always count on a quick coffee or reasonable tasty sandwich, back when those words were an oxymoron anywhere else in Havana. I would sit among the Chinese investors with their briefcases stuffed with plans for the “New Havana” or as far away as possible from the European tourist accompanied by a spandex-wearing prostitute. There were always available seats in the small shop.
Fast forward to today.
The large-scale paladares like the ones Obama visited are now busier than ever, with several Havanatour guaguas out front and no chance of a reservation. But what I find most startling is the changes in the smaller mid-price places like La Chucheria. Since the December 2014 “rapprochement,” business has soared. If you don’t arrive for breakfast when doors open at 8:30 a.m., you risk being in the long cola, which begins to grow at 9 a.m. and continues through closing. Also, more paladares have opened — at least three more on the same block and they all get colas that stretch for the block.
But the most remarkable change is the client mix in the mid-price paladares. The former Asian and the Euro clients have now given way to local Cubans with CUCs in their pockets.
Let me tell you the stories of just two typical La Chucheria customers:
One such patron is Ariel. He told me he and all his friends easily got five-year visas to the USA last year. Within four days, Ariel friend had his drivers license, social security number, food stamps, work permit, an apartment and a car. Within a few months, he was hired as an UBER driver. Ariel saved all his money for the rest of the year and soon after his permanent residency status kicked in, Ariel returned to Cuba so he could keep his citizenship on the island, retain his property rights and social benefits and visit his wife and children.
Ariel now spends a month in Miami as an UBER driver and a month in Havana where life is relatively cheap by Miami standards. He can now easily afford the 5 CUC La Chucheria sandwiches and 3 CUC batidos for his Havana family. My flights to Havana are full of such cases, as well as the return flights to Miami.
The second typical patron is Yuniel, who lives with his mother in a five-bedroom Vedado house, which his deceased father was given after the revolution. Yuniel’s brother and sister walked across the Mexico-Texas border last year and now live in West Miami, leaving three empty bedrooms in the Vedado house. Yuniel, being very enterprising and seeing the dearth of available lodging in Havana, applied for the casa particular license to rent rooms at his house. The three rooms have been 95 percent occupied ever since, at 35 CUC per night. This nets, after the minor expenses, over $30,000 dollars a year — a staggering stipend for the average Cuban. Yuniel's family now enjoys the pizza, salads, and Cristal beer every Sunday at La Chucheria.
Ariel, Yuniel and many others are enjoying the trickle-down effect of the increasing tourism. But this newfound wealth is still eluding those who only have access to Cuban pesos. I am hopeful that this torrent of new CUCs will begin to trickle to the rest of the population. I hope to see new Ariels and Yuniels rising up the Chucheria ladder.
Note: All names except the restaurant have been changed to protect the identity of subjects cited in this observation piece.
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