Thursday, December 31, 2009

Requiem for La Guarida: An Interview with Enrique Núñez (Part 2/5)

Easily Cuba’s most famous private “paladar” restaurant, La Guarida served its delectable cuisine to a host of visiting dignitaries, including the King and Queen of Spain, movie actor Jack Nicholson, Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, and, of course, to yours truly. 

[This is part two in a five part series. Click here to read part one and here for part three.]

This tradition seems to have ended last week when the famed Cuban paladar was forced to close its doors.

The reason for La Guarida’s great success and popularity begins with the fact that it is located in the apartment in where the wildly successful, breakthrough Cuban film "Fresa y Chocolate" (Strawberry and Chocolate) was filmed in 1993. Co-directed by Cuba’s late master filmmaker, Tomás “Titón” Gutiérrez Alea, together with Juan Carlos Tabío, the film treated the taboo subject of homosexuality in socialist Cuba in a sensitive and sympathetic way. (Go here to view a great 5-minute clip from the film).

Roughly translated as “The Hideout,” the restaurant’s name originates with the nickname Diego, the homosexual character in the film, gave to his own third-floor apartment in the building. (He also nicknamed his hardworking American refirgerator "Rocco," which will be the subject of a future post in this series).

The founder, owner, and operator of La Guarida, the affable entrepreneur Enrique Núñez (pictured to the left with his wife), jumped on this opportunity after the film became a world-wide success, initially converting a small part of what had been his parents’ third third-floor apartment in this truly impressive ruin of a building into what up to last week was Cuba’s most renowned paladar.

In our interview, Enrique explained that following the international release of the film, foreigners began to show up unannounced at the third floor apartment to get a glimpse of the place where the film had been staged.

“People came to the apartment because of the film,” explained Enrique. “Again and again, they would tell us that the film changed their black-and-white image of Cuba, making Cuba real, close, and personal for them.”

As Enrique related to me during our interview back in early 2001, the tale of La Guarida’s origin began when his brother-in-law, Andrés Olea (director's assistant on the film), showed him a copy of the screenplay to an upcoming film based on the Senel Paz short story entitled, “The Wolf, the Forest, and the New Man.”

“As I read the screenplay, it occurred to me that the place Senel was describing was this very apartment. I suggested that they use it to shoot the film. Soon, Titón showed up and looked at the place and decided to do the film here.”

Cuba’s film institute, ICAIC, put his parents up in a separate apartment for the three months it took to shoot the film. After this (early 1993), his parents returned to their apartment and resumed a normal life, unaware of the success the film was destined to have or of the way that success would ultimately effect their lives.

Enrique even admitted that at that point it never crossed his mind that he could later turn the apartment into a successful private restaurant.

The rest, as they say, is history.

A photo of the foyer of La Guarida decorated with Cuban film posters.
The film was completed that same year and won best picture honors at the December 1993 Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana. In 1994, the film was released internationally and nominated for the best foreign film Oscar. It also won the award for best picture in many European festivals, including Cannes.

During 1994 and 1995, the film’s popularity spread across the globe. According to Enrique, this exposure led to a newfound interest in all things Cuban, giving a boost to the island’s revitalized tourism industry. “No one can even calculate the amount of tourist dollars that have been brought to Cuba as a result of the film. I have witnessed it first hand through this place,” declared Enrique.

Thus, “The House that Titón Built,” became a mandatory stop on the tourist circuit for foreigners vacationing in Cuba. By mid-1995 uninvited knocks on the door of his parents' apartment became commonplace, with tourists from Japan, Scandinavia, and even the United States asking to tour their home.

Initially, Enrique complained about this to his mother, but she corrected him, explaining that the visits had become a constant source of amusement for them. He then made the "crazy" suggestion that, since he was then out of work, what did she think about turning this amusing nuisance into a potentially lucrative job opportunity by starting a paladar, the private restaurant self-employment option that had just then been finally legalized in Cuba.

Enrique remembers that without exception these visitors would make the same declaration, “The film completely changed the image I had of Cuba. Because of the film, Cuba became less politicized and more human.”

Thus, armed with his parents’ approval, Enrique spent the next eight months pouring his life savings and a number of loans into the apartment, turning his “crazy idea” into a reality.

Ironically, he kept setting a date to open, but had to continually push the date back due to construction delays. Providentially, Enrique decided to get his business license in April of 1996, since he had expected to open at the end of that month. By coincidence, less then two weeks after his license was issued on April 20, the government suddenly suspended the issuance of any new paladar licenses, likely making La Guarida the last paladar to be legally licensed in Cuba.

One unforeseen problem with which he was presented by getting his license so early was being forced to pay a steep monthly tax starting in April, three months before he began to operate and generate revenue.

Friends reminded him that the apartment was on the third floor with no elevator, sat in the middle of a neglected and intimidating Cuban tenement, and was located in the middle of drab Central Havana, far from the usual tourist haunts. However, Enrique thought that it would be just those factors, mixed with the apartment’s celluloid allure, that would ensure the venture’s success.

“Besides,” he told me, “I had nothing else to do.”

After much delay and anticipation, Enrique inaugurated La Guarida on July 14, 1996, inviting the entire cast of the film to the opening. (The photo below was taken at the 10th anniversary celebration of the opening three years ago in 2006. It seems the cast turned out once again with Perugorria in the foreground, Enrique to the right, and is that Juliette Binoche in the pink!?).

In our interview, Enrique explained that the constant threat of fines from inspectors and the continual search for hard-to-find supplies have been his biggest obstacles.

Many times the items he needs are simply not available in Cuba. He joked, “You should see my baggage whenever I return from a trip abroad. I pay a fortune in overweight charges!”

However, he claimed that the best aspect of operating an independent business was the opportunity to meet people from around the world. Additionally, he admitted that he liked the challenge that the possibility of creating his own business presented.

He joked, “Through this experience I realized that I was a born entrepreneur. However, the only problem is that I was born in the wrong country!

He also argued that at that time he had successfully avoided any hefty fines since he had learned which laws are best complied with and which ones to ignore. “The regulation about contraband foods like lobster is very important to follow so that they don’t throw the book at you.”

Enrique admitted, “Serving lobster attracts a lot of attention and for us serving it would not bring us much more profit, only problems. Besides,” he added, “many of the other laws are patently absurd, while this one is more understandable. Yes, it’s anachronistic, but it’s the law.”

When asked for suggestions that would make the laws more rational, Enrique left hardly a stone unturned claiming that nearly every restriction was not only unjust but simply illogical. First, he would get rid of the “completely absurd” restriction that all employees be members of one’s family. He would also end the “absolutely and totally illogical” 12-chair size limit for paladares. Finally, he admitted that these changes would allow paladares to increase their profits and so he would support an increase in taxes to mirror increased profits.

He stressed that changing the current legal framework would have to be accompanied by a reliable system of tracking earnings since no such system currently exists in Cuba. In Cuba, he explained, the government has little trust that the individual will report income accurately, and so has created an authoritarian, patronizing tax system.

"The Cuban tax system expects dishonesty and so demands an abusive quota payment, leading to even more dishonesty in a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy," he said. Enrique implied that this entire system would have to be overhauled if more space were given to small businesses.

When I asked his opinion about the future of self-employment, he joked, “Do you want to know what I would like to see or what I think is likely?” Taking up his good humor, I asked him what he would do if he were a betting man and he responded, “I wouldn't buy stock in any paladar!

On a more serious note, Enrique reasoned that the space the Cuban government cedes to private enterprise depends partially on the pressure it feels from the United States.

Specifically, he explained that he was looking with interest at the Cuban policy of the new Bush administration (our interview taking place in early 2001).

In short, he argued that a flexible, non-confrontational attitude on the part of the new administration would allow a certain amount of breathing room for him and other private enterprises in Cuba.

On the other hand, if the U.S. took a hard-line approach to Cuba under the new administration, trying to punish it, that would spell more repression and difficulties for private enterprise, reducing even more the already almost insignificant space in which they struggle to survive.

Talk about deja-vu all over again!

However, he was under no illusions that there was a possibility for a real opening for true private enterprise or small and medium sized enterprises in Cuba. “It’s all part of the game and you have to know how to play it,” he joked.

“The Cuban government could benefit from the positive image that the existence of private enterprises creates; but it will remain a token, an image.”

1 comment:

  1. Ted, you say that the government stopped issuing licenses for paladars around April 1996, do you know when this ban was lifted (I am assuming it was)?
    I now remember a lot of noise being made when Raul Castro lifted the ban on new taxi licenses a year or two ago.