Friday, February 5, 2010

Requiem for La Guarida: Of Hideouts and Blue Ferrets... An Interview with Juan Carlos (former) owner of paladar El Huron Azul (3/5)


More than a month ago, I began a series of blog posts on the trials and tribulations of running a Cuban paladar (though I've never tried to do it myself). 

My first post reported that La Guarida, the famed paladar featured as Diego's "Hideout" in the Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate, had finally called it quits - after being threatened with heavy fines for alleged violations.

My second post was the text of an extended interview I conducted years ago with Enrique Núñez, founder and owner of La Guarida.

Those who read Spanish can also take a look at the more academic paper, "El sabor amargo del capitalismo: La experiencia incierta del paladar cubano, 1993-2006" (The Bitter Taste of Capitalism: The Uncertain Expereince of the Cuban Paladar), that I co-wrote with the Italian anthropologist Elena Sacchetti. (It is available at DesdeCuba.com's on-line magazine Contodos).

Here in this third post, "Of Hideouts and Blue Ferrets...." [thanx to the reader who corrected my mistranslation of hurón - it means "ferret" not "heron" or "huron"] in the series, "Requiem for La Guarida," you will find my observations from a series of visits to the now closed paladar Huron Azul (Blue Ferret), along with the text of an interview I conducted in 2001 with Jose Carlos Fernández García the (former) owner of the paladar.  Jose Carlos is pictured above in a police "mug shot" taken with him standing in front of his business (courtesy of Havana's finest). 

Fran, the restaurant's proud and quite friendly maître d’, who always greeted me with a story and a smile is pictured to the left. 

Huron Azul was long another of Havana's famed and supposedly "untouchable" paladares.  It was reknown for its artist and intellectual clientele and its extensive art and wine collection (both clearly visible when dining in the restaurant).  Legend has it that Jose Carlos acquired much of his art collection from artists themselves who used their work as "in kind" to pay their often heavy bar and restaurant tabs. 

While already well-known to foreign visitors to Cuba, Huron Azul became even more notorious (or perhaps it is the government that is notorious) when Yoani Sanchez featured a "found" police powerpoint of it on her own blog (see here for the Spanish version and here for the English one).  I also include the English verion of the slideshow below for the benefit of readers of El Yuma.  The length of the slideshow, the official-ese language used in it, and the detailed whodunnit dossier of photos it features all really take your breath away!  Take a look for yourself - sin comentario.  

SlideShare Presentation:
"The Case of the 'Blue Ferret'"

El Huron Azul

This two room paladar sits inconspicuously on a dirty, commercial street just off of 23rd in Vedado, very near the Cayo Hueso neighborhood of Centro Habana. It is actually the first restaurant I ever visited in Havana on the first day of my three-week trip to Cuba in August of 1997. I and a friend were brought there by a jinetero as we were searching for a place to eat lunch nearby on Calle O. Though I do not remember the food being so excellent that time, I was surprised when I returned four years later in 2000 to find the same no-nonsense, extremely professional and efficient waiter answering the door. Talking to him after lunch, I learned that his name is Fran and that the owner is a Juan Carlos.


As it turns out, Fran is a good friend of my host-mother Andrea and when I told him I was staying in a private home nearby, he guessed that it was indeed Andrea who was my host. When I asked her about the paladar, she told me that Fran has been working there for the past four years after he had left another paladar. At the time, I wondered how he could change jobs since a paladar is supposed to be a "family run" operation. Andrea laughed at my comment, saying that like her and every other cuentapropista (self-employed worker), paladares also have to “hacer su propia trampa.” She confirmed that Fran is not related to the owner Juan Carlos, but most likely declared himself a cousin to work there legally.

Some of the contraband lobster the police found
at El Huron Azul when it was raided.

Though my first visit to this paladar was through a middle-man, it seemed on my subsequent visits that they were trying to discourage this practice (or wanted to appear to be doing so). Just outside the front door, below the blue and white sign declaring “El Huron Azul – Paladar” is another sign, permanently fixed in tile to the wall reading: “No Pagamos Comision”. Whether this is for real or only for the benefit of the inspectors, I cannot say. 

Fran did not ask me whether I had been brought there by a middle-man. Furthermore, in my interview with Juan Carlos a week later, he argued that they did not need to rely on touts to drum up business for them since they had a fairly constant clientele, the majority of whom are Cuban artists and intellectuals. Furthermore, he said that he would have to pass any commissions on to his customers by raising his prices, and preferred not to do that.

He also seemed to reject the practice of giving bribes, even if he understood that it is likely a common practice for some paladares. “It depends on the type of business you run and on the kind of relationship that you have with the inspector,” he argued. “If you are clean, you have nothing to fear, but if you do much that is illegal I imagine that you need to have a ‘special relationship’ with the inspector”.

Judging from the fantastic food, central location, and clientele, I would imagine that this place would have less need for middle-men than most other paladares. In line with Cuban law, Huron has just 12 seats divided between five tables which can be grouped together or broken up as needed. Additionally, the restaurant has an air-conditioned back room full of photos, paintings, and maybe 8 chairs surrounding a small glass coffee table. Customers can peruse the menu and order their food so it is ready when they are seated. Of course, no food or drink can be served and the regulations even prohibit a TV.

Quien quiere un trago?

Filling the walls of the dining area are photographs of the many famous people who have eaten in the paladar. I recognized the photos of a well-known Cuban painter, a famous Cuban actor, the intellectual and poet Miguel Barnet, as well as the one-time prima ballerina and current director of Cuba’s National Ballet, Alicia Alonzo. Additionally, the walls have many well-done Cuban paintings by a variety of artists. The menu also links the origin of the paladar to a well-known Cuban artist and explains that the name “El Huron Azul” was taken from the name that that artist gave his own blue and white home.

This is also the name of the peña at La UNEAC, the building housing the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists not far away in the heart of the El Vedado neighborhood. Ironically, given such a seemingly authentic and original character, I was surprised to hear from the owner/operator that the artist/intellectual angle was at least in part a business decision to attract a niche market with access to dollars. “Es una estrategia del mercado” to cater to the artist market, said Juan Carlos. “La mayor parte son cubanos – artistas e intelectuales – y todas las fotos de ellos que ves en las paredes se tomaron aquí.”

Though in my interview with him, Juan Carlos was quite guarded in sharing any financial information with me, I did overhear a conversation one of the waiters was having with a table of six Cuban-American (or what seemed to be Cuban-American) customers. Specifically, he was describing to them the many restrictions that paladares must deal with on a daily basis. He described the seating limit of 12 chairs and put the fixed monthly tax at $1,500 (yes that's dollars), saying, “Estos impuestos hay que pagar si vendes o no. Son tan altos que es obvio que el proposito es para cerrar el negocio”.

The owner, Juan Carlos, put the monthly tax at between $1,000 and $1,100 and had a very different way of explaining these restrictions (at least on the record in his interview with me) than did his waiter (see below). Juan Carlos is a 38 year-old, no-nonsense, hard-nosed businessman who began this paladar in 1995. Before that, he worked for a few years in the early 1990s as an “artesano” and prior to that he was a biocybernetics professor at the University of Havana, where he worked for about 6 years after graduating from college in 1986.

In the five years that he has had the restaurant, he estimated that his fixed monthly tax has probably doubled from $500 to just over $1,000. He also estimated that a third of his costs are paid in wages, another third in taxes, and a final third in “materia prima” or supplies. Specifically, he explained that the tax is divided up between “el impuesto titular” and the employment tax for hiring “cada familiar.” Furthermore, he explained the tax system as a monthly withholding one where the tax paid is progressive based on total sales. “If my overall tax for the year is $12,500, for example,” he explained, “and I’ve already paid 12 installments if $1,000 during the year, I will have to pay $500 more at the end of the year.”


These photos were supposedly taken at the airport
showing Jose Carlos' arriving inventory

On the day of our original appointment, he came into the waiting room and asked if we could reschedule with the explanation, “Adelantaron el pago del impuesto y si no lo pago hoy me cierran”. The following day he explained that payments are normally made on the 25th of each month, but since that day is a holiday this month, he needed to pre-pay his tax on the 20th. It remained unclear, however, whether the holiday had slipped his mind and he was just playing it safe by pre-paying early or if the government had sent out a reminder that all payments needed to be in by the 20th.

Though he would not share the amount of his exact earnings with me, he did say that he makes a profit and that being self-employed pays much more than the 400 Cuban pesos he earned each month as a university professor. He also works 2 or 3 times more hours as an entrepreneur than he did as a professor (I guess I'll keep my current job then!)  Whereas he worked six days a week five hours a day in his previous job (30 hours a week total), he estimated that he now works all the time “todo el dia, todos los dias”.

Though he cut off the theme of family quickly, he did admit that he regrets putting too much time into the business. “If there is one thing that I regret it is that I should have worked slower because it is my family who suffers.” He argued that running a business leaves one no space in which to live (“Uno no tiene espacio de vivir”). He even admitted that his first marriage ended largely due to his spending too much time with the business and neglecting his family. “One’s family is like a ball of crystal and each time you drop it leaves a crack. You have to be very careful and thank God I realized in time.”

Juan Carlos standing in front of El Huron Azul

In terms of his somewhat unique, and clearly realist approach to the government restrictions, he explained that if one decides to open a restaurant or any kind of business (in whatever country), he or she must be willing to play by the given rules of that society. While not denying that Cuba had many “absurd,” ridiculous, and senseless regulations, he argued that complaining and decrying the injustice of those rules is simply a waste of time. “Hay que vivir en el mundo real,” he argued, not in some future world that may never exist.

No me pongo a pensar bajo la filosofia ‘si hubiera tal condicion, yo hiciera tal cosa’.” In this spirit, Juan Carlos was decidedly hesitant to answer any of my “what if” questions and only responded when the question addressed a concrete reality that he confronted on a daily basis.

I think that this realist, even complacent, attitude toward the government regulations on paladares was won through a lifetime of living in Cuba with all kinds of arbitrary rules. However, Juan Carlos mentioned that his perspective as a businessman was changed significantly by a recent month-long trip he was able to make to the United States.

                            Fran, the man
He began telling me about the trip by saying, “Antes de vijar a los EEUU pense que vivía en el país más malo del mundo.” However, his trip taught him that there is just as much regulation, red tape, and bureaucracy in starting a small business in the U.S., and unlike in Cuba, in the U.S. one has to contend with thousands of other talented competitors.

He even argued that it was likely more difficult to open a business in the U.S. and make it a success. “The magnitude of the obstacles facing a businessperson in the U.S. is likely greater. It is almost impossible [to be a successful businessperson] there,” he discovered, “with all the licenses one has to get in order to open a business – fire, alcohol, OSHA, sanitary regulatons, etc.”

In contrast, he argued, “here in Cuba you can start up a business in less than two months”. Willfully contradicting the tendency to decry the many government restrictions in private enterprise in Cuba, Juan Carlos argued, “La gente siempre pintan esto como una cosa llena de obstaculos.”

[Remember, we did this interview nine years ago.  I wonder what he would say now if I were able to track him down in Cuba - that is if he is not in jail!]

Instead, he has discovered that what he thought to be the perfect alternative – U.S. free market capitalism – was not much less regulated than trying to run a private business in socialist Cuba. “My trip taught me to my great surprise that the governments are 80% the same in most ways. Change the names, change the clothes, but the two systems are surprisingly similar!”

Though his trip taught him not to blindly admire ‘the American way’, he continues to be impressed by what he (and many other Cubans) calls American ‘know how’. He sustained that the U.S. provides opportunity to those with talent and ‘know how’, be they rich or poor. Without these attributes, however, no one can be successful in the U.S. Admitting that the U.S. was a “civilización” (entre comillas) where one could be successful given talent, he criticized the government’s tendency to allow citizens to “vivir del estado”. “That is a big mistake,” he said, pointing to a number of his Cuban-American friends who seem not to work but have comfortable, even luxurious lives nonetheless.

More specifically, he pointed out that a friend of his in New Jersey who owns a liquor store has to contend with an absurd law that prohibits the sale of alcohol until after church on Sunday. Furthermore, he found that grocery stores and supermarkets were prohibited from selling liquor, which could only be bought in a liquor store.

His conclusion was not that one should fight to change such absurd laws, but that, “Así es la vida. Laws are like that and if you go into business you have to follow them.”

He made a comparison to Cuba, saying, “Here it is the same. We can buy lobster in the dollar stores if we have the money, but we can’t cook it and sell it in our restaurants. It’s absurd, but if we want to survive as a business, we must follow the law.” (Be sure to take a look at the frozen lobsters in the photo above). 

When asked about those who bend or break the laws, Juan Carlos continued his analogy. “If you decide to sell liquor before noon on Sunday, fine, but you run the risk of having your license revoked and your business closed down. Here, it is the same, our options are limited, te enfrentes al estado o aceptas al estado. I decided to work within the given system”.

Furthermore, he accepts it as the right of any society/country to tax its citizens and never saw Cuba’s tax code as unjust or extreme. In a dynamic mixture of Marxian and Keynesian economic theory, Juan Carlos posited, “The state doesn’t produce anything, any wealth. Neither Fidel nor Clinton do any productive work. They live off of the work of others through taxes.”

Though Juan Carlos was generally not critical of the tax system or of the strict restrictions and regulations on paladares, he was under no illusions about the conflictive relationship private enterprise like his has with the socialist government of Cuba. “Al estado cubano no le interesa la propiedad privada. Para ellos somos una mal no deseado, pero una mal necesaria ahora.”

Furthermore, he argued that “The socialist system sees us as an evil and in that system private enterprise is an anachronism”. He does not worry too much about it though. For example, when asked if there was a future for self-employment in Cuba, he responded in a typical way given his other responses. “I don’t loose any sleep over it but I’d have to bet on it (Yo ha que apostar que si tiene un futuro). No me preocupo de esto, pero si me ocupo de mi negocio y de cumplir con las leyes como son”.

[Hmmmm...]

He then turned the tables on me asking, “You’re working on your doctorate. I could ask you if you think you will finish it. Of course you will say that you will. To say otherwise is pessimistic and defeatist. You must think positive and act as if there is a future even whe life is tough and even though we can only live in the present”.

[I don't know about you, but I like this guy and hate it that he is now out of business.]

Money, that's what I want! 
"Recovered" from Juan Carlos' business

Juan Carlos responded similarly when asked if or how he would change the rules if he could give advice to the planners and lawmakers. First, he responded that Cuban leaders would never take any advice from him. Then, he argued that it is not worth the effort to think about such hypothetical things. “Hay que vivir, Ted”, he told me smiling.

He did lighten and brighten up considerably when I asked him what were the most positive aspects of being self employed. First, he stated that “me disfruto mucho”. Then, he smiled wide and argued that all the ideas that he had learned “en el campo de comercio, las he podido emplear aqui con exito.”

Finally, he said that in comparison to his previous jobs as a professional, being self-employed has provided him and his family with “una ahorrancia económica fantástica”.

When I asked about his saving and investing habits, he shared that he doesn’t save much but has invested most of his profits in the business itself. “I have no interest in making more money than I can spend,” he argued. “No me pongo a romper la cabeza. What is fundamental for any businessman is that: hay que ajustarse a las reglas de cada país, tentando vivirlo todo intensamente que pueda."

Given that the Cuban authorities decided in the end to throw the proverbial book at him, it is a supreme irony that Juan Carlos ended our interview with these words:

"You must conform to the laws
in the country in which you find yourself
or pay the consequences."

4 comments:

  1. Huron means "ferret", not heron.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Elemental querido Watson! Elemental!

    Buenisimo este post! Felicidades Ted.

    Debes de teber cuidado con las frases que escribes en Español, a veces no tienen sentido gramatical. Pero ey! nadie es perfecto! ok
    Saludos

    Alex

    El Eslabon Perdido

    ReplyDelete
  3. His statement about conforming to the laws was obviously a joke, if he refused to follow the most basic laws that relate to paladars - number of seats, prohibition on sale of lobster and the employment of non-family members. I know these rules, and I don't even live in Cuba.

    You may like this guy and disagree with the regulations, but they are there for a reason. Rules can't simply be ignored - particularly not when you have 7 houses and a pile of $22,000 (CUC) laying around. I doubt most Cubans feel an ounce of sympathy for this guy, who obviously let greed get the better of him.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Ted, great series. Quick question on some dates
    I don't think you have specifically mentioned.
    What were the dates during which there was a freeze on the issuance private licenses (specifically Paladars, Casa Particulars and private taxis)?

    ReplyDelete

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