Bella Thomas enjoys eating beetles and butterflies in Cuba's emerging private sectorby Bella Thomas / August 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
In the 1920s, Andr? Breton described Cuba as the most surreal country in the world. In the 1990s, as the country emerges slowly from communism, a visitor can witness much weirder things than Breton would have seen. Take government policy on restaurants.
One of the first cautious experiments in private enterprise in Cuba is the paladar, the new private restaurant. The name derives from a venue in a Brazilian soap opera that was played on Cuban television a few years ago. The oddity is that a new word should be required at all. “Restaurant,” after all, is an international word like “taxi” or “bus,” and it serves as an entirely unambiguous beacon to the bedraggled tourist in search of his next feed.
There are reasons for this. Paladares started up underground, and underground activities are more inventive with words than officialdom. Now paladares are in competition with state run restaurants. To share the same word would suggest that they are on a similar footing.
Although paladares were legalised in 1993 after their prosperous beginnings in the province of Holgu?-n, they were banned in 1994 for being too successful. They were grudgingly permitted again last year, but this time eccentric regulations were imposed upon them. They must, apostolically, house only 12 chairs; employ only the family and pay stiff taxes. Also, because of complications over property, the owners of paladares must use their own living rooms or patios as their dining halls. As a customer at one of these outfits, the distinction between the private and the public can be disarmingly narrow: the commercial becomes exceedingly personal.
The regime is said to have serious misgivings. “He” (as President Castro is informally known) has inveighed against them in several speeches, suggesting that they induce inequality. This official scepticism ensures that paladares preserve their illicit nature, particularly as they make most of their money from selling illegal products, such as lobster and prawns, which are still the preserve of the state. In a vain effort to confuse the ubiquitous inspectors, the illegitimate shellfish is disguised by having its shells peeled away, becoming a lump of nameless white flesh: they are then branded with strange names such as beetle or butterfly. “Mariposa ? la Americana” (butterflies ? la Americana) is a favourite lobster dish. It is also safer not to have written evidence of one’s wares: for that reason, menus are often produced…