Chef with a dream bets on Castro's hunger for reform

In his final report from Cuba, David Usborne visits a Havana restaurant benefiting from a relaxation of private business laws

Enrique Nuñez tells the story of the traveller given sustenance by a poor farmer who lives on the milk of a single cow. He shows his gratitude by killing the animal. When he returns a year later the farmer is rich. "It forced him to put his pastures to new uses," says Mr Nuñez. In Cuba, it is time to kill the cow, too.

Five decades after Fidel Castro nationalised every private business in Cuba without compensation, dreaming of the demise of his centrally planned economy might seem foolish. But Mr Nuñez, the owner of La Guarida, Havana's best-known paladar – or home restaurant – is doing more than that: he is betting his entire future on it. "This is a good moment for Cuba," he says. "Or I hope so."

La Guarida first opened in 1996 when Mr Castro was flirting tentatively with private enterprise, issuing a limited number of licences to residents to earn cash either by feeding tourists or putting them up in their homes. But there were restrictions. Only 12 seats were allowed per restaurant and workers had to be family. Many ingredients were either designated illegal contraband or impossible to find.

At La Guarida the food never reached sublime. It success came because it was where Strawberry and Chocolate, the 1994 Oscar-nominated film about gays in Cuba, was shot. Visitors to the restaurant must first ascend two steep stairways through the old house surrounded by the cracked plaster of crumbled grandiosity.

Mr Nuñez, 42, who grew up in just two rooms on the third floor that are now dining rooms, found himself playing maitre d' over the years to guests ranging from the King and Queen of Spain, Jack Nicholson and the Nobel author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The restaurant became a staple of every guidebook. If the royalty of Europe and Hollywood fell in love with it, so did the backpackers and the hipsters. But as the fame of the La Guarida grew, the conditions for Mr Nuñez – and for Cubans in general – worsened. The last decade saw a deterioration of Cuba's economy and new waves of human-rights repression, notably in the black spring of 2003 when the government jailed 75 dissidents. The ill health of Mr Castro four years ago and the handover of control to his brother, Raul, sparked hopes of change but they dimmed quickly. Then came the arrest in the spring of 2009 of Juan Carlos Fernandez Garcia, a friend of Mr Nuñez who had opened his own paladar, El Huron Azul, which had achieved similar success. Both restaurants stretched the rules as far as they dared – more chairs, waiters whose claim to be family were hard to prove.

Mr Garcia went too far by hanging and selling art in his restaurant. The secret police confiscated everything, arrested him and put him in jail, where he would remain for a year.

"I took a trip to Madrid and took all my workers with me," Mr Nuñez says. "When the holiday was over I gathered them together and told them I was not going to open La Guarida again, it's over." Mr Nuñez had decided he was no longer willing to live with the strain of state inspectors coming to the restaurant all the time and haggling and negotiating to avoid facing the fate of his then imprisoned friend. He decided relocate to Coral Gables, a prosperous outpost in Miami.

But in November, La Guarida reopened and is thriving again – for one reason. The changes announced by the Communist Party last September, which are to be approved by the first Communist Congress in 14 years next month, convinced Mr Nuñez that Raul Castro has understood the story of the cow. The reforms include laying off one million from the state workforce and issuing tens of thousands of new licenses for entrepreneurial businesses.

"Things are opening now. I am betting things will be different and that they will work," Mr Nuñez says.

True, some of the plans seem to be slowing. Last week, Raul acknowledged that an April deadline to a lay off a first tranche of 500,000 workers would be missed.

But sackings are happening and 113,000 new licenses for private business have already been issued. With no credit available and Cuba simultaneously promising to introduce a system of income tax, the challenges are daunting. But with little choice but to try, Cubans across the islands are opening stalls and shops and other small enterprises.

Mr Nuñez says that the reforms have also included the relaxation of many of the regulations that made running his restaurant so difficult in the early days. No longer must he employ only family members. He has hired 50 employees since he reopened and bought new equipment for the kitchen.

"I am now operating 80 per cent within the law," he says. That is apparently enough for him, because everything about Cuba is a little bit opaque and never straightforward. The slaughter of the cow may be slow and halting. But that the knife is even being wielded is enough prompting for Mr Nuñez to leave the comfort of Coral Gables for home.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn