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.

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