Cuba's 'tastebuds' forced to whet appetites in the shadows: Castro's government has found private restaurants unpalatable, writes Phil Davison in Havana

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The Independent Online
THERE is no sign outside. That would be asking for trouble. But Juan G calls his restaurant El Susto (The Fright) since he never knows when the Cuban authorities are going to close it down.

Capitalism is alive and well, though discreet, in Juan's simple stone-floored living room in Havana's Miramar district, that serves as the makeshift restaurant. Discreet it has to be. Juan and his wife Jacqueline, the chef, face not only closure at any moment but possible resentment from their neighbours if the private enterprise is seen to be doing too well.

'We don't want cars pulling up in our driveway, or people staggering out holding beer cans. Dining is usually by appointment only,' says Juan as he guides two foreign journalists to the 'cocktail lounge', a corner where the family television is set opposite two armchairs. There is only the family's dining table in the room. But Juan swiftly shows how he can double his clientele by sticking a wooden shaft into a hole in the floor and adding another homemade wooden tabletop. Using the 'cocktail lounge' as well, he can feed a dozen people.

With all prices in US dollars, but at least half the usual price, Jacqueline cooks lobster and steak in the kitchen partitioned from the living room only by strips of plastic curtain.

El Susto is one of more than 100 private restaurants, known here as 'tastebuds' (a name taken from a popular Brazilian soap opera) that opened up last year when the Castro regime decriminalised the possession of US dollars by Cubans and allowed private enterprise in certain fields. Until then, all Cuban hotels and restaurants were state-owned - and one of the regime's key sources of hard currency. Almost overnight, many would-be restaurateurs converted their homes into 'tastebuds'.

Over the past few weeks, however, Mr Castro appeared to change his mind. Almost all the 'tastebuds' have been closed down, with Juan and Jacqueline's place, so far, one of the few still in business. The apparent reason for the closures? The lobster, steak, quality rum and wine served up had more often than not fallen off the back of a lorry - siphoned off from state-owned hotels or restaurants, to be precise.

'The police have come here several times. But they can never prove it's any more than us having a few friends round for dinner. Also, Jacqueline is officially registered as a cook and we buy our stocks legally in the dollar stores,' said Juan, showing me a shoebox full of pencil-scribbled papers and cash register tabs.

Over cocktails, Juan told us how his 21-year-old son had recently fled the island for the US on board a friend's motorboat. Without his father's knowledge, Juan insisted for his own security. 'We heard he'd set off with three friends, including a 13-year-old boy who had Russian nationality. I didn't sleep for five days, listening day and night to Radio Marti (a Miami- based, anti-Castro radio station that beams news to the island). Eventually, the radio reported that four people, one of them a Russian teenager, had arrived safely.

'He eventually got a phone call through. It turned out the boat's engine had failed after only a few hours and they paddled for five days before reaching the coast near Key West.'

The government's decision to close down the private restaurants appeared to follow a split between reformers and hardline Communists. The latter, notably Mr Castro, won the day, fearing social unrest from those residents without access to dollars - without relatives in the US or working in state organisations where vigilance makes black-market enterprise impossible.

The government has also acted against other macetas ('mashers', the slang word for black market traders) by jamming satellite transmissions from the US. Thousands of Cubans with enough dollars had bought up illegal homemade satellite dishes, at around dollars 150 (pounds 100) a dish, from handymen who had patched them together from old industrial and vehicle parts, notably Soviet-made bus or lorry wheels. Amazingly, they worked.

Among the private entrepreneurs that have gone into business since last year's legal changes, there are bicycle repairmen, barbers, plumbers and used book and record vendors. As was the case long before last year's changes, Cubans emerge from the shadows at night to offer tourists boxes of the best Havana cigars at well below the official price.

Concerned over Aids and the growing importance of tourism, the government has managed to crack down to some extent on the world's oldest private enterprise, although the island's hunger problem makes prostitution almost inevitable. Teenage girls still offer their services in return for a ham-and-cheese sandwich, often for their children, but hotels have clamped down on letting them in.

After asking Juan to call us a taxi - all taxis are state-run - he checked there were no members of the so-called 'rapid response' police outside and a bright red Lada saloon appeared as if by magic.

It was another entrepreneur, a young friend of Juan's, who took us back to our hotel. Paying him would have been illegal so let's just say he dropped us a block from our hotel and we expressed our gratitude accordingly.

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