Finding a Safe Harbor in a Havana Restaurant

By Trudy Knockless

At La Moneda Cubana, a restaurant in Old Havana, entrepreneurs have created opportunities for the unemployed and underemployed, many of whom have landed on the street doing illegal work, including hustling and prostitution. People who work for cuentapropistas (entrepreneurs) earn a lot more than those who work for the state. Most state workers earn 20 to 25 CUCs (the Cuban Convertible Peso, equivalent in value to U.S. dollars) per month.

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Alain Miguel Cardenas Suarez, still in training, is a waiter  at the Moneda Cubana restaurant.

Alain Miguel Cardenas Suarez, a waiter at La Moneda Cubana, said that what he makes in one day was more “than what a doctor earns in a month.”

Suarez, 24, makes 20 to 30 CUCs per day, plus tips. The restaurant, owned by Miguel Angel Morales, known as Mickey, is near the historic Plaza de la Catedral, has two floors and hosts a band every day.

The restaurant found a home in this prime location because the three-floor building was once owned by Morales’s grandfather. He operated a grocery store on the first floor, one of 10 businesses owned by his family, and one of the first businesses nationalized by Fidel Castro, in 1964.

The ground floor was taken over by the government for other families, but the Morales family was able to keep the top floors, Mickey said. This location remained a residence until 2011, when regulations changed and it was converted into a paladar, a privately owned restaurant, though Morales said he started refurbishing the building in 2005.

Morales and his wife have multiple business licenses for both restaurants and cafeterias, which allows them to circumvent the rule that each restaurant can accommodate only 50 customers. Together, their licenses allow them to host 150 guests at one time. Technically, each member of Morales’s family can hold one restaurant license and one cafeteria license.

Suarez, the newest employee at La Moneda, studied mechanical engineering for three years but dropped out of school, he said, because it took him an hour to get to school. He had no money and he could find no opportunities for part-time work.

He worked in construction, on ships at the port and in a store selling souvenirs. When he couldn’t make ends meet, he said, he took to the streets selling cigars and anything people would buy, including his body.

Finding customers was not hard, he said. All he had to do was look for female tourists and offer to dance with them or teach them Cuba’s most popular dance, salsa. Then, he said, some women, mostly ages 30 to 40, would take him to expensive restaurants and then to a hotel for sex.

Morales, previously a professor at a tourism school in Havana, now has a training school. The school offers young people on the streets an opportunity to train as waiters and waitresses. Suarez began working at La Moneda three years ago after he was picked up off the streets by the director of the training school.

The paladar, which started with 12 employees, now has 50, “and none of them wants to go!” said Morales with a smile.

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Suarez, left, said of Miguel Angel Morales, “He’s the best boss that I can have.”

“He’s the best boss that I can have,” said Suarez. “He’s very gregarious. We play soccer together. For the restaurant’s anniversary on Jan. 8 he closed the bar and invited all of us to play soccer with him.”

Suarez, still in training, said it was difficult, because students must take about 15 classes, including grammar, cooking, mixology, English – he speaks a little – and French, though he is fluent. “A lot of the guys who join don’t last; many of them drop out. I’m here because I’m good,” he said with a laugh. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”

Suarez currently lives with his mother, stepfather and sister. “We live well,” he said. “I didn’t go to the streets because anything was lacking at home.”

His mother owns a shop and his stepfather drives a tourist bus. He was born at the start of the so-called Special Period. “There was no food, no clothes, no shoes,” but his mother took care of the family while his father was in the army. Suarez said his dream is to open a restaurant chain in Cuba or another country. His eyes are set on Europe. He hopes to have “one in Italy, one in France and one in Spain,” he said with a wide smile.