By Catherine Bremer | Reuters
In communist-run Cuba, a land of ration books and rusting Chevrolet taxis from the 1950s, there is a tiny pedestrian street where capitalism is flourishing.
Beneath hanging paper dragons and tasseled red lanterns, a dozen Chinese restaurants are doing a bustling trade serving up spicy pork noodles, fried rice and crispy duck, washed down with a Cuban beer or a mojito.
Havana’s Barrio Chino, or Chinatown, was granted special licenses a decade ago to run private restaurants, a move aimed at revitalizing a once-vibrant area that was hit by the 1959 revolution and almost snuffed out completely when Cuban leader Fidel Castro took over small businesses in 1968.
Redeveloped largely as a tourist draw, some see the lively strip as a glimpse of the street-level entrepreneurial culture that Cuba might one day embrace without necessarily changing its socialist colors, much like China has done.
“When I arrived, this street was empty. Now the flavor is completely Chinese. I could be in my own country,” said Tao Jin Rong, 66, who came to Cuba from Shanghai in 1995, the year Castro first visited China.
“The government leaves us alone. I see it as a test. Cuba could do this in other places, or it could shut us down, it all depends,” he said, sipping Jasmine tea at his restaurant, Tien Tan, in the barrio’s main strip, Calle Cuchillo.
Cuba’s economy is 90 percent state-controlled, but since communist bloc aid dried up with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the government has issued a limited number of self-employment licenses for people to open small businesses like book stalls or family-run restaurants.
The country’s roughly 180,000 private entrepreneurs must work within strict rules and size restrictions, however.
Chinatown’s Cuchillo street has gone a step further—it is the only place in Cuba where private restaurants compete side by side, running as real businesses with flowing profits, menus several pages thick and as many chefs and waiting staff as they want.
Employees’ pay is much higher than the meager wages in government restaurants.
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The barrio’s other oddity is its dearth of Chinese nationals, so voluptuous Cuban waitresses are squeezed into high-collared red and gold-stitched dresses, and dark Cuban waiters are serene in mustard or navy silk suits.
“I can earn much more with tips here than in a government job,” said waiter Carlos White, 22, who studied gastronomy at college and dreams of having his own restaurant.
“This is how I want Cuba to be. Because now, life is very hard. Everybody here dreams of Cuba changing.”
Thousands of Chinese poured into Cuba in the mid-1800s, hired to work in sugar cane fields after slavery was abolished. Most stayed, married Cubans and moved to the capital.
More came, fleeing communism after China’s 1949 revolution, and the Barrio Chino grew into a sprawling maze of noodle bars and laundries, as well as notoriously lewd sex shows.
At its peak there were more than 100,000 Chinese here, but after 1968, most left for the United States. There are only an estimated 300 Chinese-born immigrants left, most of them white-haired and increasingly hard to spot.
The barrio’s wafer-thin Chinese newspaper Kwong Wah Po, set by hand on a century-old press, sells just 600 copies.
Yet some Chinese culture is being kept alive by the 3,000 Cuban-Chinese here and by closer trade relations that are filling Cuban homes with Chinese televisions and fridges.
Chinatown is buzzing again, mainly feeding tourists, government officials and foreign diplomats.
There is just one government-run Chinese restaurant on the strip. It is often empty, has waiters in black and white suits and includes pizza and seafood on the menu.
“Maybe it’s not so efficient,” ponders Tao. “But Cubans are good workers. My staff are attentive. They earn good tips.”
“Cuba is already changing. I think it would be better if it develops more. But the change must come from within.”