In Cuba's hinterland a businessman is born

Tue Jan 10, 2012 2:25pm EST
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By Marc Frank

GUAIMARO, Cuba (Reuters) - Guaimaro, just one of many small poor and dusty towns along Cuba's sparsely traveled central highway, is best known as the spot where the island's first constitution was signed during the independence war with Spain.

These days the talk of the town is about a different sort of independence in state-dominated Cuba - the privately owned Magno restaurant, the most luxurious place in Guaimaro. Its owner Tomas Mayedo Fernandez is a local boy who once did jail time for involuntary manslaughter but now, in just over a year as an entrepreneur, is a big success.

The eatery is one of more than 1,000 home-based restaurants, or paladares, that have opened on the Communist-run island since restrictions on small private businesses were loosened in late 2010, as part of a broader reform of the Soviet-style economy undertaken by President Raul Castro.

A meal at the Magno will cost you the equivalent of a few dollars for a beer and sandwich to $10 or more for steak and lobster, in a land where the average wage is less than $20 per month.

There are just two other private eateries and a few shabby looking state-run restaurants in Guaimaro, located 400 miles east of Havana. But they cater more to the local population rather than passersby and do not boast air-conditioning, lobster, shrimp, beef, whiskey and aged rum.

"I didn't know anything about running a restaurant, but I liked the idea of going into business and so when the law changed I began, little by little," said Mayedo, a strapping young man and son of a cattle rancher in his mid-30s.

Mayedo lived in the second story of the once-crumbling, century-old building. He sold clothing from his living room to make ends meet and looked down on the ruins of the empty store front and big back yard the neighbors had turned into a garbage dump.