- Associated Press - Thursday, October 20, 2016

HAVANA (AP) - Cuba is freezing new licenses for private restaurants in Havana as it struggles with the runaway success of one of the most important openings in the state-run economy.

The country was once famed for its dire state restaurants and cafeterias, but it’s developed a vibrant dining scene since private restaurants were legalized two decades ago. A sector that began with enterprising Cubans setting up a handful of tables in their backyards has expanded into an industry of hundreds of restaurants with offerings ranging from freshly caught sushi to sophisticated interpretations of classic Cuban dishes.

However, the private restaurateurs lack a wholesale market or legal way to import supplies and equipment. So they’ve been emptying the shelves of retail shops and buying other goods on the black market. That has led to rising food prices and shortages of goods for other Cubans.

Acting Vice President Isabel Hamze told state media on Wednesday that Havana’s provincial government is temporarily freezing the approval of new licenses and is inspecting restaurants to detect violations ranging from prostitution, drug use and excessive noise to illegal importation and purchase of stolen goods.

She said one business had been closed because it was operating a bar and nightclub in violation of a license exclusively meant for restaurants.

Hamze’s statements appeared intended to reassure restaurant owners and Havana residents that the measures were not a crackdown on private restaurants but rather an attempt to impose common-sense regulations on issues ranging from closing times and parking spaces.

“We recognize the importance that these businesses have for the city, and the government wants them to be successful, but within legal limits,” she said.

The city is also starting to impose more limits on private bed-and-breakfasts, another flourishing sector of the new private economy. Draft regulations being circulated among bed-and-breakfast owners and real-estate agents would limit the number of bathrooms and kitchens built in private homes, and the division of high-ceilinged old homes into de facto apartment buildings with the use of concrete intermediate floors.

A boom in tourism set off by the declaration of detente with the U.S. two years has fueled furious growth in both private restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts.

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Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein

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