With Chanel, socialist Cuba has first luxury mall
HAVANA — The salesperson in L’Occitane en Provence’s new Havana store make $12.50 a month. The acacia eau de toilette they sell costs $95.20 a bottle. Rejuvenating face cream is $162.40 an ounce.
A few doors down, a Canon EOS camera goes for $7,542.01. A Bulgari watch, $10,200.
In the heart of the capital of a nation founded on ideals of social equality, the business arm of the Cuban military has transformed a century-old shopping arcade into a temple to conspicuous capitalism.
With the first Cuban branches of L’Occitane, Mont Blanc and Lacoste, the Manzana de Gomez mall has become a socio-cultural phenomenon since its opening a few weeks ago, with Cubans wandering wide-eyed through its polishedstone passages.
Older Cubans are stunned at the sight of goods worth more than a lifetime’s state salary. Teenagers and young adults pose for Facebook photos in front of store windows, throwing peace signs in echoes of the images sent by relatives in Miami, who pose grinning alongside 50-inch TV sets and luxury convertibles.
The Cuban armed forces’ business arm has become the nation’s biggest retailer, importer and hotelier since Gen. Raúl Castro became president in 2008.
On a recent weekday, Oswell Mendez and the members of his hip-hop dance group De Freak posed for their Facebook page in the centre of the Manzana, on the spot where a bust of early 20th century Cuban Communist leader Julio Antonio Mella sat before it was removed in the building’s multiyear renovation.
“This is a high-end spot, really nice,” said Mendez, 24. “It’s something we haven’t seen before.”
The five-storey Manzana sits off the Prado, the broad, tree-lined boulevard that divides the colonial heart of the city. The upper floors are a five-star hotel (the country’s first) opening in June and owned by the military’s tourism arm. Along the bisecting galleries of the Manzana’s ground floor, the military’s retail arms host the luxury brands beside Cuban stores selling lesserknown but still pricey products aimed at Cuba’s small but growing upper-middle class, like $6 minibottles of shampoo.
A few blocks away, workingclass Cubans live in decaying apartments on streets clogged by uncollected trash. With state incomes devastated by long-term stagnation and inflation, there’s barely money for food, let alone indulgences.
“This hurts because I can’t buy anything,” said Rodolfo Hernandez Torres, 71, a retired electrical mechanic who lives on a salary of $12.50 a month. “There are people who can come here to buy things, but it’s maybe one in 10. Most of the country doesn’t have the money.”
With its economy in recession and long-standing oil aid from Venezuela in doubt, the Cuban government appears torn between the need for market-based reforms and the fear of social inequality that would spawn popular dissatisfaction and calls for political change.
Many Cubans are delighted by Chanel, saying it’s the sign the country knows its future depends on opening itself to foreign wealth.
“These stores are for millionaires. Attracting tourists with money, that’s development, capitalism,” said Maritza Garcia, 55, an airline office worker. “Everything that’s development is good. Bit by bit the country is lifting itself up. We’re a socialist country but the economy has to be a capitalist one.”
The Manzana de Gomez Kempinski in Havana is Cuba’s first five-star hotel.