With Chanel, so­cial­ist Cuba has first lux­ury mall

The Hamilton Spectator - - BUSINESS - MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN

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.”

RA­MON ESPINOSA, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The Man­zana de Gomez Kempin­ski in Ha­vana is Cuba’s first five-star ho­tel.

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