In the heart of Ha­vana, a lux­ury mall where most Cubans can only browse

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN

ha­vana — The sales­women 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 DSLR 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 so­cio­cul­tural phe­nom­e­non since its open­ing a few weeks ago, with Cubans wan­der­ing wide-eyed through its pol­ished-stone 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 vic­tory signs in echoes of the images sent by rel­a­tives in Mi­ami, who pose grin­ning along­side 50-inch TVs and lux­ury con­vert­ibles.

On a re­cent week­day, Oswell Men­dez and the mem­bers of his hip-hop dance group De Freak posed for their Face­book page in the cen­ter of the Man­zana, on the spot where a bust of early 20th­cen­tury 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-story 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 open­ing in early June that is owned by the mil­i­tary’s tourism arm, Gaviota, and run by Swiss lux­ury chain Kempin­ski. Along the bi­sect­ing galleries of the Man­zana’s ground floor, the mil­i­tary’s re­tail arms — TRD Caribe and CIMEQ — host the lux­ury brands along with Cuban stores sell­ing lesser­known but still pricey prod­ucts aimed at Cuba’s small but grow­ing up­per-mid­dle class, like $6 mini-bot­tles of sham­poo and sets of plates for more than $100.

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 home re­pairs or in­dul­gences.

“This hurts, be­cause I can’t buy any­thing,” said Rodolfo Her­nan­dez Tor­res, a 71-year-old 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.

With other sec­tors de­clin­ing, Cuba’s in­creas­ingly im­por­tant tourism in­dus­try is un­der pres­sure to change its state-run ho­tels’ rep­u­ta­tion for charg­ing ex­or­bi­tant prices for rooms and food far be­low in­ter­na­tional stan­dards. The Man­zana de Gomez Kempin­ski bills it­self as Cuba’s first real five-star ho­tel, and the brand-name shops around it ap­pear de­signed to re­in­force that.

The ho­tel is earn­ing pos­i­tive early re­views, but many tourists say they find the lux­ury mall along­side it to be re­pul­sive.

“I was very dis­ap­pointed,” said Jean­nie Gold­stein, who works in sports mar­ket­ing in Chicago and ended a six-day trip to Cuba, her first, on Satur­day.

“I came here to get away from this,” she said. “This screams wealth and Amer­ica to us.”

The Prado boule­vard was the scene of Cuba’s pre­vi­ous record for a state-spon­sored dis­play of ex­or­bi­tant con­sumerism. Last May, the gov­ern­ment closed the boule­vard for a pri­vate run­way show by French lux­ury la­bel Chanel for a crowd that in­cluded ac­tors Tilda Swin­ton and Vin Diesel and su­per­model Gisele Bünd­chen.

The tem­po­rary pri­va­ti­za­tion of a street for an in­ter­na­tional cor­po­ra­tion built on ex­clu­siv­ity and lux­ury gen­er­ated wide­spread re­vul­sion in Cuba and an un­usu­ally an­gry re­ac­tion among writers and in­tel­lec­tu­als. Cuba’s cul­ture min­is­ter re­signed two months later, with no rea­son given for his de­par­ture.

Many other Cubans were de­lighted by Chanel and adore the Man­zana de Gomez, 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, a 55-year-old 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/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A woman takes a selfie by a store­front. The busi­ness arm of Cuba’s mil­i­tary cre­ated the glitzy shop­ping spot in a bid to at­tract tourists.

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