Wednesday, May 10, 2017

New luxury mall in socialist Cuba pits state consumerism against the poor

New luxury mall in socialist Cuba pits state consumerism against the poor
Military's business arm has transformed Manzana de Gomez mall into an
opulent spectacle that both fascinates and alienates Cubans: 'I can't
buy anything
Associated Press in Havana
Tuesday 9 May 2017 16.16 BST Last modified on Tuesday 9 May 2017 18.09 BST

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.

Cuba for sale: 'Havana is now the big cake – and everyone is trying to
get a slice'

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 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 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.

Gaviota, the military's tourism company, is in the midst of a hotel
building spree. The military corporation Cimex, created two decades ago,
counts retail stories, auto rental businesses and even a recording
studio among its holdings. The military retail chain TRD has hundreds of
shops across Cuba that sell everything from soap to home electronics at
prices often several times those in nearby countries.

The military-run Mariel port west of Havana has seen double-digit growth
fueled largely by demand in the tourism sector and the armed forces last
year took over the bank that does business with foreign companies,
assuming control of most of Cuba's day-to-day international financial

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 20th century Cuban communist
leader Julio Antonio Mella sat before it was removed in the building's
multi-year 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,
TRD Caribe and Cimex host the luxury brands along with Cuban stores
selling lesser-known 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, working-class 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."

L'Occitane, Lacoste, Mont Blanc and the Cuban military's business wing
did not return requests for comment.

With its economy in recession and longstanding 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

"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 Bundchen.

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

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."

Source: New luxury mall in socialist Cuba pits state consumerism against
the poor | World news | The Guardian -

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