Iván García, 11 May 2017 — Scarcely a block away from the majestic Grand Hotel Manzana Kempinski, whose inauguration is expected next June 2nd, next to the Payret cinema, a state-owned cafeteria sells an acidic and insipid hamburger with bread for the equivalent of 50 centavos. Workers in the neighbourhood and beggars who survive on asking foreigners for change, form a small queue to buy the inedible hamburger.
The hotel, built by Kempinski, a company started in Berlin in 1897, stands in the place of the old Manzana de Gómez, the first shopping mall on the island, at Neptuno, San Rafael, Zulueta and Monserrate streets, in the heart of Havana. Opened in 1910, throughout its history, the Manzana de Gómez housed everything from offices, lawyers’ chambers and commercial consultants to businesses, cafes and restaurants and other enterprises.
Very near to Manzana Kempinski, the first five star hotel there, will be the Cuban parliament, still a work in progress, which will have as its headquarters the old National Capitol, a smaller scale replica of the Congress in Washington.
The splendid hotel, owned by Gaviota, a Cuban military corporation, and managed by the Kepinski organisation, can boast of having the old Centro Asturiano, now the home of the Fine Arts Museum’s private collections, the Havana Gran Teatro and the Inglaterra, Telégrafo, Plaza and Parque Central hotels as neighbours.
Apart from the recently-built Parque Central Hotel, the other three hotels are situated in 19th century or Republican era buildings, and are among the most beautiful in the city. In the centre of these architectural jewels we find Havana Park, presided over by the statue of the national hero, José Martí.
In those four hotels, you will find shops selling exclusively in convertible pesos (CUC), a strong currency created by Fidel Castro for the purpose of buying high quality capitalist goods.
Incidentally, they pay their employees in the Cuban Pesos (CUP), or national currency. In the tourism, telecoms and civil aviation sectors, their employees only earn 10-35 CUC as commission.
The chavito, as the Cubans term the CUC, is a revolving door which controls the territory between the socialist botch-ups, shortages and third rate services and the good or excellent products invoiced by the “class enemies”, as the Marxist theory has it, which supports the olive green bunch which has been governing the island since 1959.
21st century Cuba is an absurd puzzle. Those in charge talk about defending the poor, go on about social justice and prosperous sustainable socialism, but the working class and retired people are worse off.
The regime is incapable of starting up stocked markets, putting up good quality apartment blocks, reasonably priced hotels where a workman could stay or even maintaining houses, streets and sidewalks in and around the neighborhoods of the capital. But it invests a good part of the gross domestic product in attracting foreign currency.
José, a private taxi driver, thinks that it’s good to have millions of tourists pouring millions of dollars into the state’s cash register. “But, the cash should then be reinvested in improving the country. From the ’80’s on, the government has bet on tourism. And how much money has come over all those years? And in which productive sectors has it been invested?” asks the driver of a clapped-out Soviet-era Moskovitch.
Government officials should tell us. But they don’t. In Cuba, supposedly public money is managed in the utmost secrecy. Nobody knows where the foreign currency earned by the state actually ends up and the officials look uncomfortable when you ask them to explain about offshore Panamanian or Swiss bank accounts.
In this social experiment, which brings together the worst of socialism imported from the USSR with the most repugnant aspects of African style capitalist monopoly, in the ruined streets of Havana, they allow Rapid and Furious to be filmed, they tidy up the Paseo del Prado for a Chanel parade or open a Qatar style hotel like the Manzana Kampinski, in an area surrounded by filth, where there is no water and families have only one meal a day to eat.
In a car dealer in Primelles on the corner of Via Blanca, in El Cerro, they sell cars at insulting prices. The hoods of the cars are covered in dust and a used car costs between $15-40,000. A Peugeot 508, at $300k, is dearer than a Lamborghini.
For the authorities, the excessive prices are a “revolutionary tax”, and with this money they have said they will defray the cost of buying city buses. It’s a joke: they have hardly sold more than about forty second-hand cars in three years and public transport goes from bad to worse.
For Danay, a secondary school teacher, it isn’t the government opening hotels and luxury shops that annoys her, “What pisses me off is that everything is unreal. How can they sell stuff that no-one could afford even if they worked for 500 years? Is it some kind of macabre joke, and an insult to all Cuban workers?” Danay asks herself, while she hangs around the shopping centre in the Hotel Kempinski.
In the wide reinforced concrete passageways, what you normally see there is amazing. With his girl friend embracing him, Ronald, a university student, smiles sarcastically as he looks in a jewelry shop window at some emeralds going for more than 24k convertible pesos. “In another shop, a Canon camera costs 7,500 CUC. It’s mad.” And he adds:
“In other countries they sell expensive items, but they also have items for more affordable prices. Who the hell could buy that in Cuba, my friend? Apart from those people (in the government), the Cuban major league baseball players who get paid millions of dollars, and the people who have emigrated and earn lots of money in the United States. I don’t think tourists are going to buy things they can get more cheaply in their own countries. If at any time I had any doubts about the essential truth about this government, I can see it here: we are living in a divided society. Capitalism for the people up there, and socialism and poverty for us lot down here”.
Security guards dressed in grey uniforms, with earphones in their ears and surly-looking faces, have a go at anyone taking photos or connecting to the internet via wifi. People complain “If they don’t let you take photos or connect to the internet, then they are not letting Cubans come in”, says an irritated woman.
In the middle of the ground floor of what is now the Hotel Kempinski, which used to be the Manzana de Gómez mall, in 1965 a bronze effigy of Julio Antonio Mella, the student leaders and founder of the first Communist party in 1925, was unveiled. The sculpture has disappeared from there.
“In the middle of all this luxurious capitalism, there is no place for Mella’s statue”, comments a man looking at the window displays with his granddaughter. Or probably the government felt embarrassed by it.
Note: About the Mella bust, in an article entitled Not forgotten or dead, published 6th May in the Juventud Rebelde magazine, the journalist Ciro Bianchi Ross wrote: “I have often asked myself what was the point of the Mella bust which they put in the middle of the Manzana de Gómez mall and then removed seven years ago, before the old building started to be transformed into a luxury hotel, and which seems to bother people now. Mella had nothing in common with that building. The Manzana de Gómez had no connection with his life or his political journey. Apart from the fact that from an artistic point of view it didn’t look like anything”.
Translated by GH