The Death Throes of a Formerly Great Cuban Department Store

From the former glamorous Fin de Siglo, all that remains is a building with serious structural problems, empty and stinky. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, 28 June 2017 – The shit, not the metaphorical kind but the kind that stinks, makes it nearly impossible to read the name Fin de Siglo, End of Century, imbedded in the granite floor. In five decades, one of the most emblematic Havana stores has transitioned from glamor to abandonment, passing also through experiments in socialist distribution and the self-employment sector.

Founded in the long ago 1897 and located on the central corner formed by San Rafael Boulevard and Aguila Street, Fin de Siglo was among the most important commercial establishments in Cuba, along with La Época and El Encanto. In its place today, however, there remains only a building with serious structural problems, vacant and stinky.

During what Fidel Castro labeled with euphemistically the Special Period in Time of Peace – a time of great economic hardship after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its financial support for Cuba – Fin de Siglo sold only to distinguished workers awarded “vanguard” status, and to newly married couples. A nice 1992 documentary, made by the Belgian Madelin Waterlet and the Pole Simon Saleski and named after the store, relates the surrealist moment.

During the so-called Special Period in Time of Peace the business sold only to the distinguished workers awarded “vanguard” status and to newly married couples

That form of the socialist marketing could not be sustained for long and with the gentle winds of economic reforms the ground floor of the building was set up for private sector retailers to sell sandals, household utensils, objects for religious rituals and clothing.

Many tourists also came to acquire an ashtray with the face of Che Guevara or canvases from which shone the skin of beautiful mulatas. But a month ago the sellers were reassigned among the soulless state stores.

The authorities justify the relocations with the deterioration of the building. However, private individuals who paid rent for space in the building insist that their contracts with the state Empresa de Comercio stipulated that 30% of lease proceeds would go to repairs, which were never made.

At the end of 2012, the sellers were informed that restoration work would begin on the building, but after a few weeks and the placement of wooden beams to prop up the top floor, the works did not continue.

In order not to lose their clientele, the vendors proposed that the local government allow them to become a non-agricultural cooperative (CNA), a form of economic management which, as of January this year, had 397 examples throughout the country dedicated to food, personal and technical services.

However, the initiative did not prosper and for several weeks now the retailers have been relocated in nearby stores such as Cancha, Florida and Sublime, smaller and more poorly located.

“I have lost a lot of money in this move and also this place does not have the minimum necessary conditions,” says a clothing saleswoman with a counter in the Cancha store who preferred anonymity. However, she acknowledges that “Fin de Siglo also had problems because of the heat, the lack of windows and the constant obstructions in the sewer pipes.”

The merchant believes that if they had let the tenants invest the conditions of the ground floor would have been improved, since each year the premises collected about 3 million Cuban pesos (roughly $120k US) in rent receipts. “Why didn’t they use part of that for reconstruction?” she protests.

The merchant believes that if they had let the tenants invest the conditions of the ground floor would have been improved, since each year the premises collected about 3 million Cuban pesos in rent

Some vendors have placed handmade posters in the windows of Fin de Siglo alerting customers to their new locations. There is no obvious construction work taking place in the building but all the outlets and the bulbs from the ceiling lights are missing.

Carlos Alberto, a young jeweler wants an explanation. “When someone finds out what they are going to do there, let them come and tell me.” The artisan doubts the official version and maintains that the building will be “remodeled to become a store selling in convertible pesos” – that is to the well-to-do and tourists – a speculation which the authorities of the municipality of Central Havana do not want to comment on.

At the Sublime establishment, a CD vendor predicts a worse future for the emblematic store. “It’s going to be just like the Duplex cinema, a block away, which one day was closed because it had a problem in the bathroom and today is a ruin,” he says.