Boutique / Yoani Sánchez

via_unoA few yards from the Plaza de San Francisco are the glamorous display windows of the Via Uno store. Leather shoes with spike heels, a bit useless for the uneven sidewalks of Havana. Pleated bags with gilt edges which seem to hold the world, to have room for the whole city. Curious people stop in front of the glass and some women go in for a closer look, although very few come out with a purchase in their hands. There is the teenager there who is about to turn fifteen, insisting that her mother drop her savings on some dusty red ankle boots. Also the functionary of a new corporation, mouth agape and eyebrows raised before the prices which run to three figures. On the other side of the street — directly across from the door of the boutique — an old woman reaches out her hand, asking for money.

Like an over-exposed photograph, social contrasts are perceived ever more strongly in Cuban life. While many wake up with the anxious question, “What am I going to eat today?” a new class — with hard currency in their pockets — boasts of consuming items from exclusive stores. People who, thanks to corruption, private businesses, remittances sent from abroad, or government privileges, have access to more expensive clothes, better food, products out of reach for the vast majority. In tourist areas this chiaroscuro stands out more sharply. It is here where the different levels are more visible, more painful. It is here, where the concept of “equality,” still heard in countless slogans, still dwelling — like a mirage — in the minds of so many outside our borders, is given the lie.

Under the reflected glare from the sharp letters of an illuminated sign, a gentleman sells peanuts in paper cones. Not a single syllable of his cry — Peanuts! Peanuts! — is heard within that air-conditioned store, much less in the dressing room where someone zips herself into an article of luxury.

4 March 2012