Cuba’s Decline: Where There Were Rolex, Towels Remain

If clients could access the Riviera House before, with its mix of neoclassical and baroque styles and its employees in suits and ties, now sales take place at the door and in a hurry. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Natalia López Moya, Havana, 5 October 2023 — A woman carries a large wad of bills in her hand. She doesn’t bother to protect the thousands of Cuban pesos because, what was once a large sum of money, today barely becomes a few purchases. Adjacent to the peculiar façade, a dozen people lined up this Thursday in front of the former Casa Riviera, an exclusive store on Galiano #456 in Centro Habana, which once sold Rolex watches and jewelry, but which has now been rented to a small private company that offers sheets, cloth wipes for cleaning floors and towels.

A few meters before reaching the store, the symbols of its former class can be distinguished. The imposing entrance gate, the small stained-glass windows decorated with flowery frames where the expensive jewels used to be displayed. The rough stone columns support the entrance hall that used to have beautiful granite floors and today shows impersonal modern slabs, of poor quality and full of holes.

“My place is after the man in the blue shirt,” exclaimed an elderly woman who pledges to have “seized the rhythm” of the MSME* [small private business]. “They sell a little cheaper than elsewhere, so many people come here to buy in quantities and take them away to resell”, she explains to 14ymedio. After years of being closed due to problems with sewage pipes and lack of supplies, the old Riviera began to be managed by individuals a few weeks ago.

If previously its customers could access the property, with its mix of neoclassical and baroque styles and its employees in suits and ties, now selling takes place at the door and with haste

A bedsheet with two pillow cases, made with a high percentage of polyester and at 1,300 pesos, ($54.60) is displayed at the entrance counter. If before clients could access the property, with its mix of neoclassical and baroque style, and its employees in suits and ties, now selling takes place at the door and in a hurry. “Come on, whose turn is it?” the saleswoman tried to speed up the line, somewhat overwhelmed by the questions from those crowding the counter. Behind her, the interior of the legendary watch and jewelry store was still visible, with its light marbles, its elaborate capitals and a narrow staircase that gave way to the majestic mezzanine.

“Give me ten towels!” A customer shouted and her voice echoed through the walls of the business that initially operated under the Abislaimán e Hijos brand, the exclusive distributor of Rolex watches in Cuba. “Don’t crowd together, I can’t even breathe that way!” the employee demanded when the line got out of control and overwhelmed her. The majority of those who stood in line were humble people, who are willing to get up early to make a few pesos difference on the resale of merchandise.

A bed sheet with two pillow cases, with a high percentage of polyester priced at 1,300 pesos, is displayed at the entrance counter. (14ymedio)

Casa Riviera was not the only business of Julio Abislaimán Fade’s family. His daughter Alicia and her husband Manuel Hernández managed the also exclusive Chantilly jewelry store in a central location on San Rafael Street in Havana. When the confiscations began after Fidel Castro came to power, the clan of businessmen packed their bags and went to Puerto Rico. There, they registered the company as Chantilly Joyeros and, although a good part of the descendants of those Cuban emigrants moved to the United States, the Abislaimán Joyas firm, niece of the Casa Riviera in Havana, still operates in ”La Isla del Encanto” (Puerto Rico).

“If you don’t get organized, the sale will have to stop”, an anxious saleswoman shouted this Thursday, unable to control the customers’ disorder. Next to her, two of the armored glass and bronze-framed windows, which more than half a century ago showed the shiny Rolexes, this morning had a rusty hook for hanging pillowcases and kitchen rags.

*Translator’s note: Literally, “Micro, Small, Medium Enterprise.” The expectation is that it is also privately managed, but in Cuba this may include owners/managers who are connected to the regime.

Translated by Norma Whiting


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