14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 29 April 2017 — They stare, amazed, but they don’t buy anything. Their faces press against the glass and admire that unattainable wealth that is a few inches from their hands and an abyss from their pockets. The new luxury theme park in Havana is the newly opened boutiques on the lower floor of the Manzana Kempinski Hotel, the first five-star plus on the island.
Last weekend, the gallery was officially opened with exclusive brands in the style of Versace, Armani, Montblanc and L’Occitane en Provence. Since then, the parade of onlookers has not stopped walking the aisles. They come to take photos, laugh at the prices or be upset because in the midst of the general famine is so much wealth.
Most remember the state of abandonment which the popular Manzana de Gómez fell into for decades and hardly recognize it in this gorgeous six-story building.
“I studied here,” says Roberto Carlos, a 30-year-old student who spent part of his technoly training on the second floor of the emblematic building.
“When I was studying here, there was not a blind left and the ceilings had leaks,” added the young man. As he speaks, he waits in line to enter the luxurious venue of Giorgio G. VIP with his girlfriend, his mother and a sister. They have come like a family going to a fair to feel the dizziness of climbing on the roller coaster of opulence.
The boutique’s doorman warns that “you can not take photos” or have your phone’s “wifi on.” A clarification that generates a murmur among those waiting outside. Still they remain in line, to be able to carry away in their retinas part of that pomp that ends around the corner, when they enter the Havana everyday life.
Italian businessman Giorgio Gucci inaugurated this Cuban branch of his well-known brand last Saturday. “People come here looking for quality and exclusivity, right now there are very nice women’s shoes for less than 200 CUC,” says the doorman with pride. In the line, several people raise their eyebrows when they hear the prices.
“Not everyone comes to look, there are many who come and buy,” the man explains. But in the interior you do not see anyone next to the cash register nor making the gesture of putting a hand in their pockets. They only look at the clothing and shoes on display. They behave as if they were in a museum surrounded by oils worth thousands of dollars.
Others, older, remember the days when the former Manzana de Gomez was a symbol of economic progress in the Cuban capital. Designed by the architect José Gómez-Mena Vila and built between 1894 and 1917, the building was the first shopping mall in the style of European galleries. “It was an incredible place and the customers who came were all Cubans,” says Roberto Carlos’ grandmother. The woman, who retired more than two decades ago, said: “It used to be a place for us, but now it’s for tourists.”
The new monument to luxury is located on the border of two districts with serious housing problems. Just a few weeks ago and a few yards away, in downtown Havana, the staircase of a building collapsed and left dozens of families trapped. The other face of a city that has a good part of its housing in poor condition.
At the intersection of the corridors of the gallery they removed the bust of communist leader Julio Antonio Mella, who for decades stood defiantly in the center of the building. “They took it because this place represents the opposite of what he promoted,” reflects a retired professor of Marxism who decided to have a look, this Saturday, at “the forbidden apple of abundance,” as the catalog describes it.
For Idalmis, a young woman who in her teenage years studied at Benito Juárez High School located on one of the upper floors, the place has changed so much that she has trouble recognizing it. “Of that apple only the skin remains,” she quips.
The Lacoste brand also has a space in the sumptuous building. An employee explains to this newspaper that since its opening the store has sales that average “between 2,000 and 3,000 CUC per day. Every day we sell about twenty articles,” says the employee who wears a shirt with the logo of the French brand.
In the surroundings, and dressed in gray suits, the guards make sure that nobody connects to the hotel wifi signal that reaches the stores. Although the service costs 1.50 CUC an hour, the Manzana is a much more comfortable than other places with wireless access to the web.
“You can’t be connected here, excuse me, but you have to go outside,” the employees repeat over and over again.
The place is still a construction site, but the coming and going of builders does not prevent three young people from taking their time to get a selfie in front of an ashtray that costs a whopping 53.90 CUC. They don’t want to miss having evidence of the day they were closer to wealth.