The Store of Many Faces and Long Lines

The line at dawn to buy household appliances at the old Tencent store. (Facebook)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, April 23, 2021 — More than half a century ago everyone knew the big store on the corner of Galiano and San Rafael streets in Havana as “Tencent.” After it and others like it were nationalized, it became a state-owned business that for decades sold only rationed products. That’s how it remained until the beginning of this century when management of picturesque warehouses like these was turned over to the Trasval company, a subsidiary of the Cuban military, and it became a hardware store whose goods were sold for convertible pesos.

The year 2021 brought yet another change to the iconic building that occupies nearly an entire city block. The business, which more than sixty years ago was a branch of the F.W. Woolworth Company, became a foreign currency store specializing in household appliances. Its reopening in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic did not deter people from forming extremely long lines to buy an electric coffeemaker, a “split” air-conditioner or a much sought-after freezer.

With the disruption in overseas travel, the ’mules’ that used to import many of these devices for resale on the informal market have found a new niche buying goods at the old Tencent and reselling them to the many Cubans who do not have access to a debit card pre-loaded with foreign currency. That is why, even before the city-imposed curfew ends at 5:00 A.M., the streets around the store are filled with people.

Many of those waiting in line hours before the sun rises have no memories of the escalators that once graced the place, the bar where “the best sandwiches and milk shakes in Havana” were served, or the time generals became business managers and started selling power tools, plastic chairs, and huge barbecue grills.

Those waiting outside only know that inside are many of the things other places do not have: the status symbols that only those with dollars can buy.


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