Rich meets poor at Havana′s new luxury shopping mall | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 25.05.2017
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Rich meets poor at Havana's new luxury shopping mall

Some of the world's most lavish consumer brands are making their first appearance in Cuba. After decades with a focus on social equality, the government hopes high-end tourism will help the economy.

Marta peers into the shop windows on the ground floor of Havana's new, upscale shopping arcade. "My monthly pension is 342 Cuban pesos," the retired teacher said. That is about $14, or 12.5 euros. She could never afford the items she is staring at from the other side of glass.

The luxury products - high-end cosmetics, jewelry and watches, and consumer electronics all costing hundreds or thousands of dollars - are part of the Manzana de Gomez Hotel in the heart of the Cuban capital. Capitalist consumption has arrived to a society that has long touted its ideals of social equality.

Kuba Neue Luxusmall in Havanna (Martin Funck)

For many Cubans, the luxury products in Havana's new shopping mall are unaffordable

Swiss-led luxury

The regal, five-floor building was Cuba's first shopping mall, erected between 1894 and 1917. It was seized by the state as offices and a school following the revolution in the 1950s, then fell into disrepair. It has since been fully renovated and will open in June with 246 rooms costing between $370 and $660 per night. The hotel is run by Kempinski, a Swiss hotel chain. The property remains in the hands of the military-owned tour operator, Gaviota.

"It's a disgrace," said Edenis Sanchez, an actress. "Who can go shopping here?" Few Cubans can, for whom it can be difficult to afford everyday products from regular stores. The newly arrived luxury stands in stark contrast to the crisis years of the 1990s, when the end of the Soviet Union meant Cuba lost its primary benefactor almost overnight.

Kuba Neue Luxusmall in Havanna (Martin Funck)

Havana's new luxury hotel is geared mainly towards foreigners

All about tourism

Cuba's GDP shrunk by 1 percent in the past year. The country's most important trading partner, Venezuela, cut oil shipments due to its own economic and political difficulties, compelling Raul Castro's government to turn to tourism as a source of economic growth.

In a growing trend, more than 4 million tourists came to Cuba in 2016, including 614,000 Americans, and not all are pleased with the aesthetic upgrade. Many visit Cuba exactly to enjoy a respite from the luxury that has taken over elsewhere.

"It's disappointing," a couple vacationing from Germany said. They came to "get away from McDonalds and Starbucks. Now we find this here."

Kuba Neue Luxusmall in Havanna (Martin Funck)

Tourists love the old charm of Cuba's aging limousines

Cuba's balancing act

The Cuban government wants to attract tourists and the money they bring into the country, which means jobs. It also wants to guard against a growing divide between rich and poor. It proves to be a difficult balance. An exclusive fashion show by Chanel, held last year on Cuba's famous Paseo del Prado - a public space - was the target of criticism by Cuban commentators and some members of the public.

Not all Cubans fear a future of luxury and the risk of increased economic disparity. To Rodolfo, who lives in a crumbling building not far from the Manzana de Gomez, it is a sign of better times ahead for his island nation. "Everything in the service of development is good," he said. "These stores and the hotel will bring in tourists with money."

The soon-to-open luxury hotel may be Cuba's first, but it will not be the last. Not far away, another high-rise hotel is being readied to serve a new kind of tourist coming to vacation on the communist island.

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