The Dallas Morning News
March 22, 2002

Havana mall exuding spirit of capitalism for lucky few

Bargain hunters relying on access to foreign dollars and elite jobs

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

HAVANA But for the sign saluting the 43rd anniversary of the revolution, this popular minimall could be in Hialeah, Fla.

Inside, music blares and an indoor ramp spirals four floors up from the small food court on the ground level, giving it the feel of a carnival concourse.

The Carlos III shopping center, just a short walk from Fidel Castro's Presidential Palace, looks like a pocket of budding capitalism in Communist Cuba.

Of course, the stores are all state-owned, and the teenagers wearing bandanas emblazoned with the American flag may very well be card-carrying members of the
Communist Youth Union.

But the shoppers bumping into one another in the crowded aisles on a recent weekday morning aren't much concerned with contradictions.

They're bargain hunting.

Unlike most places in Cuba offering conspicuous consumption, this shopping center is made for Cubans, not tourists.

There's a sporting-goods store, an auto shop and, at the top, a large furniture store.

The fancy perfume shop sells L'Oreal shampoos made in Mexico, and at the Adidas store you can buy $22 spandex workout shirts made in Colombia.

The most popular store here is the decidedly lowbrow "Everything for $1."

There's always a knot of would-be customers outside the door, waiting to get in.

Sometimes the store gets so crowded, the manager has to lock the doors until some of the shoppers inside disperse.

Leisbel Guerrero piles her packages on two tables at the food court and puts her feet up.

"I couldn't buy here if it weren't for him," she said, nodding to a Spanish friend. "Many people who come here live from the money they are sent from abroad. There
are also artists and athletes who leave the country and can earn dollars."

Ironically, a sign above her head in the food court proclaims: "The Cuban revolution is a symbol of independence."

Already Ms. Guerrero's little girl has pulled her $16 plastic tea set from the bags, eager to open the package.

"I used to make $10 a month," Ms. Guerrero said. "Even if I saved my entire salary, I couldn't buy that for my daughter."

"It was when la comunidad [Cuban Americans] started returning that you began seeing the differences, who had more and who had less."

In 1994, after the Soviet bloc crumbled and Cuba lost $6 billion in yearly subsidies, American dollars were legalized here and ration booklets for everything but food

The government estimates that about 60 percent of Cubans have access to dollars.

Many receive remittances from relatives. Others belong to Cuba's nouveau riche: tourism workers who earn dollars and the lucky few who earn part of their salary in
dollars working with foreign companies.