The saleswomen in L'Occitane en Provence's new Havana store make $12.50 a month. The acacia eau de toilette they sell costs $95.20 a bottle. A few doors down, a Canon EOS camera goes for $7,542.01. A Bulgari watch, $10,200. In the heart of the capital of a nation founded on ideals of social equality, the business arm of the Cuban military has transformed a century-old shopping arcade into a temple to conspicuous capitalism, the AP reports. With the first Cuban branches of L'Occitane, Mont Blanc, and Lacoste, the Manzana de Gomez mall has become a sociocultural phenomenon since its opening a few weeks ago, with Cubans wandering wide-eyed through its polished-stone passages. Teenagers pose for Facebook photos in front of stores, throwing victory signs in echoes of the images sent by relatives in Miami, who pose grinning alongside 50-inch TV sets and luxury convertibles.
The five-story Manzana sits off the Prado, the broad, tree-lined boulevard that divides the colonial heart of the city. The upper floors are a five-star hotel opening in early June that is owned by the military's tourism arm, Gaviota, and run by Swiss luxury chain Kempinski. The hotel is earning positive early reviews but many tourists say they find the luxury mall alongside it to be repulsive. "I was very disappointed," says Chicago resident Jeannie Goldstein, whose first trip to Cuba ended Saturday. "I came here to get away from this," she says. "This screams wealth and America to us." Some Cubans, however, say they're glad to see a sign the country is opening itself up to foreign wealth. But for many working-class Cubans, it's painful. "This hurts because I can't buy anything," says a 71-year-old retired electrical mechanic who lives on $12.50 a month. "There are people who can come here to buy things, but it's maybe one in 10. Most of the country doesn't have the money." (Read more Cuba stories.)