But now, Cubans can buy shirts with those little alligators on them at Lacoste. Or at L'Occitane en Provence, face cream for $162.40 an ounce. Or watches in the $10,000s.
Cuba's first luxury mall, Manzana de Gomez, opened up a few weeks ago. And while those items are for sale, the prices are in a different sphere from what most Cubans can afford.
Indeed, the stores' envisioned clientele seems to be tourists from abroad, rather than locals, and the new mall puts their differing means in high relief.
"A few blocks away, working-class Cubans live in decaying apartments on streets clogged by uncollected trash," reports the AP:
"This hurts because I can't buy anything," said Rodolfo Hernandez Torres, a 71-year-old retired electrical mechanic who lives on a salary of $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."
Gaviota, the Cuban military's tourism company, is the dealmaker behind the mall — and above it, the country's first five-star hotel, opening in June. European luxury hotel brand Kempinski will operate the hotel, in a management deal with Gaviota. (American companies aren't allowed to build in Cuba.)
"Gaviota is among the state-run companies under the umbrella of GAESA, a sprawling conglomerate run by the Cuban military," the Miami Herald explained in February. "As a Cuban tourism enterprise, Gaviota's portfolio includes 64 hotels and villas with more than 27,000 rooms in the 3, 4 and 5 star categories, marinas, a tour company and Transgaviota, a transportation services company."
Despite the company's state ownership, a press release about the forthcoming hotel doesn't sound like a socialist tract.
"With its impeccable 120-year history, European-style luxury and extraordinary quality, Europe's oldest luxury hotel group Kempinski is a perfect fit with the Manzana de Gómez," says Carlos M. Latuff, executive president of Grupo de Turismo Gaviota, according to the statement. "Constructed at the beginning of the 20th century, as Cuba's first European-style shopping arcade, it is an iconic building in an important historical area. Together with Kempinski we will make this jewel the city's leading luxury hotel."
Last summer, well before the luxury watches and face creams were for sale, the project's construction brought its own controversy. In July, Reuters reported that Bouygues, the French construction group building the hotel, had hired 100 Indian laborers to work on the project, "breaking a taboo in the Communist-run country on hiring foreign labor." The wire service reported that it was the first time a firm had hired foreign workers en masse, seemingly to finish the hotel faster in order to meet increased tourism demands:
"[F]oreign firms are required to partner with state-run construction companies that have strict limits on how much they can pay Cubans. They can pay foreign workers more, however.
'The Cuban workers are not paid well so there is little motivation,' a western diplomat familiar with the pay differential said, requesting anonymity due to diplomatic protocol. 'The Indian workers are being paid around 1,500 Euros a month, more than 10 times what their Cuban counterparts receive.' "
The Cuban government bars foreign firms from hiring local workers directly, the Herald explained in August, and instead forces them to hire through state labor agencies. The newspaper says that Cubans hired for construction work through a labor agency receive $25 to $30 a month.
As Cuba tries to grow its tourism industry, the AP reports that it's "under pressure to change its state-run hotels' reputation for charging exorbitant prices for rooms and food far below international standards."
Airlines jockeyed for routes from the U.S. to Havana after President Obama began opening up relations with the country in December 2014. But as Bloomberg reported in February, U.S. demand hasn't been as strong as many expected, and some airlines have started cutting flights.
In Old Havana, Cubans have been exploring the new mall, taking photos amidst goods that would perhaps take a lifetime to buy.
Just 90 miles away in America, nine U.S. retail chains have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this year, in a country with 23 square feet of shopping center space for each person, the highest of anywhere in the world.