Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Death Throes of a Formerly Great Cuban Department Store

The Death Throes of a Formerly Great Cuban Department Store

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, 28 June 2017 – The shit, not the
metaphorical kind but the kind that stinks, makes it nearly impossible
to read the name Fin de Siglo, End of Century, imbedded in the granite
floor. In five decades, one of the most emblematic Havana stores has
transitioned from glamor to abandonment, passing also through
experiments in socialist distribution and the self-employment sector.

Founded in the long ago 1897 and located on the central corner formed by
San Rafael Boulevard and Aguila Street, Fin de Siglo was among the most
important commercial establishments in Cuba, along with La Época and El
Encanto. In its place today, however, there remains only a building with
serious structural problems, vacant and stinky.

During what Fidel Castro labeled with euphemistically the Special Period
in Time of Peace – a time of great economic hardship after the collapse
of the Soviet Union and the end of its financial support for Cuba – Fin
de Siglo sold only to distinguished workers awarded "vanguard" status,
and to newly married couples. A nice 1992 documentary, made by the
Belgian Madelin Waterlet and the Pole Simon Saleski and named after the
store, relates the surrealist moment.

That form of the socialist marketing could not be sustained for long and
with the gentle winds of economic reforms the ground floor of the
building was set up for private sector retailers to sell sandals,
household utensils, objects for religious rituals and clothing.

Many tourists also came to acquire an ashtray with the face
of Che Guevara or canvases from which shone the skin of beautiful
mulatas. But a month ago the sellers were reassigned among the soulless
state stores.

The authorities justify the relocations with the deterioration of the
building. However, private individuals who paid rent for space in the
building insist that their contracts with the state Empresa de Comercio
stipulated that 30% of lease proceeds would go to repairs, which were
never made.

At the end of 2012, the sellers were informed that restoration work
would begin on the building, but after a few weeks and the placement of
wooden beams to prop up the top floor, the works did not continue.

In order not to lose their clientele, the vendors proposed that the
local government allow them to become a non-agricultural cooperative
(CNA), a form of economic management which, as of January this year, had
397 examples throughout the country dedicated to food, personal and
technical services.

However, the initiative did not prosper and for several weeks now the
retailers have been relocated in nearby stores such as Cancha, Florida
and Sublime, smaller and more poorly located.

"I have lost a lot of money in this move and also this place does not
have the minimum necessary conditions," says a clothing saleswoman with
a counter in the Cancha store who preferred anonymity. However, she
acknowledges that "Fin de Siglo also had problems because of the heat,
the lack of windows and the constant obstructions in the sewer pipes."

The merchant believes that if they had let the tenants invest the
conditions of the ground floor would have been improved, since each year
the premises collected about 3 million Cuban pesos (roughly $120k US) in
rent receipts. "Why didn't they use part of that for reconstruction?"
she protests.

Some vendors have placed handmade posters in the windows of Fin de Siglo
alerting customers to their new locations. There is no obvious
construction work taking place in the building but all the outlets and
the bulbs from the ceiling lights are missing.

Carlos Alberto, a young jeweler wants an explanation. "When someone
finds out what they are going to do there, let them come and tell
me." The artisan doubts the official version and maintains that the
building will be "remodeled to become a store selling in convertible
pesos" – that is to the well-to-do and tourists – a speculation which
the authorities of the municipality of Central Havana do not want to
comment on.

At the Sublime establishment, a CD vendor predicts a worse future for
the emblematic store. "It's going to be just like the Duplex cinema, a
block away, which one day was closed because it had a problem in the
bathroom and today is a ruin," he says.

Source: The Death Throes of a Formerly Great Cuban Department Store –
Translating Cuba -

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