Cuba promotes retail website aimed at exiles
MallHabana.com enables Cubans overseas to buy products as diverse as
flowers and flat-screen TVs for delivery to relatives in Cuba.
December 24, 2008
Reporting from Havana — A country that shunned Christmas for decades is
now looking to cash in on the holiday season, promoting an online
shopping site designed to let Cubans overseas buy products, including
flowers and flat-screen TVs, for delivery to relatives in the island nation.
Grupo Excelencias, based in Spain, teamed with Cuba's communist
government to create MallHabana.com, which offers prices in U.S. dollars
and says it can deliver products within 24 hours to homes in Havana and
get purchases to even the country's most remote addresses within three
"It's a good business, but it's also a way for Cubans [overseas] to help
their family members here," said Sergio Perez, the Havana director of
the Spanish-language site.
It also appears to be a direct challenge to U.S. legal limits on
shipping funds to Cuba or spending money here.
Dozens of the products listed are made in Cuba — such as Havana Club
rum and guayabera shirts. Others are imports already stocked by upscale
government-run stores, such as 29-inch Panasonic TVs or crunchy peanut
butter from Canada.
The site was created in August 2006, but Cuba's government has been
promoting it heavily during the Christmas season.
Cuba officially canceled Christmas as a holiday in 1966 and long
discouraged citizens from openly celebrating it. But the Communist Party
temporarily reinstated Dec. 25 as a holiday in 1998 after Pope John Paul
II's visit, and schools, government offices and businesses have begun
routinely to close on Christmas in recent years.
This holiday season, baggers and cashiers at state boutiques are passing
out copper-hued business cards bearing the MallHabana.com Web address
and the slogan, "Your Friendly Purchases," to shoppers in Havana, hoping
to entice purchases from visiting exiles.
The cards attracted so much attention that the luxury Palco supermarket
on Havana's western outskirts quickly ran out. The store sells
expensive, mostly imported, goods to foreign diplomats, tourists and
Cubans lucky enough to have hard currency.
Perez said the website has 20,000 registered customers and generates
"millions of dollars annually" in sales, though he declined to give
Payment requires a non-U.S. credit card — a rarity among Cubans in the
United States — or direct money transfers to Excelencias' Spanish
accounts. Customers can also purchase U.S. money orders and ship them to
company representatives in Canada, Perez said.
Such transactions would seemingly violate Washington's nearly
50-year-old trade embargo, which generally prohibits most Americans and
U.S. residents from doing business with this country and buying products
of Cuban origin. The restrictions can even apply to third-country
companies that operate in Cuba.
A U.S. Treasury Department spokesman declined to comment specifically on
the MallHabana.com case. But Ninoska Perez Castellon, a Miami radio and
TV host, said U.S. authorities have shut down similar such websites
based outside Cuba in the past, and she expects that U.S. authorities
will take similar action this time.
"Apparently they think they can violate the law. It's really pathetic,"
said Perez Castellon, a member of the Cuban Liberty Council, an exile
group that opposes Fidel Castro and the Cuban government. "It's the law,
it's clear and they are violating it."
But back in Havana, Sergio Perez maintained that the site was doing
"The company is Spanish, and the United States can't do anything," said
Perez, who is not related to Perez Castellon. "Anyway, we carefully
guard the information of our registered clients."
The site features a limited range of products at what Americans would
consider sky-high prices. The first item listed under "computing" is a
set of eight crayons. Further down the page, a Dell computer that would
retail for about $450 in the U.S. is offered "on sale" for $1,424.
Imported products in Cuba are routinely marked up to more than twice
their retail value overseas, however.