Posted on Thursday, 12.25.08
Cuban merchandise available on the Internet
Mallhabana.com is touted as a new way for Cuban exiles to help their
relatives on the island.
BY WILL WEISSERT
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 everything from flowers to
flat-screen TVs for delivery to relatives on the island.
Spanish-based Grupo Excelencias 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 weeks.
''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 directly challenge U.S. legal limits on shipping
funds to Cuba or spending money on the island.
Dozens of the products listed are made in Cuba — like Havana Club rum
or iconic guayabera shirts. Others are imports already stocked by
upscale government-run stores, such as 29-inch Panasonic televisions or
crunchy peanut butter from Canada.
The site was created in August 2006, but Cuba's government has been
promoting it heavily over the Christmas holiday.
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 to
routinely close on Christmas in recent years.
This season, baggers and cashiers at state boutiques are passing out
copper-hued business cards bearing the mallhabana 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 sometimes apply to
third-country companies that operate on the island.
A U.S. Treasury Department spokesman in Washington declined to comment
specifically on mallhabana.com. 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 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 is 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.''