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 government to create mallhabana.com, which offers prices in US 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,” Sergio Perez, the Havana director of the Spanish-language site, said on Tuesday.
It also appears to directly challenge US 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 TVs 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 holiday 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 Web site has 20,000 registered customers and generates “millions of dollars annually” in sales, though he declined to give specifics.
Payment requires a non-US credit card — a rarity among Cubans in the US — or direct money transfers to Excelencias’ Spanish accounts. Customers can also purchase US 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 US residents from doing business with this country and buying products of Cuban origin.