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," Sergio Perez, the Havana director of the Spanish-language site, said Tuesday.
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 guyabera 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-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 the mallhabana.com case. But Ninoska Perez Castellon, a Miami radio and TV host, said U.S. authorities have shut down similar Web sites based in countries other than Cuba in the past and she expects American 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 nothing wrong.
"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 roughly $450 in the U.S. is offered "on sale" for $1,424. Imported products in Cuba are routinely marked up to over twice their retail value overseas, however.
Cuban state transportation company Transval, whose wide range of duties include managing a fleet of armored cars for Cuban banks, is in charge of home delivery of products bought online.
Even though Cuba has teamed up with foreign providers to offer Web-based shopping in the past, a special effort to promote buying for the winter holidays is unprecedented.
President Raul Castro, who succeeded his ailing 82-year-old brother Fidel in February, has lifted bans on Cubans buying DVD players, computers, electric rice cookers and other coveted consumer goods, but prices remain too high for many on the island to afford.