Manzana Kempinski: Luxury Alongside Ruin
A few days after its opening, the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski hotel has already welcomed its first guests, though the official opening is scheduled for June 7 and 8, according to workers at the establishment.
“You can book right here, in person, or online,” explains one of the employees, dressed in red and black. “Payment may be in cash or by credit card.”
Unsurprisingly, most Cubans cannot even dream of staying at the hotel, where the cheapest room costs more than 400 CUC per night and, the most expensive, more than 1,300.
But, according to Elsa, a Tourism worker, the prices are not as high as she expected.
“If you take a close look, the difference is not that great, relative to other hotels,” he says. “At others, like the Telégrafo, across from it, or any of those in Old Havana, a double room costs almost 300 CUC. It’s almost the same, but the Manzana has a level of luxury that the others do not.”
Luisa, a State worker, sees things from another perspective: “When I can’t even afford oil for the month, you can imagine that, for me, that hotel is like a museum,” she says.
Havana residents had been making similar comments for a few days, as soon as they opened the stores located on the first floor of the hotel.
“Quick, go buy a hair dye at the perfumery,” joked a girl. “They cost a bit over three CUC, and that’s the only thing that you will be able to buy in those stores, ever.”
In front of the store called Malecón, a woman explains to two Asian tourists: “It’s for foreigners with money, because very few Cubans can afford to buy anything here.”
It could be said that no ordinary Cuban will have access to the products at Malecón, where the Prada high heel sandals cost 1,119.95 CUC, and the cheapest item sold are Valentino coin purses, for 37 CUC each.
In Casa Blanca, the perfumery, it is true that the only thing that a Cuban woman could ever buy is the aforementioned coloring, but no one is deceived into thinking that throngs of women customers will ever be showing up to buy things like the perfume at the counter (Sí, by Giorgio Armani, for 131.95 CUC), or Moschino sunglasses, for 83.95.
The Fotoestilo store is like a museum for products that Cubans cannot have. Apart from a few “ornaments” featuring a photo of Che (the only even remote allusion to Communism in the whole hotel), the prices of the rooms and the accessories sold there reserve them for Cubans’ dreams. The cheapest is a Nikon, at 1,672 CUC, and the most expensive, a Leica that costs 8,180 CUC, more than some houses in the country.
“With that kind of money I could buy a little place and solve my problem,” says a man staring at a Canon that costs 7,524 CUC.
At the L’Occitane en Provence store a 50-ml cream costs 47 CUC, and nothing at Lacoste costs less than 50.
“Someone might buy something, but most come to gawk,” admits the clerk at one of the stores. “There have been a lot of people here who feel insulted by the prices, and mention that to build this there is money, but to fix their houses, there is nothing.”
An area in ruins
One block away from the brand-new Manzana Kempinski hotel, on the back wall of the shabby Payret cinema, a work of graffiti protests the state of Havana’s homes: it consists of a little house, drawn in the style of children, but upside down, a condemnation of the precarious conditions under which Cubans live.
“In Old Havana there are a lot of houses falling apart,” says Vivian, a resident of San Isidro. “Not only in my neighborhood, which is further away from the hotel, but also close-by. The house right next door, across from Albear Park, is a sorry sight.”
On the occasion of the hotel’s opening, the surrounding parks have undergone changes. In Central Park trees and vegetation were removed as if they were a nuisance. The small Albear Park, by Obispo, was uprooted. Not only were the trees under which Havanans sat to connect to the Floridita’s Wi-Fi torn out, but the sidewalks and the walls of the flower beds are also being changed.
“The trees were rotting,” explained a worker from Puerto Carena. “We’re going to fix everything and plant new one.”
Transit in the area has also been modified. The bus stops were eliminated in Central Park, along with the private taxi pick-up point in Alamar, which had been there for years. Now no vehicle, State or private, can park to drop off passengers.
The number of policemen in the area has increased. There are more not only on Obispo and O’Reilly, but you can even see a PNR truck parked permanently in front of Albear Park.
This whole effort made to upgrade the area surrounding the hotel has not extended to the dwellings of Havana residents, who continue to suffer the same construction-related problems as always.
On the same side of Albear Park, the building that is right across from the hotel’s balconies has the same precarious latticework of bricks and derelict balconies. And it is not uncommon to find debris and trash of all kinds on the sidewalk.
What Manzana Kempiski guests will encounter when they go for a walk is going to completely clash with the luxury they find in their rooms.
“There are historic buildings here, like that of the old Ministry of Public Works, of which only the façade remains,” says Yunior, an Old Havana resident. “There are buildings that still have marble stairs, surrounded by ruins. Others have been waiting for repairs from the Historian’s Office for years, but even their braces are bending, it’s been so long.”
Many buildings have weeds growing on their facades, and no roofs over their rooms. Others have been covered up to conceal their ruinous state.
Large numbers of residents live in danger, as their homes may collapse. Some, such as those at Villegas 5, have seen their roofs fall. Only then did the authorities take an interest in their situation.
“The problem is not that new hotels are built. That could be a very good thing,” says Elvira, a retired university professor. “The problem is that investments are not made with a global approach, but rather a linear one. What they earn there, they use to build new hotels, never for social projects. That is why there is such a great gulf between the development of tourism and Cuban society.”
“No one cares about our houses,” laments another Old Havana resident. “They are run-down, but that is part of the folklore they sell to the foreigners. It’s the same with the tumbledown bars that still accept Cuban pesos, the taverns, and even the pharmacies.”
In general, when the people of Old Havana are asked about the new hotel, they respond with a grimace of displeasure. And it is not an expression aimed at foreign investors, but rather a Government that rakes in money that everyday Cubans never see the fruits of.
“Everyone knows that these ultra-expensive stores are not owned by the hotel,” says Yaimara, a pre-university student walking around the Malecón store with some friends. “They all belong to CIMEX, and that means the State.”
This information is confirmed by the clerks themselves: “We are State workers like all the others, and they pay us in Cuban pesos, the same pittance as everyone else,” said an employee who asked not to be identified.
Even the passers-by walking the streets of Havana identify the luxurious hotel as one more work of the Government’s.
“This is an achievement of the Revolution,” sneers a man in the little square separating the Manzana Kempinski and Museum of Fine Arts. “First they turned the barracks into schools, and now the schools, into five-star hotels.”
One of those crazy Havanans who travel around the city, shabbily dressed and laden with bags full of random goods, spots some tourists taking pictures of the building and asks them, “What, taking pictures of Castro’s hotel?”