HAVANA - The golden arches are nowhere to be found. There’s not a single Starbucks or Wal-Mart, and no way to buy a Budweiser, a Corvette or a Dell. But even in Cuba, you can get a Coke.
Despite the U.S. Trading With the Enemy Act, which governs Washington’s 45-year-old embargo, sales on Fidel Castro’s island are lining the pockets of corporate America.
Nikes, Colgate and Marlboros, Gillette Series shaving cream and Jordache jeans — all are easy to find. Cubans who wear contact lenses can buy Bausch & Lomb. Parents can surprise the kids with a Mickey Mouse Fire Truck.
Dozens of American brands are on sale here — and not in some black-market back alley. They’re in the lobbies of gleaming government-run hotels and in crowded supermarkets and pharmacies that answer to the communist government.
The companies say they have no direct knowledge of sales in Cuba, and that the amounts involved are small and would be impractical to stop. But it’s hard to deny that a portion of the transactions wind up back in the United States.
“We try and do what we can to police ... but in a globalized economy, it’s impossible to catch everything,” said Vada Manager, director of global issues management for Nike Inc. Trade sanctions bar American tourists from visiting Cuba and allow exports only of U.S. food and farm products, medical supplies and some telecommunications equipment. But wholesalers and distributors in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Canada routinely sell some of America’s most recognizable brands to Cuban importers.
Cuba has for years sought out American goods as a way of thumbing its nose at the embargo. Officials at three foreign-owned import companies operating in Havana, who refused to have their names published for fear of economic repercussions, said the communist government itself still imports the vast majority of American goods.
Christopher Padilla, U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for export administration, said from Washington that Cuba even sends delegations on “buying missions,” hunting for specific American products in other countries for resale back home. Cuban press authorities did not make relevant officials available to discuss the practice.
In a country where tourism is the leading revenue source, stocking American brands helps reassure visitors, according to Daniel Erikson, a Cuban economy expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
All American products are sold in Cuban convertible pesos, considered foreign currency and worth $1.08 apiece — about 25 times the island’s regular peso.
Although government salaries have increased in recent years, the average monthly pay is still around $15, meaning few Cubans can afford U.S. goods.
But last month, Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez said 57 percent of the population has access to hard currency — dollars or convertible pesos — either through jobs in tourism or money from relatives abroad. A 2004 report by the U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba estimated that remittances from the United States alone total $1 billion a year.
The influx of American brands began in earnest in 1993, when Cuba scrapped laws that had made it illegal for its citizens to possess dollars. Cubans know the products, despite an almost complete lack of advertising on the island. Angel Hernandez, a 62-year-old retiree, didn’t hesitate when presented with a pair of Air Jordans.
Made in China, brick-red Nike Air Max 90 sneakers sell for 129.40 convertible Cuban pesos — about $140 — at a store off Havana’s Central Park.
High-priced fakes also abound. Several stores, including one inside the Havana Libre Hotel — the Havana Hilton before Castro’s 1959 revolution — offer authentic-looking Max Air 80s, but Nike makes no such product.
At the Comodoro Hotel, a boutique wants $40 for assorted small gym bags with pastel or silver swooshes.
Their tags read “Made in Indonesia” in Spanish and “Nike de Mexico,” providing a hint of their route to Cuba.
Manager said all Nike products for sale in Cuba are probably knockoffs. He conceded, however, that legitimate distributors outside the U.S. could be selling products to Cuban importers — and that Nike could make money off such sales.
Sold in Cuba
A look at some U.S. brands sold in communist-run Cuba:
MICKEY MOUSE FIRE TRUCK BATTERY-OPERATED TOY
Where: Galeria Comercial, Comodoro Hotel, Havana How Much: 5.15 Cuban convertible pesos ($5.55 U.S.) Made in: China Also available: Mickey Mouse plastic mirrors and combs; wrapping paper with various Disney characters — all with Disney copyrights and logos U.S. corporate: Disney Consumer Products, part of The Walt Disney Company, Burbank, Calif. And ...: Fire trucks appear to have been shipped directly from China. Each box is sealed with a yellow-and-red “Certificate of Qualification” complete with Chinese characters and an inspector number.
NIKE AIR FORCE I SNEAKERS
Where: Manzana Gomez shopping center, off Havana’s Central Park How much: 129.40 Cuban convertible pesos ($140) Made in: China Also available: Nike Max Air 180s U.S. corporate: Nike Inc., Beaverton, Ore. And ...: “Come back after the weekend and we’ll have more,” a salesman said. “They are always bringing more Nikes.”
BAUSCH & LOMB RENU PLUS NO RUB MULTI-USE SOLUTION FOR SOFT CONTACT LENS
Where: El Almendares Optician, along Obispo Boulevard on the fringe of Old Havana How much: 120-mililiter bottle for 15.50 Cuban convertible pesos ($16.75). Made in: USA Also available: Bausch & Lomb Simplus for gas permeable and hard contacts U.S. corporate: Bausch & Lomb Inc., Rochester, N.Y. And ...: Some stores sell samples of various Bausch & Lomb solutions that are distributed in Mexico and read “Free” on the side, but sell for 12.25 CUC ($13.25).
RUBBERMAID WATER COOLER
Where: Galerias Cohiba, Melia Cohiba Hotel, Havana How much: 148 Cuban convertible pesos ($160) Made in: USA U.S. corporate: Rubbermaid Home Products, Wooster, Ohio. Part of Newell Rubbermaid Inc., Atlanta And ...: If there is a run on these circular, orange-and-white plastic coolers, Cuba is ready. One store had no less than six in-stock.