Havana florist and doll shops are among businesses prohibited for American shoppers

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A report by Mimi Whitefield for the Miami Herald.

Inside a small old Havana shop are dolls inspired by Norse fairy tales, Native American dolls with their own teepee, elf dolls, an updated version of the Santeria deity Ochún in a gold dress, and baby dolls in career outfits.

The elaborate muñecos seem innocent enough, but this shop is among 180 Cuban businesses that the United States says are tied to the Cuban military and therefore off limits to American visitors. It was placed on the U.S. Department of State’s prohibited list in November in a move designed to keep financial resources out of the hands of enterprises owned or controlled by the Cuban military.

Also on the prohibited list are a Mercaderes Street florist shop where buckets of yellow, lavender, pink, coral and red roses and small floral arrangements await customers, and several other picturesque Old Havana stores that were launched by the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana to increase Old Havana’s charm factor.

Except, Cuban officials say, it’s a mistake. The Muñecos de Leyenda (Legendary Dolls) store, the florist shop, and the other gift and souvenir stores aren’t controlled by the military or the military’s sprawling conglomerate GAESA (Grupo de Administración Empresarial).

The State Department’s list includes all the stores, restaurants and hotels that used to fall under the umbrella of Habaguanex, a corporation that belonged to the Office of the Historian and generated revenue to finance historic preservation in Old Havana and social projects in the neighborhood.

In 2016, Habaguanex was absorbed by GAESA and the hotels and restaurants became part of the Gaviota Tourism Group, which belongs to the military. Habaguanex, GAESA and Gaviota are all on the restricted list.

Orlando Ramos Blanco, the president of the San Cristobal Tourism Agency, said the stores shouldn’t be on the list. They remained with the Office of the Historian, which is directed by historian and preservationist Eusebio Leal, he said. San Cristobal is the Historian Office’s tourism agency that emphasizes sustainable historical, cultural and heritage tourism in Havana and nine other Cuban cities.

“We were on the list in the old configuration but now the Habaguanex brand no longer exists. It’s now part of Gaviota and the little stores belong to the Office of the Historian. We have kept them,’’ Ramos said. “This is a lack of knowledge.”

What’s more, San Cristobal was never on the list. “I will say that with capital letters,” said Ramos. “We have communicated this to our clients.”

In response to a query from the Miami Herald, a State Department spokesperson said: “The Department intends to update the Cuba Restricted List periodically and will consider relevant information, as applicable, on a case-by-case basis.” No changes have been made in the restricted list since it was published last November.

Among the nearly two dozen Habaguanex hotels that were transferred to Gaviota are the pink-hued Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Ernest Hemingway used to stay in the 1930s and where it is said that he began writing For Whom the Bell Tolls; the Palacio del Marqués de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal and the Hotel Conde de Villanueva, a favorite of artists and intellectuals.

These clearly fall under the Gaviota umbrella. A Gaviota flag flies outside the Ambos Mundos, and the staff at both of the latter hotels say they really haven’t seen any American groups since November when their hotels were added to the restricted list.

“French, Russian, Canadian, Swedish visitors, yes,” said the front desk clerk at the Palacio, “but we haven’t seen the Americans since the list came out.”

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Meanwhile, the doll shop and the other Old Havana stores remain on the State Department’s black list even though they’re listed as Tiendas del Patrimonio (Heritage Stores), belonging to the Historian’s Office. Those who work at them are well aware that the establishments have been blacklisted.

“What foolishness,” said the clerk at the Muñecos de Leyenda store where customers cross a small faux bridge to enter the main part of the store. But she said most of the customers for the pricey dolls that are imported from China are Cubans. Has the store’s presence on the list cut into business from Americans? “We don’t ask our customers where they are from before they buy,” the clerk said.

Still, Muñecos de Leyenda will be getting a name change soon, she said.

That’s already happened at the florist shop. It’s called the Florería Jardín Wagner on the prohibited list and that’s also the name embroidered on the aprons of the shop’s workers. But the shop’s name was recently changed by the Historian’s Office to Floreria Rosa Blanca, a reference to the poem Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca by Cuban patriot José Martí.

Some of the other blacklisted stores, including a tiny shop that sold toy soldiers and miniatures of historic figures, are closed for renovations.

A cornerstone of President Donald Trump’s new Cuba policy is not only to keep U.S. money and business away from Cuban military enterprises but also to encourage Americans and U.S. companies to develop economic ties with small private business people on the island.

But many private Cuban entrepreneurs, especially those who don’t benefit from the increase in American cruise ship traffic, complain business is off 40-50 percent since the new Trump regulations went into effect. Cruise passengers tend to shop and eat in Old Havana, leaving cuentapropistas(self-employed workers) in other parts of the city out of the loop.

“If you want to help average Cubans, open up,” said Havana artist Luis Puerto, who has seen his business drop off under the new Trump policy. Last year, Cuba had 1.07 million U.S. visitors, including Cuban Americans, but this winter season has been slow. “I depend on travelers,” said Puerta. “Last year, the year before, I did very well, but it’s getting harder.”

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