Camagüey, Cuba, was undergoing a make-over days before celebrating its 500th anniversary during the first week of February.
Carlos Vazquez, 53, of Miami Shores, walked down historic downtown. Amid Cuban shoppers, he took a photo of a store named “El Encanto.” A man was riding a Chinese passenger tricycle big enough for two passengers. Plenty had changed since his grandmother worked there.
The glimmer and charm of the 1950s -- when U.S. millionaires who wanted to buy Christian Dior fashion had to travel to shop at “El Encanto” -- was gone. After Fidel Castro confiscated the luxurious store and turned it into a distribution facility, the Vazquez family moved to Miami.
“El Encanto was closed for years but now it is back in business,” said Vazquez, who was born in Camagüey. “It is run by the government, but it’s back in business. They are making a lot of improvements.”
To celebrate the city’s 500th anniversary, the Cuban government reportedly invested about $226,000 to repair about a dozen buildings facades. As part of Cuban President Raul Castro’s push for economic growth, authorities have also improved pedestrian walkways and plans for shopping malls. The process is causing inconveniences.
“The whole city was shut down, because of all the construction,” Vazquez said. “All of the avenues and the streets were closed. It was really hard to move around.”
Under President George W. Bush, the U.S. tightened restrictions on travel and remittances. The Obama administration has eased restrictions.
Tourism in Camagüey is growing. New travel rules issued in 2013 are allowing exiled Cubans like Vazquez to return home. The Havana Consulting Group estimates about 600,000 Cuban Americans traveled to Cuba in 2013, and the numbers are expected to grow this year.
Retail in Camagüey is also growing. In December, the Cuban government opened the “Santa Rosa” mall with a café, restaurants and a barbershop. Also in the works, Cuban authorities reported, is a two-story shopping mall to be named “La Caridad.”
The economic expansion of Cuba’s largest commercial corporation -- CIMEX, Cuban Export-Import Corporation – has been a government priority. The last time CIMEX, which owns “El Encanto” department stores, released a revenue report was in 2006 when it announced a 48 percent increase in revenues coming from retail operations.
“Locals are shopping, not just tourists,” Vazquez said. “I also noticed a lot of new bakeries where they sell cakes, desserts and bread.”
When the city turned 500, there was a parade from the park Agramonte to the Casino Campestre park. There was a religious procession in honor of the Catholic virgin Candelaria near the Cathedral Metropolitana, which Pope Francis recently named the Minor Basilica. And there was a week of cultural activities.
The visit for Vazquez was hopeful. Although he knows that the Camagüey that his grandmother left is far from ever coming back, he thinks the government’s investment is a sign of optimism.
“You see the beautiful plazas and churches everywhere,” Vazquez said. "What you see in Camagüey is unique."