HAVANA -- The three-level Carlos III shopping center in downtown Havana is a showcase of embargo-skirting goods. There are Wilson baseball caps, Westinghouse light fixtures, Proctor-Silex juicers and GE microwave ovens -- and that's on the second floor alone.
On the streets outside, trendy Sean John jeans and Ray-Ban sunglasses fight for space with ``Che'' Guevara T-shirts. Dell computers power some government ministries, and at least one Boeing 767 plies the skies for Cuba's national airline.
With so many U.S. goods on display, Cubans might be forgiven for thinking the nearly five-decades-old embargo doesn't so much keep products out as make them more expensive.
``The embargo is not between America and Cuba,'' said Manuel, 46, a Havana cab driver. ``It's between Cubans -- those who can afford things and those who can't.''
While it is illegal for most U.S. companies and their subsidiaries to do business on the island, their products still flood the markets.
Some items -- such as food, agricultural goods and medicine -- are there legally under exceptions to the embargo. But others are spirited in by entrepreneurs, government front companies and independent distributors that worry little about U.S. laws.
``There is nothing we make that can't be purchased from foreign suppliers,'' said Washington, D.C., attorney Robert Muse, an embargo expert. ``To the extent that they (Cubans) want it, they can get it.''
Nestled inside the Hicacos shopping center on Cuba's exclusive Varadero beach is a shop that sells dozens of models of New Balance running shoes.
Speaking from the company's headquarters in Boston, New Balance Vice President Edward Haddad said the company complies with the embargo but speculated that the sneakers may have been purchased from the company's independent Central American distributor that operates out of the duty-free zone in Colón, Panama.
Entrepreneurs from across the Caribbean stock up on a variety of goods in Colón for resale, he said.
``One of the reasons there may be so many American goods in Cuba is due to the nature of the way that region operates,'' he said. ``A lot of it is cash and carry. They will go into the Colón Free Zone, buy products and bring them back. And the brand owners are completely unaware of what's going on.''
Kim Freeman, a GE spokeswoman, could not explain how the company's microwave ovens ended up on the shelves of Carlos III with a price tag of 260 convertible pesos, known as CUCs, or about $312.
``G.E. consumer industrial agreements with our distributors require them to comply with U.S. trade control regulations, which prohibit sales by U.S. companies to Cuba,'' Freeman said in a statement. Carlos III is managed by the state-owned conglomerate CIMEX. ``We will investigate and take appropriate action if we confirm those agreements have been breached,'' she added.
Even items the size of jetliners have a way of slipping through the cracks.
Take, for instance, the Boeing 767 operated by Cubana de Aviación. Built in the early 1990s, the plane began commercial service with Brazil's Varig airline before being transferred to a Portuguese charter company, according to Airframes.org. The aircraft was eventually acquired by STP Airways of Sao Tome e Principe in 2008. Since then, the plane has been spotted operating for Cubana at several airports in Europe, according to three aircraft-tracking sources.