HAVANA — There is a store in Old Havana where they sell shirts, bags and a vision for what Cuba could become.

Bright hearts are painted on the walls of this well-lit store, and soft cotton T-shirts printed with English phrases hang in neat rows. Squint a little and you could be in Brooklyn, or for that matter in Omaha's Dundee.

But you only have to talk to co-owners Idania del Rio and Leire Fernandez for a moment to recognize that a subterranean struggle is happening in this store, a struggle that has nothing to do with T-shirts.

This is Cuba's first privately owned design store in nearly six decades, since Fidel Castro took power and banned exactly this type of commerce.

To its owners, Clandestina is a dream. And at times, Clandestina is also a nightmare.

"This is a kind of fiction," says the 34-year-old Idania. "And, hopefully, one day the fiction will come true."

The two friends planned this space for years, originally spurred by governmental reforms that — at least in theory — allowed artists and designers to sell their wares.

But they quickly smacked into the reality of the Cuban state. Idania spent day after day in government offices, sitting on hard chairs in sparsely furnished waiting rooms. No bureaucrat she saw could answer her questions about the proper licenses, or how to import cotton. Wrong office, they said. They sent her to another office, then another, then another.

Finally, after months, she entered the right office. Her questions started getting answered. "Maybe I wore them down?" she says. "Maybe I became part of the brotherhood?"

The two women found an old house and, funded by a Cuban investor, spent $40,000 — a huge sum in Havana — on the house purchase and remodeling. They began importing soft cotton T-shirts, printed English phrases on them and opened in February 2015.

They built it, and after a round of publicity from media outlets like the Guardian (Great Britain), El Pais (Spain), CCTV (Russia) and then CNN (United States), the tourists started to come.

This is the dream. It's the dream that young, creative Cubans can live lives different from their parents, who are stuck inside a state-owned system that largely stopped working in 1991, when the Soviet Union went away.

It's the dream that Cuba can remodel its government like the co-owners of Clandestina remodeled this old house, keeping the best of what came before (such as health care and education) and building a new economy to sustain it.

The dream is what made the nightmare seem that much worse.

One day last summer, without warning, the Cuban government canceled Clandestina's license to import cotton. The explanation, when it came, was vague: something about problems with another Cuban artist using the same license.

The two women briefly considered sending someone to Miami to buy cotton and fly back with it.

"That's not exactly illegal, but not legal, either," Leire says. "Kind of a gray area."

They briefly considered closing down. Instead, they decided to do something oh-so-familiar to Cubans: They devised an end run around the government.

Cuba's first design store is almost out of its original shipment of T-shirts. But now it's also selling a funky line of clothing made from vintage cotton: old Old Navy and American Eagle T-shirts turned into new skirts and dresses.

It's also selling a line of bags made from old Cuban sugar sacks and painted with bleeding red hearts.

How these clothes are repurposed is a fantastically Cuban tale of its own: Idania found two dozen elderly women from her hometown, seamstresses who used to work in a gigantic textile factory that was the town's only major employer. The textile factory closed in the 1990s. The women were out of work for decades. And then Idania showed up, asking: Do you want to work for us?

Now, when the seamstresses are done with an order, one of their husbands climbs on his motorcycle and drives an hour into Old Havana with a sack. He stops at Clandestina and plops the sack on the front counter: Your clothes are ready, he says.

"They don't understand why we are ruining all these nice old T-shirts," Idania says and laughs. "But they did save us. We are still here."

Some days Clandestina sells only five items. On its best day — when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in town — Clandestina sold 45 T-shirts, dresses and bags.

No one knows if Clandestina will stick around, if it will inspire other small businesses, be the start of something much bigger.

No one knows if it will get shut down by the government, fade from memory, become proof that the Cuban state won't abide entrepreneurial dreamers.

But the women who run Clandestina know this: Their customers are still coming. They are still in business. The dream is still alive.

"The tour bus companies want to bring the tour buses here now, and we're, like, 'No! No! No!' " Idania says and laughs at the thought of trying to produce that many clothes for that many people. "Our operation is so unstable ..."

"We are totally exhausted," says Leire.

"We want to stay here, we see the opportunity, we see the opportunity of a lifetime ..." says Idania.

Leire smiles. "We need some sleep first," she says.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1064, matthew.hansen@owh.com twitter.com/redcloud_scribe

AN EIGHT-DAY SERIES

Sunday: The new Cuba

Today: Emerging entrepreneurs

Tomorrow: A $2 weekly service is revolutionizing the way Cubans get their entertainment — and their news.

Wednesday: Twisting path to Omaha

Thursday: Fighting for compensation

Friday: Rocking to "decadent" music

Saturday: Selling Husker agriculture

Sunday: Parting thoughts and images

Find more photos plus videos

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