Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Open-Air Shopping in Havana. (Americas Ojo!)

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Open-Air Shopping in Havana. (Americas Ojo!)

Article excerpt

ERIC MONTELONGO stands amid his collection of well-worn books and magazines, hoping a customer will wander past on this searing hot summer day. Here, displayed on rickety wooden racks and tables, one can find everything from Registro Social de La Habana 1950 to El Diario de Che en Bolivia. There's also a stack of old National Geographics for $3 each, and a copy of Fidel Castro's History Will Absolve Me.

On this particularly oppressive afternoon, however, no one's buying.

"We wish there were more Americans here, especially Cuban-Americans," says Montelongo. "They spend more than anyone else, and they don't bargain."

A few stalls down from Montelongo is Antonio Yero Villegas. The thirty-eight-year-old habanero proudly displays his "license to work for cuenta propia," or as self-employed, which gives him permission to sell, among other things, papier-mache 1957 Cadillacs and 1936 Habano trucks for $6 each.

Villegas and Montelongo are among three hundred or so vendors at the Feria de Malecon, a large open-air market located in Havana's Vedado neighborhood, facing the sea.

The market, officially known as Atarraya, has been around since 1994, the year Cuba legalized use of the U.S. dollar. It's open every day except Wednesday, and prices are generally low, with hawkers pushing a dizzying assortment of souvenirs, including baseball bats for $2, hand-painted wooden domino sets for $12, and even live birds for $5 each. Also for sale are scale-model Cubana planes, and musical instruments made out of Coke cans by enterprising Cubans hoping to earn a quick buck.

"Many people have left their state jobs because they can do better in the informal economy," says a Western diplomat here, noting that an estimated 150,000 Cubans are self-employed. "These things are tolerated, but not encouraged. The government tightly controls such activities."

Yet thanks to the tourist influx, Havana now allows three such tourist markets to flourish. Besides the Feria de Malecon, there's also Parque de 23 (along La Rampa, right behind the Hotel Habana Libre) and the Feria de la Catedral in Old Havana.

Of the three, the Old Havana market is by far the largest and most interesting. …

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