The San Juan Star / July 16, 2001
By Larry Luxner
HAVANA -- 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 Ché 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" right next to "Depression" by Walter Jung.
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 38-year-old habanero proudly displays his "licencia para trabajar por cuenta propia," which gives him permission to sell, among other things, papier maché 1957 Cadillacs and 1936 Habano trucks for $6 each.
Villegas and Montelongo are among 300 or so vendors at the Feria de Malecón, a large open-air market located on 1ra Avenida, between D and E streets in the Vedado section of Havana -- and just down the street from the U.S. Interests Section and the adjacent Anti-Imperialist Plaza.
The market, officially known as Atarraya, has been in existence since 1994, around the time Cuba legalized use of the U.S. dollar. In the beginning, stalls were set up on a large grassy area, but four years ago, the area was paved in anticipation of a tourist influx. The market is open every day except Wednesday, and attracts a horde of European tourists staying at nearby hotels such as the Riviera and the Meliá Cohiba.
Vendors at the Feria de Malecón accept only dollars, but prices are generally low, and tourists can find a vast assortment of cheap souvenirs here, including baseball bats for $2, hand-painted wooden domino sets for $12 and even live birds for $5 each. Also for sale are papier maché dolls, wood carvings, Ché Guevarra T-shirts, cigar-smoking puppets, scale-model Cubana planes, musical instruments made out of Coke cans and any number of beads and trinkets.
Along the Malecón itself, a dozen or so artists spread their work over the sidewalk, adding a bright splash of color to an otherwise drab city. Some of these paintings are downright tacky -- one common variation is to paint a 1957 Plymouth parked in front of the Bodeguita del Medio bar in Old Havana and call it art -- though others are real masterpieces.
One of the better artists, 30-year-old Yenima Cruz Rodríguez, is here morning until night selling her intricately painted scenes of market women with baskets of fruit and vegetables on their heads. Most of her paintings are in the $15-25 range, a fraction of what similar works of art would cost in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic or Jamaica.
"Some days I don't sell anything," says the aspiring artist. "Other days, I might sell 10 paintings. At least I make enough to live on."
Rodríguez says she has to pay $159 in monthly taxes to the Cuban government, regardless of how much she sells. She also pays a daily fee of 45 pesos (about $2.15) for every day she occupies her space at the market.
Havana has three such tourist markets. In addition to the Feria de Malecón, 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. Between 450 and 500 vendors exhibits their wares here, in a vast area that operates Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
One of those vendors, 21-year-old Katya Martínez, sells colored necklaces and beads. Like many others here, she works on commission, which is technically illegal since under Cuban law, the cuenta propistas may not employ assistants or helpers.
"The artist is a young guy, same age as me," she says. "He has to make the ceramic pieces, send them to be burned in a kiln. Afterwards he paints them and assembles the pieces together. He pays me 10% on everything I sell. On an average day, I sell $30, so I keep $3."
Martínez, whose husband works in a government warehouse, says each necklace costs $2-3, and that her best customers are Italians, French, Germans, Mexicans and Spaniards. "The Americans like to look, but they don't buy," she says, adding that "from this we don't get rich, but we can live on it because we know how to budget our money."
Next to her is Danis Sotolongo, a 32-year-old doctor who sells hammocks and embroidered goods. Like Martínez, she also works on a 10% commission, but she also makes little girls' dresses on the side, and gets to keep 100% of the proceeds of those sales.
Sotolongo, who got married in 1989 and graduated from college in 1993, earned 520 pesos a month (around $25) from her job as a doctor. She quit and came here because, she says, "otherwise I wouldn't be able to make it."
Sotolongo is hardly alone.
"Many people have left their state jobs because they can do better in the informal economy," says a Western diplomat here, noting that today, approximately 150,000 Cubans are self-employed, down from over 200,000 cuenta propistas only five years ago.
"Part of it is that some of them have gone out of business. Others have gone underground because the inspections and fines were onerous," said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified. "These things are tolerated, but not encouraged. The government tightly controls such activities. Today, if you try to apply for a license, it would be quite difficult to get one."
Sotolongo says most of the assistants or helpers at the tourist market are university graduates like herself who speak English or another foreign language, while the people they work on commission for are generally not educated.
"When everything changed in 1990, the professionals had to look for something else to do in order to survive," she said. "I don't like what I'm doing. This is not what I studied."
Asked where she'd go if given the chance to leave Cuba, Sotolongo laughed and said, "I'd go to the North Pole if I could."