Cubans Thank God and Communist Party for Small Favors

Wherever one travels in Cuba chances are you'll be offered some kind of local produce. In the west of the country men dart out from behind lush foliage brandishing strings of garlic and onion. In the central plains they leap from sugar cane bearing cheese and Guava paste while in the eastern Sierra Maestra mountain range they jump out of the jungle holding up fruits and fowl.

These stealthy hawkers often risk the wrath of the Cuban police who guard the state's monopoly on food distribution in the Communist-run nation. As they haggle over price with passers-by they keep a close eye out for the highway patrol.

The cops in their green Jeeps are usually easy to spot. The 60- mile roadway boasts little traffic.

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But around 60 miles outside of eastern Santiago de Cuba, in the Sierra Maestras, the scene is different. Dozens of small kiosks offering strings of tangerines, grapes, bananas and tropical fruits with exotic names such as Mame, Guanabana and Nispero appear, and the game of cat and mouse suddenly ends.

These kiosks are government sanctioned.

The "delinquents," as they are known, proudly sell their fruit and other produce, and customers happily munch while enjoying the spectacular view. The highway patrol attends to what one would hope would be more important matters and the government collects taxes from those it used to persecute at a cost.

Soon after Lazaro Exposito Canto took over the local Communist party in 2009, he ordered the kiosks built and allowed local residents to sell what they produce in their often extensive yards.

"I thank God for this opportunity and also comrade Exposito," said a passionate Edilberto Fernandez, one of a group of young men working a kiosk.

"For a long time when you picked fruit from your patio and went to sell it on the highway, the police would appear, jump all over you, and take it away, when really we were doing nothing wrong," he said.

"You can imagine what it means to be able to bring our fruit here and not have that struggle. The fruit no longer rots on the trees, the animals no longer eat it, Cubans eat it."

Fernandez said his kiosk was open 24 hours a day, and demand was so strong that he and his neighbors were planting as many fruit trees as they could -- good news in this semi-tropical land where nature's bounty is remarkably scarce.

And the idea is catching on.

A former party official in neighboring Granma province said a similar measure recently took affect in the mountains there, followed by Holguin province.

Farmers in the lowlands of central Cuba said plans were afoot to set up kiosks along roadways around Cuba's third city, Camaguey, where they could directly sell produce.

Camilo, the head of a cooperative in the area, said the cooperatives were each assigned a district in and around the city where they could directly sell produce from horse- and bicycle-drawn carts.

Vendors Roam Cities

Similar breakthroughs are occurring in Cuban cities. In a further concession to individual initiative and consumer complaints over the state's monopoly on food distribution Cuban authorities have granted licenses to street vendors of fruits and vegetables who previously risked fines and confiscations.

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