Cubans Thank God and Communist Party for Small Favors

Cuban Communist party makes it easier to acquire food vending license.

SANTIAGO, Cuba, Feb. 2, 2010 -- 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.

President Raul Castro has made food production and distribution his top priority since taking over from ailing brother Fidel Castro two years ago, amid an agricultural crisis that has left the cash-strapped country importing between 60 percent and 70 percent of the food it consumes.

Castro decentralized decision-making, raised prices paid to farmers, leased state lands to 100,000 mainly new farmers and urged local officials to improve distribution. As a result, most residents in central and eastern Cuba insist there is more food and a greater variety.

After two powerful hurricanes devastated crops in 2008, city produce vendors, illegal but semi-tolerated since they were banned in 1968, were literally driven from Cuba's streets. Today they are back in various interior cities, often with licenses, drawing cheers from local residents.

The state controls more than 90 percent of Cuba's economic activity, and engaging in any kind of individual economic initiative outside of small farming is illegal without licenses, which are rare.

Men and women still prowl Camaguey's side streets on foot and bicycle, selling their illegal wares. But there are now licensed vendors hawking pineapples, squash, onions, tomatoes and other produce from carts along quaint colonial avenues and streets where bicycles and horse drawn carriages easily outnumber the cars.

"These measures allow me to buy root and garden vegetables at my door, without walking to the market which is far away," retiree Yolanda Santos said.

Cuba's second city, Santiago de Cuba, nestles in the foothills of the Sierra Maestras as they meet the sea. Local authorities here have begun accepting license applications from the owners of horse-drawn carts called Carretilleros. These carts, often laden with produce, have plied the city's hilly streets for centuries.

"The police were always all over us. They didn't let us work," said Ruben, his cart loaded with oranges. "Now, we are at peace. We can sell more without any problems."

Regulations for the licenses include keeping carts and wagons painted and covered, improved dress, healthy animals and paying taxes, he said.