Found in Moscow’s Flea Markets: Car Parts, Jeans and Bargain-Hunting Cubans
They fly 13 hours seeking items to sell in a Communist island still starved of consumer goods
By Anatoly Kurmanaev and Siranush Sharoyan, The Wall Street Journal
Sometimes the wheels of history turn slowly. The hottest shopping destination for Cubans is not across the water in Miami. It’s Moscow, 6,000 miles away.
Tougher U.S. border control and rising remittance income from relatives abroad have led to a recent surge of Cuban travel to Russia, the only major country that still doesn’t ask islanders for a visa. Cuban shoppers don’t take the daily 13-hour Aeroflot flight, a legacy of the Soviet-era alliance, to see the Kremlin or the Red Square. They bring back bags of jeans, haberdashery and car parts to a Communist island starved of consumer goods.
Cafe El Paladar Cubano at the Moskva flea market in Moscow.
“The Cubans are flooding in without speaking a word of Russian just to stock up,” said Ricardo Trieto, a Russian-educated Cuban engineer who now translates for compatriot shoppers in Moscow’s flea markets. “It’s very profitable: Whatever you buy here you can sell it for more at home.”
The U.S. trade embargo with Cuba remains in place despite the fact that President Barack Obama loosened restrictions for Americans to travel to Cuba last year and opened a U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2015 after more than half a century of severed ties. President Donald Trump has said he would roll back Mr. Obama’s Cuban initiatives. All of this has helped revive a very Cold War-sounding trading relationship between Russia and Cuba.
Consider the need for car parts in Cuba. Given the U.S. trade embargo, most cars in Cuba are either American-made cars from the 1950s or Soviet-era jalopies. The square-shaped models of Ladas and Nivas all but disappeared from Moscow’s streets years ago.
In Cuba, they are still going strong. Well, when they don’t break down and need new parts, the shortage of which can produce some spectacular profits.
In Moscow, a 1980 Moskvich—another boxy offering from the Soviet era— might fetch around $500. In embargoed Cuba, it can go for as much as $14,000, Cuban taxi drivers say, fueling a booming cottage industry specializing in cannibalized car parts for the Caribbean island.
At the sprawling Yuznii Port used-car market in southern Moscow, traders say up to 40% of the business comes from Cuban shoppers. “We would’ve gone broke without them,” said trader Timur Muradian.
On a gray winter morning, a dozen Cubans dressed in ill-fitting beanie hats and gray puffer jackets walked around the market’s metal containers filled with rusty car parts. Several extra layers of clothing and skin darker than most locals easily gave them away to traders, who wooed them with shouts of “hola, amigo.”
“I can buy anything I want here; it’s unbelievable,” said Alejandro, who flew from Havana for the first time to buy tractor parts.
Waving hands and typing into calculators with frozen fingers, the Cubans haggled over prices in the thousands of dollars for heaps of what most locals would consider useless scrap. “They buy up everything for Russian cars and tractors by weight, without even looking at what parts and models they are for,” said Mr. Muradian. “Whatever it is, they’ll be able to sell it at a profit at home.”
A typical group of Cubans spends $3,000 to $7,000 in the market, stall owners say. These are astronomical sums for residents of an island where the average wage is $25 a month.
Back in Cuba, whole villages chip in to send an envoy on shopping trips to Moscow, often using remittances from relatives in Miami or Madrid. Residents of the Rodas village in Cuba’s central sugar belt said their cane would rot in the fields without an annual trip to Moscow to buy parts for their 1970s Soviet tractors.
Some of the workers in this cottage trading industry are part of the tens of thousands of Cubans who went to the former Soviet Union as students. They studied engineering, medicine and science and returned to develop their Communist homeland. But when the Soviet Union and its subsidies collapsed in 1991, they often found themselves working as waiters and security guards for minimum wage.
Soviet-educated Cuban engineer Raul Curo came back to live in Russia several years ago. He bought a taxi and became part of Moscow’s booming Cuban expatriate community, servicing shoppers from the island. Mr. Curo meets Cubans in the airport and drives them around the city’s flea markets, helping to translate and haggle.
“Everyone loves Cubans here. It’s been like this since Khrushchev,” Mr. Curo said, referring to the Soviet leader who risked nuclear Armageddon by striking an alliance with Cuba in the 1960s and deploying missiles there.
During the low season, translator Mr. Trieto makes money giving Spanish lessons to Azerbaijani and Armenian stall owners in the city’s flea markets. Others make ends meet giving salsa lessons in Moscow night spots such as Old Havana.
Most Cuban shoppers come to Moscow for about a week and spend whole days trawling the city’s flea markets to collect the 260 pounds worth of goods they are allowed on the plane for a fee.
They borrow boots and parkas from friends and family and sleep on double-bunks in crammed Soviet-era apartments owned by Cuban expatriates. “I’ve never been this cold in my life, but I’m getting used to it,” said shopper Abelito. He said his first purchase was the warmest jacket he could find on the entire 150 acres of the Sadovod flea market.
At the entrance of Lyublino’s budget Moskva shopping center is a Cuban canteen adorned with pictures of the island’s lush rolling hills and a photo of President Vladimir Putin with the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The Cuban cook serves up cheap homemade dishes of rice, beans and shredded pork.
The shopping center offers a translation service and Cuban immigrants work in the center’s cheap jewelry stalls. An Azerbaijani stall owner haggled in broken Spanish with a group of Cubans over a stack of jeans on a recent visit.
“They basically live in the bazaar,” said taxi driver Mr. Curo of his compatriot shoppers. “They came, they bought up, and they left. In a couple of months, they are back.”
—Dmitry Filonov contributed to this article.
Write to Anatoly Kurmanaev at Anatoly.email@example.com
Your Editor Marvels: Quien lo iba a decir???