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
MOSCOW—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 stilldoesn’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
“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
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
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.firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Found in Moscow’s Flea Markets: Car Parts, Jeans and
Bargain-Hunting Cubans – WSJ –