Marketplaces dot Havana for new private vendors

HAVANA (AP) — Marketplaces full of vendors hawking everything from food to religious items may be common sights across Latin America, but they’re springing up for the first time in the Cuban capital as the island’s Communist government opens its tightly controlled economy to some private-sector activity.

Nearly 140 official points of sale in abandoned structures, parking lots and crumbling old buildings have been established in recent months and are accommodating about 2,600 independent vendors, the Communist Party newspaper Granma reported Friday. The number of markets “should grow steadily,” Luis Carlos Gongora, vice president of Havana’s Provincial Administration Council, told the newspaper.

Cuba only recently began licensing a broad spectrum of private sector activity, giving rise to a nascent and growing class of self-employed people.

Former health care worker Andres Lamberto Diaz, who took out a license for to sell clothes, shoes and jewelry, said he pays 40 pesos ($1.60) a day — on top of his taxes and license fees — for the right to set up shop on a lot where few traces remain of what was an old mansion in busy Central Havana.

“Things are organized here, and the flow of people along the avenue is good,” Diaz said. “Nevertheless, I think it’s a lot to pay each day for the space.” Official salaries average about $20 a month in Cuba.

Faustino Agramonte, the state administrator of the market, said it houses 21 independent merchants, and officials are looking at possibly expanding into a little-used parking lot on the site of another collapsed building.

Buckets, spatulas, cheese graters and soup pots hung from one stand Friday. Colorful clothing was on offer at another, strung up underneath a canvas tarp to protect it from the intense tropical sun. The market launched in early 2010.

Under the new rules governing independent businesses, many people have set up shop in their own houses. Not all Cubans, however, live in spaces appropriate for home businesses, and many are taking to the streets. The government has accomodated the trend by creating authorized vending zones where sellers can gather.

Officials are considering adjustments to the tax structure for independent operators, Granma said.

Mired in deep financial woes and hamstrung by inefficiency in state-run businesses, Cuba announced last August that it would be implementing major changes in hopes of rescuing its troubled economy. From the end of 2010 through May, more than 200,000 Cubans became licensed independent workers.

President Raul Castro insists that the new private-sector activity is meant to “update” Cuba’s socialist model, not replace it with the free market.

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