STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In recent weeks we've been reporting on changes in Cuba. One is Cuba's small but growing private sector. The government is letting entrepreneurs open their own businesses, which leaves many trying to find the goods their customers want. The U.S. trade embargo means you can't just order from a distributor in Florida. But Cubans can still get U.S. goods. NPR's Greg Allen visited stores in the Miami suburb of Hialeah.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: On the map, it's right next to Miami. But culturally speaking, Hialeah is just as close to Havana.
SERAFIN BLANCO: There are more Cubans here than anywhere else besides Cuba.
ALLEN: Serafin Blanco owns a discount clothing store in Hialeah. But that doesn't really describe it. It's not just a store, it's a warehouse and a one-man flea market. And the name - it includes some off-color Spanish slang that Blanco translates as...
BLANCO: Wow. How cheap.
ALLEN: How cheap? How about shirts for 3.99 and bras - six for $10. There are nurses clothes and uniforms for Cuban schoolchildren - burgundy shorts and white shirts for the boys. Blanco hasn't been back to Cuba since he left 48 years ago as a 14-year-old. His customers, though, include Cuban-Americans who travel to the island often and Cubans who are now allowed by their government to travel freely to the U.S.
BLANCO: A lot of things that we sell here go to Cuba. I would say 50 percent of our business is for people that travel to Cuba and bring merchandise for their family. So anything they take, they sell it or they give it to them. Instead of giving them money, they give them merchandise.
ALLEN: Some of his merchandise is resold in Cuba, Blanco says, although he notes the government has recently cracked down on small businesses selling imported goods. After more than 20 years in the business, Serafin Blanco's discount store is something of a Hialeah landmark with ads daily on Spanish-language TV.
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ALLEN: Blanco says the ads have made him and his store well-known in Cuba, where many watch Miami TV on tapes that are traded and sold. One of the clerks at Blanco's store, Estrella Eredia, says they also sell duffel bags that travelers can pack with clothes and take directly to the airport.
ALLEN: When they buy a lot of things, she says, we give them a 20 percent discount. There are people who buy goods wholesale so they can take them over there to sell. Not far from Blanco's shop is another Hialeah store doing a thriving business with Cuba. Fabien Zakharov sells auto-parts for cars you rarely, if ever, see in the U.S. His parts are for Ladas, Volgas, Moskvitches and other brands of Russian cars popular in Cuba. In his shop, display cases contain pistons, belts, and light bulbs. Hanging on the walls are dashboards and windshields. Zakharov is a Russian who lived in Cuba for nearly 30 years before moving to Hialeah several years ago.
FABIEN ZAKHAROV: (Through translator) Our story started with a piece that a friend of theirs asked for from Cuba.
ALLEN: Through an interpreter, Zakharov says he quickly found getting Russian parts in the U.S. wasn't easy. Using Russian contacts, he began ordering and stocking parts for Soviet-era models still on the roads in Cuba.
ALLEN: Getting the parts - the parts all come from Russia now?
ALLEN: Shipped over?
ZAKHAROV: It's original. Everything original. (Spanish spoken.)
ALLEN: All of the parts, Zakharov says, come directly from the manufacturers. In the last two years, more of his business than ever before is with Cubans who now can travel and shop in the U.S.
ZAKHAROV: (Through translator) Almost everyone in Cuba that has, like, that type of car or that needs parts like that knows about this store. And that when he goes and visits and, like, he gives his business card, like, the people smile ear-to-ear because they're like oh, you're the owner of this store like oh, wow.
ALLEN: Cubans can ship parts home, but Zakharov says most carry them back on the plane. Each traveler can carry as many as 100 auto parts, he says, provided they're small enough and light enough to meet restrictions.
ALLEN: Here I see some parts in here - you’ve got large plastic liners, windshields.
ALLEN: Can you get a windshield to Cuba?
ZAKHAROV: Many. They prepare the package and take by themselves in the flight as baggage. It's OK.
ALLEN: Zakharov acknowledges that many of his parts are being resold by entrepreneurs on the island. It's a good business to be in, he says, especially with the changes that he and others believe may be coming to Cuba. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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