Posted on Fri, May. 20, 2005  

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Pre-revolutionary Cuba nostalgia brings out buyers on both sides of Straits

BY VANESSA BAUZA
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

HAVANA - (KRT) - By the banks of Havana's Almendares River, the old Tropical Beer garden is the kind of place where time slows down and the present yields to a more innocent past.

Every Saturday morning vendors arrive early, arranging their wares under a leafy canopy of palm and banyan trees. Foreigners and diplomats who scavenge for modest treasures here every weekend call it a flea market, but Cubans know it by another name: the Nostalgia Market.

More than half a century of Cuban history can be traced in the clutter of the market's collectibles and tchotchkes. Tropicana swizzle sticks, Capri casino chips, 3-D comic books and 1950s lottery tickets recall Havana's heyday. There are rusted La Estrella bonbon tins and Pan American Airways flight maps advertising Miami-Havana trips.

Pocket watches from the pre-revolutionary Cuban jeweler Cuervo y Sobrinos are lined up near 1940s voter ID cards and 100-peso bonds from the Guantanamo Railway.

Each item carries the weight of its history, beckoning buyers to reclaim a piece of the past.

If Cuba nostalgia is palpable in Havana, it seems especially acute across the Straits, where South Florida shops, restaurants and events serve up memories from a bygone era.

The seventh annual Cuba Nostalgia fair this weekend at Miami's Fair-Expo Center is a one stop-shopping destination for those who yearn for "a Cuba that no longer exists," said organizer Emilio Calleja.

Vendors sell collectibles like high school yearbooks from Havana, Cuban baseball uniforms or family heirlooms brought to South Florida in the 1960s by their original owners. Other memorabilia arrives in Miami more circuitously with collectors who buy items in Cuba and bring them back to Miami via third countries like Mexico or the Bahamas, Calleja said.

Cuban vendors suspect South Florida collectors make a handsome profit off their goods, but say Cuba's stagnant economy leaves them little choice but to sell.

"No one pays for what things are worth," said Havana vendor Arnaldo Rodriguez, 42. "Why? Because the owner needs to buy food. A generation has died and those who are left behind don't know the value of their things."

On Miami's Calle Ocho, some shops like Jakelin Llaguna's Old Cuba offer a modern twist on the nostalgia trend, with T-shirts that say, "Made in America with Cuba parts" or denim jackets decorated with Swarovski crystals spelling the word "Cubanita."

"It started out geared toward the pre-1959 nostalgia, the Cuba of yesteryear, the one we keep hearing about. What my business has evolved into is the new generation," said Llaguna, who left Cuba when she was 4. "It was so much fun to produce something new, rather than reproduce what existed."

South Florida's nostalgia stores offer goods dated up to 1959, when Fidel Castro swept triumphantly into Havana and many Cuban-Americans began their long exile. Cuba's markets, however, include plenty of revolutionary kitsch from the more recent past.

Glass tumblers commemorating Cuba's revolutionary heroes include a picture of Manuel Urrutia, who was designated provisional president in January 1959 but resigned six months later after Castro accused him of treason. There are identification cards from the former Popular Socialist Party, the precursor to Cuba's Communist Party, and black and white photos of a robust Castro posing casually with supporters.

Pins and plaques commemorate 1960s political campaigns and events, from the failed 10 million-ton sugar harvest to the urban reform law, which expropriated properties and forever changed the fortunes of many Cuban families.

Like many vendors, Octavio Marin, sells items in order to finance his own personal collections, which includes wall clocks, musical instruments and art deco post cards. He specializes in selling restored statues of Cuba's revered saints.

"Many of these statues were discarded on church steps in terrible condition. This one didn't have any hands. That one had a broken base. We restore them," Marin, 40, said. "The beautiful thing is you revalue these pieces and give them new life. I've gone to homes where the elderly have passed away and their objects fall into the hands of heirs who don't appreciate them. It's depressing."

Juan Del Risco occasionally sells collectibles to finance his assortment of walking canes and liquor bottles.

"Seeing these things I relive the past 50 or 60 years," Del Risco, 73, said. "It's like turning time back."

At Old Havana's used book market, vendor Pedro Gonzalez sees himself as a public historian, saving bits and pieces of Cuba's past that might otherwise end up in the trash heap. He sells pins, books and magazines from the 1960s and `70s - "everything that has to do with the revolution," he said.

"We book vendors go to places where things are just catching dust and people don't give them much importance," he said, while paging through one of the market's most popular items - a 1959 comic book with pasted trading cards depicting revolutionary heroes and events.

Although many small items are sold by licensed private vendors, the Cuban government operates several shops where owners can sell larger items, from 10-foot-tall wooden armoires priced at about $880 to a Salomonica style dinning room set with eight embossed leather chairs for $2,600. Owners get 80 percent of the sale, while the government keeps 20 percent.

In 2003 the Cuban government stopped issuing permits for visitors and tourists to export antique furniture and other items, bringing an end to the export of containers full of valuable antiques. Currently only diplomats and accredited foreign businesspeople are allowed to export a limited number of personal items, which must first be approved by a panel of experts at the government's office of patrimony.

Most collectibles and antiques are priced out of Cubans' budgets, but some of Havana's prominent intellectuals and artists frequent the stores, eager to snap up good deals.

On a recent day, Cuban soprano Yolanda Martinez browsed an antique shop in Havana's Chinatown neighborhood.

Martinez splits her time between Havana and a second home in Germany, but says she honors Cuba's past by keeping her collectibles here.

"I buy many things and have them at my home here, but I'm incapable of buying even an ashtray and taking it away," she said. "These are things that should stay in our country."

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© 2005 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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