On the map, it's right next to Miami. But culturally speaking, Hialeah, Fla., is just as close to Havana. And now, more than ever, Cubans are flocking to Hialeah to shop, taking advantage of the relaxed travel restrictions.
"There are more Cubans here than any place besides Cuba," says Serafin Blanco, who owns a discount clothing store there.
Through these shopping expeditions, Cuba's emerging entrepreneurs can buy goods their customers need and can't find in their country — legally skirting the 50-year-old trade embargo.
Some stores, like Blanco's, specialize in trade with Cuba. It's not just a regular old store, it's a warehouse and a one-man flea market. The name screams, "Wow how cheap!" in off-color slang, advertising the experience inside.
And just to understand the prices that elicit that "wow": Shirts start at $3.99. Bras — six for ten dollars. There are also nurses' clothes and white and burgundy uniforms for Cuban school children.
Blanco hasn't been back to Cuba since he left 48 years ago at the age of 14. Now, after more than 20 years in the business, the store is something of a Hialeah landmark. Ads appearing daily on Spanish-language TV have made Blanco and his store well-known in Cuba, he says, where many watch Miami TV on tapes that are traded and sold. It's probably one of the reasons his customers don't just include Cuban-Americans who travel to the island often, but also Cubans.
"I would say fifty percent of our business is for people who travel to Cuba and bring merchandise to their family," he says. "So anything they take, they sell it or they give it to them."
One of the clerks at Blanco's store, Estrella Eredia, says that they even sell duffel bags that travelers can pack with the clothes and take directly to the airport. When they buy a lot of things, they get a 20 percent discount, she says.
People buy goods for resale despite the Cuban government's recent crackdown on small businesses selling imported goods, Blanco says.
Not far from Blanco's shop is another Hialeah store which has a thriving business with Cuba. Fabien Zakharov sells auto parts for cars you rarely if ever see in the U.S. — Ladas, Volgas, Moskvitches and other brands of Russian cars popular in Cuba. In his shop, display cases contain pistons, belts, and light bulbs; and dashboards and windshields hang on the walls.
Zakharov is a Russian who lived in Cuba for nearly 30 years before moving to Hialeah several years ago. And his store started when a friend from Cuba requested an auto piece.
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. All the parts get shipped over from Russia — directly from manufacturers, Zakharov says.
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 says most of them carry their purchases back on the plane. Even plastic liners and windshields are wrapped up and taken on the flight as baggage. In fact, each traveler can carry as many as 100 auto parts with them on the plane, provided they're small enough and light enough to meet restrictions, he says.
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. But it has also earned Zakharov a small degree of fame.
"Almost everyone in Cuba that has that type of car or needs parts like that knows about this store," he says through an interpreter. And when he goes to visit and he gives his business card, "people smile ear-to-ear because they're like 'Oh, you're the owner of this store? Like, oh wow!'"