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Comparison shopping in Cuba Cuban products often underprice the European and U.S. compeitition (chart) CUBANS SHOP FOR DOLLARS U.S. CURRENCY BRINGS ACCESS TO FOREIGN FOODS

By Published on .

HAVANA-Neida, a well-dressed Cuban mother in her 30s, left the Diplotienda, a grocery store in this city's upscale Miramar suburb, with her shopping cart one-quarter full of food just purchased with U.S. dollars.

Pushing her cart past a line of Cubans waiting to get into the store, Neida said she comes here about once a week to buy fresh meat and cheese with coveted dollars sent by relatives living stateside.

Armando, a 22-year-old worker in a state-run factory, said he shops at the same store about once a month, or whenever his stateside relatives send money.

"Sometimes I have to wait longer because the money doesn't come," he said as he opened his one bag to display his most recent purchases: A canned ham from Denmark, a bag of spaghetti from Italy and a tub of butter made in Cuba.

Since August 1993, when the Cuban government allowed residents of this island to hold U.S. dollars, Cubans have become a mainstay at what they call "dollar stores," or stores that sell a variety of foreign and some local products for U.S. dollars.

Previously catering only to foreign diplomats and tourists, some of these government-controlled stores now report that 70% of the customers are Cubans who receive the currency from relatives abroad or who earn tips in dollars from their jobs at tourist hotels and restaurants here.

Reflecting the new clientele, store workers said the name of the store is being changed from Diplotienda, or Diplomats' Store, at 70th and 3rd streets to Supermercado, or Supermarket.

Security guards at the Miramar store would not allow photos to be taken inside the store. Shoppers would talk about their buying habits once outside of the store, but were reluctant to give their full names.

Cubans like Neida and Armando use the dollar stores to supplement their monthly rations handed out at small "bodegas," where goods are purchased with Cuban pesos, but where shelves are often empty.

The Miramar store has no sign on the outside, and no advertising for the store was visible in Cuban newspapers or on local TV or radio. However, Cubans apparently have no difficulty finding the store-its parking lot was brimming with cars in a country where roads are often empty because of fuel shortages.

Foreign diplomats and tourists are still given special treatment at Miramar. They are allowed to enter first after showing a passport, while Cubans must line up to enter the store when there's room.

The store looks like a small, no-frills supermarket, with eight aisles of products and scanners at the checkout. There are no signs within the store for pointing out bargains or directing shoppers.

Despite U.S. sanctions against Cuba, American brand names are widely available, finding their way to Cuban shelves through subsidiaries outside the U.S. (see related story this page). Familiar brand names include Sprite, Del Monte and Gerber.

A small section in the store also sells electronic items, such as a 19-inch Korean Goldstar television for $437.

Shoppers, however, were concentrating on food products, and tended to look more at price than labels. Many were picking up a 95 cent jar of Mexican mayonnaise called Ybarra over the only other alternative, a $3 jar of Remia from Holland.

While there were often two or three brands of a particular item for sale, at times there was only one. For example, the only tomato sauce in the entire store was a small can (227 grams) of Pomarola brand from Chile selling for $1.05.

Throughout the store, consumers could be heard complaining about prices. "I can get this cheaper at another store," said one woman putting back a $4.50 piece of fresh cheese.

Indeed, prices varied greatly among these government stores sprinkled throughout the island: A can of Coca-Cola was 45 cents at some stores, $1.00 at others. At times, Cuban products were priced higher than imported goods (see chart).

At the checkout counter, most Cubans had an armful of products, a stark contrast to carts piled high with food passing through two separate checkout aisles exclusively for diplomats.

At the open-air restaurant outside the Miramar store, two Cuban couples considered whether they would rather buy local or imported products.

"Often, it's just a matter of what's available," one young Cuban said. However, he if had a choice between a Cuban cola and Coca-Cola, he'd take the Coke.

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