For quality arts and crafts, Cuba is unrivaled in the Caribbean. Arts and crafts are sold by artisans at street stalls and in state agency stores such as the Fondo Cubano de Bienes Culturales and ARTEX. The best stuff is sold in upscale hotels, which mark up accordingly.
Tourist venues are overflowing with kitschy paintings, busty cigar-chomping ceramic mulattas, erotic carvings, and papier-mâché vintage Yankee cars. There is also plenty of true-quality art, ranging from paintings to hand-worked leather goods. You’ll also see muñequitas (dolls) representing the goddesses of the santería religion.
Most open-air markets offer silver-plated jewelry at bargain prices (a favorite form is old cutlery shaped into bracelets), while most upscale hotels have joyerías (jewelry stores) selling international-quality silver jewelry, much of it in a distinctly Cuban contemporary style.
Avoid buying black coral, turtle shell jewelry, and other animal “craft” items. The Cuban government doesn’t seem conscientious in this regard, but European and North American customs officials may seize these illegal items.
A limited amount of bargaining is normal at street markets. However, most prices are very low to begin with. If the quoted price seems fair, pay up and feel blessed that you already have a bargain.
In 2003, the government stopped issuing permits for antiques, including antiquarian books, stamp collections, furniture, and porcelain. An export permit is required for all quality artwork; the regulation doesn’t apply to kitschy tourist art. State-run commercial galleries and expo-ventas (galleries representing freelance artists) will issue an export permit or arrange authorization for any items you buy.
Export permits for items for which you have not received an official receipt may be obtained from the Registro Nacional de Bienes Culturales (National Registry of Cultural Goods, Calle 17 #1009, e/ 10 y 12, Vedado, Havana, tel. 07/831-3362, www.cnpc.cult.cu , Mon.–Fri. 9 a.m.–noon), in the Centro de Patrimonio Cultural, or at regional offices in provincial capitals. A single work costs CUC10, but CUC30 is good for up to 50 works of art. You must bring the object for inspection, or a photo if the object is too large. Allow up to two days for processing.