Changes in Cuba spark frustration and hope

April 5th, 2008 - 9:40 am ICT by admin  

By Silvia Ayuso
Havana, April 5 (DPA) With their noses stuck to the shop window, a group of Cubans stared at shiny electronic appliances whose sale had just been liberalised by the government: DVDs, rice cookers, electric scooters and, soon, computers and microwaves. But most cannot go beyond looking.

“I don’t have a computer, I don’t have a cellphone … I cannot buy, my salary won’t let me. I have to sell my car or the house to buy the computer,” Ernesto, 45, complained as he looked.

In theory, Ernesto and his wife could buy within a few days many products, which Cubans have desired for years, with computers and cellphones the likely favourites. They could also stay at one of the island’s luxury resorts - for more than 10 years, the exclusive preserve of tourists - or rent a car.

These are part of a wave of reforms that Raul Castro launched after his brother Fidel Castro stepped down in February.

However, with a monthly salary of 273 pesos (just over $12, when the national average is $17-20), Ernesto would have to save his full salary for almost a year just to spend a night with his wife at a four-star hotel on the communist island.

The same would apply to a cellphone: the line costs $120, plus $60 for the phone itself, with rates of at least 40 cents a minute for calls.

Cubans who get remittances from relatives abroad will probably manage better.

“The tough thing is still that Cubans cannot obtain these things through work. That is the great contradiction of the moment. But they had to do something and they have started by this,” said dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe.

In fact, many Cubans already had a cellphone “indirectly”, through a foreigner whose name was on the contract. And the black market for DVDs and other home appliances was flourishing.

“It is a rationality-based process, which brings to the surface things which were already there,” Espinosa Chepe said.

Fellow moderate dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua agreed.

“The measures are going to promote some inequalities which in fact already exist, but at least now the government is acknowledging that and there are policies in agreement with the Cuban reality of a society with different classes, those who have and those who have not,” Cuesta Morua said.

“We have to get over the myth that Cuba is the Cuban revolution. It is a normal society with its normal differences,” he insisted.

Most of the reforms were not published in the official media, but the news spread like wildfire through word of mouth and most people were happy about the changes.

Observers note that although many of the new options are out of reach for the average Cuban, they have important “psychological” value - the knowledge that the possibility is there gives a feeling that there is “a little more freedom”, as one Cuban put it.

The island’s population awaits other reforms, like the chance to buy a car or a house, and free access to the internet.Others are demanding changes in migration rules, in particular the elimination of an exit permit that costs Cubans a lot of trouble and money every time they want to go abroad.

“The hotel thing is good news, but what many people are waiting for is the way to get out,” a waiter whispered at the Hotel Nacional.

High officials have confirmed that such reforms are being considered. No quick changes are to be expected in the economy either, official media have stressed.

Raul Castro himself warned that such “structural changes” will take “time”.

“A mistake motivated by improvisation, superficiality or hurry would have considerable negative consequences,” he said in his inaugural speech.

However, it is undeniable that change is underway - particularly in the countryside, one of Raul Castro’s priorities in an effort to “produce more”.

State television has hinted that under-used land could be redistributed to private peasants in various cooperatives, and farmers could get double the price the state pays for their products.

Decisions in agriculture have been decentralised. Cuba’s productive private farmers use less than a third of the land under cultivation in Cuba. Yet they produce 60 percent of the roots and tuberous vegetables, 62 percent of other vegetables, 88 percent of the corn and beans, 42 percent of the milk and 95 percent of the tobacco, official figures show.

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