Cuban program gives town a glimpse of life with a microwave
Posted on Wed, Mar. 26, 2008
By WILL WEISSERT
LAS GUASIMAS, Cuba —
Ana Magdalena Melian, a spry 91-year-old, had never seen a microwave
oven until one landed in her kitchen courtesy of the communist government.
''There were some rich people in Havana who had a microwave, but the
rest of us didn't dream of one,'' said the great-grandmother who uses
the new Daewoo DC to prepare flan and defrost chicken.
About 3,000 households in Las Guasimas, a town just southeast of Havana
named for a stubby evergreen tree, were issued microwaves in December as
part of a pilot program.
Metallic white and barely big enough to hold a loaf of sandwich bread,
the Daewoos don't look like the key to Cuba's future. But many here hope
they mean new President Raul Castro will do away with bans prohibiting
Cubans from buying a host of consumer goods available nearly everywhere
else in the world.
For three months, officials visited families using the ovens and quizzed
them about the appliances' reliability while monitoring electricity
The ovens were such a hit here, local authorities say that Cuba's
supreme governing body, the Council of State, is considering offering
microwaves to families across the island on long-term credit.
Similar programs have allowed Cubans to pay off subsidized color
televisions, pressure cookers, air conditioners and refrigerators. But
microwaves, like computers and DVD players, have remained off limits to
buy for everyone but foreigners and companies.
''It's like the microwaves fell from the sky,'' said Marisa Gutierrez, a
49-year-old housewife who uses her backyard to grow beans and bananas
and is even raising a family of pigs she inherited.
''We hope there will be more in the future,'' she said. “Computers,
telephones in every home.''
Gutierrez is a member of Las Guasimas' Revolutionary Defense Committee,
neighborhood groups that keep tabs on residents. The committee oversaw
the pilot program, and she said the government has thousands of
microwaves ready to be distributed on credit or sold in state-run stores.
According to an official-sounding but undated memo leaked to foreign
reporters this month, the new government already has approved
unrestricted sales of microwaves, computers, DVD players, television
sets of various sizes, electric bicycles and car alarms — though none
of those items have yet appeared for general purchase in state-run
department or appliance stores.
''Based on the improved availability of electricity, the highest level
of government has approved the sale of some equipment which was
prohibited,'' it read.
Venezuelan oil subsidies have helped Cuba improve its creaky electric
grid in recent years, and credits from China have provided the island's
government the cash it needed to import consumer goods made there and in
The memo directs that computers, microwaves and other electronics be
sold in stores that charge in Cuban convertible pesos, worth 24 times as
much as the regular Cuban peso.
Under such a system, most Cubans would be unable to afford them. The
government controls well over 90 percent of the economy and the average
monthly state salary is just 408 Cuban pesos, a little less than $20.
Even under credit payments, the monthly microwave payments would still
be a struggle for many.
Las Guasimas residents have been allowed to keep their microwaves even
though the pilot program ended this month. But Gutierrez said they may
have to buy them on credit soon and that each appliance could cost as
much as 2,000 pesos or $90. Government-run electronics stores offer
slightly larger Daewoo ovens to foreigners and companies for about $175
Melian said her family now loves ''el microwave'' but the idea of having
to pay to keep it scares her.
''We still are missing a lot in our lives,'' she said. “This helps, but
at what price?''
Her neighbor, 76-year-old retired truck driver Sergio Rodriguez, uses
his microwave to heat rice and milk.
''If they want to charge me, it will take 20 years to pay off,'' said
Rodriguez, who lives with his daughter and two grandchildren.
Both Melian and Rodriguez earn monthly pensions worth 230 Cuban pesos
per month, just under $10.
''The pension's not enough to buy anything and many people suffer,''
But Gutierrez, the neighborhood committee member, said the microwaves
prove everyday life in Cuba will get easier under the new President Castro.
''Everyone here is Fidelista,'' she said using a common term for
supporters of ailing, 81-year-old former Cuban President Fidel Castro.
“But with Fidel, they never brought us microwaves.''