Even with ban lifted, electronics still out of reach for most Cubans
Ray Sanchez | Direct from Havana
March 23, 2008
Reymundo Gallego arrived at the capital's largest shopping center to buy
a cheap umbrella. Though a $67 electric blender caught his eye, the
luxury would have to wait.
Gallego, a retired 64-year-old who toiled in municipal work brigades
since his teens, still owes $25 for a 20-inch, Chinese-made color TV he
bought in 1991.
He lives on a monthly pension of $8.42.
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"I can hardly afford to leave the house," he said.
The simple math of Gallego's life offers a glimpse into the economics of
communist Cuba's plan to lift a ban on the sale of computers, DVD
players, microwaves and other consumer electronics.
Word of the change came in an unsigned, undated memo circulated among
An official at the Interior Commerce Ministry, who asked not to be named
because she was not authorized to speak to the media, said she hadn't
heard of the memo.
Across the Florida Straits, however, some hailed the announcement as
modest but positive change under new President Raul Castro. Here, at
retail outlets that accept only hard currency worth 24 times the Cuban
pesos earned in state wages, the news caused hardly a whimper.
Lifting the ban would be largely symbolic. Most Cubans cannot afford
consumer electronics on the average monthly wage of $17. For Gallego and
others who don't receive remittances from abroad, consumer electronics
are an extravagance.
"In order to avoid feelings of alienation, you try not to dream or
aspire for things beyond your reach," said Nora, a physician from
Santiago strolling the Plaza Carlos III shopping center in central
Havana with a friend. She asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
Like many mall visitors, the women did no shopping. Instead, they
browsed and snapped photos of themselves in front of stores to show
family and friends back home.
The Plaza Carlos III mall could be a shopping center anywhere in Latin
America. Children played arcade games; teenagers chatted and flirted;
the odor of greasy fried chicken wafted up from the street-level food
court. Next to the electronics outlet, a "Virtual Store" accepted
online, credit card payments from abroad for goods Cubans purchase. But
the two-currency system leaves most Cubans little buying power.
Take the $67 electric blender that caught Gallego's eye. It will take
him nine months to finish the $2.75-per-month installments on the TV set
from 1991. After that, the state begins subtracting from his pension
payments for a new, $229 Chinese-made refrigerator he received recently.
He expects those payments to be higher than those for the TV. Forget the
blender for now.
"You're always pressed for money," he said. "You can't treat yourself to
a movie. You can't even stop at the corner and drink a soda."
As Gallego spoke, passers-by stopped to gawk at a 42-inch, Panasonic
plasma TV on display in a window of the electronics outlet. The screen
showed foreign lands and crowded markets. Some people snapped pictures.
The price tag was scratched off, but an identical flat-screen inside the
store was tagged at the equivalent of $5,005. A 29-inch Samsung TV cost
Who can afford these things?
"In Cuba, you have the rich and the almost millionaires," Gallego said.
"These are people with farms who sell to the state, people in military
industries, musicians and artists who travel and earn hard currency.
Then you have the rest of us."
The sale of many consumer electronics was banned in the 1990s when the
Soviet collapse deprived Cuba of billions of dollars in subsidies and
oil supplies. Daily blackouts, some lasting 18 hours, were common.
The government has been able to overhaul the country's electrical grid
by importing hundreds of fuel-run electrical generators supplied by
Venezuela, Cuba's biggest benefactor.
Critics said the ban on computers, DVD players and other electronics is
intended to control the flow of information to the public. But Gallego
said growing economic divisions within the socialist state also breed
"There are many people who have made the sacrifices that I made that
feel they have been forgotten by the state," he said.
"Let's see if the poorest Cubans get a little break now."
Ray Sánchez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.