Castro reforms: DVDs, farms for Cubans
Posted on Wed, Apr. 02, 2008
By WILL WEISSERT
Associated Press Writer
Cubans snapped up DVD players, motorbikes and pressure cookers for the
first time Tuesday as Raul Castro's new government loosened controls on
consumer goods and invited private farmers to plant tobacco, coffee and
other crops on unused state land.
Combined with other reforms announced in recent days, the measures
suggest real changes are being driven by the new president, who vowed
when he took over from his brother Fidel to remove some of the more
irksome limitations on the daily lives of Cubans.
Analysts wondered how far the communist government is willing to go.
"Cuban people can't survive on the salaries people are paying them.
Average men and women have been screaming that at the top of their lungs
for many years," said Felix Masud-Piloto, director of the Center for
Latino Research at DePaul University. "Now after many years, the
government is listening."
Many of the shoppers filling stores Tuesday lamented the fact that the
goods are unaffordable on the government salaries they earn. But that
didn't stop them from lining up to see electronic gadgets previously
available only to foreigners and companies.
"They should have done this a long time ago," one man said as he left a
store with a red and silver electric motorbike that cost $814. The
Chinese-made bikes can be charged with an electric cord and had been
barred for general sale because officials feared a strain on the power grid.
On Monday, the Tourism Ministry announced that any Cuban with enough
money can now stay in luxury hotels and rent cars, doing away with
restrictions that made ordinary people feel like second-class citizens.
And last week, Cuba said citizens will be able to get cell phones
legally in their own names, a luxury long reserved for the lucky few.
The land initiative, however, potentially could put more food on the
table of all Cubans and bring in hard currency from exports of tobacco,
coffee and other products, providing the cash inflows needed to spur a
new consumer economy.
Government television said 51 percent of arable land is underused or
fallow, and officials are transferring some of it to individual farmers
and associations representing small, private producers. According to
official figures, cooperatives already control 35 percent of arable land
– and produce 60 percent of the island's agricultural output.
"Everyone who wants to produce tobacco will be given land to produce
tobacco, and it will be the same with coffee," said Orlando Lugo,
president of Cuba's national farmers association.
The change is a sharp contrast to the early days of Cuba's revolution,
when the government forced or encouraged private farmers to turn their
land over to the state or form government-controlled collective farms.
But without more details, it was difficult to tell the significance of
program, which began last year but was announced only this week.
"If this means all land that's not being used, like for private farmers,
cooperatives and state farms, is available, that's positive," said
Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a Cuba economics expert at the University of
Pittsburgh. "Assuming, of course, they have the freedom to sow and sell
whatever they want."
Lines formed before the doors opened at the Galerias Paseos shopping
center on Havana's famed seaside Malecon boulevard, and shoppers wasted
little time once inside. But there was no sign yet of computers and
microwaves, highly anticipated items that clerks across Havana insisted
would appear soon on store shelves, with desktop computers retailing for
Cuba's communist system was founded on promoting social and economic
equality, but that doesn't mean Cubans can't have DVD players, said
Mercedes Orta, who rushed to gawk at the new products.
"Socialism has nothing to do with living comfortably," she said.
Lines outside electronics boutiques and specialty shops are common in
Cuba because guards limit how many people can be inside at a time. But
waits were longer and aisles more packed than usual at Havana's
"DVDs are over there, down that aisle," an employee in a white
short-sleeved shirt repeated over and over as shoppers wandered into La
Copa, an electronics and grocery store across from the Copacabana Hotel.
"Very good! DVD players on sale for everybody," exclaimed Clara, an
elderly woman peering at a black JVC console. "Of course nobody has the
money to buy them." Like many Cubans, Clara chatted freely but wouldn't
give her full name to a foreign reporter.
Government stores offered all products in convertible pesos – hard
currency worth 24 times the regular pesos state employees get paid. The
government controls well over 90 percent of the economy and the average
state salary is just 408 regular pesos a month, about $19.50.
Still, most Cubans have access to at least some convertible pesos thanks
to jobs with foreign firms or in tourism, or cash sent by relatives
living in the United States.
Graciela Jaime, a 68-year-old retired clothes factory employee,
complained that widespread corruption and greed has created a class of
"Everyone wants to spend money and that is what's happening," she said.
"If everything they earned went to the state like it should, there
wouldn't be as much corruption as there is."
Associated Press writer Katherine Corcoran in Mexico City contributed to