Cuba reforms bring shrugs and expectations
By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 11, 2008
HAVANA — The young teacher trolling for bargains along Avenida de
Italia in a pink polka-dot halter is amused by all the foreign folderol
over recent government announcements that ordinary Cubans could now buy
cellphones, computers and microwave ovens.
"I can't afford to buy food to cook in pots," Idelma, who like most
Cubans questioned by foreigners doesn't want to give her full name, said
with a dismissive laugh when asked whether she's eyeing a microwave to
make her domestic life easier.
It's the same for cellphones, which cost a new subscriber $137 for
activation and a minimum of $20 in prepaid minutes every two months to
maintain the account. The average Cuban worker at state-run enterprises,
which still constitute 90% of the economy, earns just $17 a month.
President Raul Castro's decision to rescind prohibitions against Cubans
owning high-tech and energy-consuming appliances has sparked
expectations here, and abroad, that more fundamental change is on the
horizon aimed at freeing Cubans from the shackles of a planned economy
that imposes on most a daily struggle for subsistence.
But for workers such as Idelma, a $300 microwave represents a year and a
half's income and is another reminder that those without U.S. currency
are second-class citizens here. About one-third of Cuban households
benefit from monthly remittances from relatives abroad, and growing
numbers get dollars from tourist tips or joint-venture employment, but
state employees are no more likely to buy the newly available baubles
than when the items were forbidden.
Urban workers unable to afford the long-banned luxuries contend that the
government is just eliminating the foreign middlemen who have long
obtained cellphones and other electronics for Cubans — for a fee.
"These aren't changes to our system. They are indications the government
recognizes it was losing money to the black markets," said Eduardo, who
works nights at a warehouse but drives a friend's car as a taxi to earn
most of his income.
At ETECSA, the Cuban-Italian joint venture that operates cellphone
service in Cuba out of a modern office in the leafy Miramar district,
dozens of blue-uniformed sales agents review contracts for cellphone
service in air-conditioned comfort. Cubans previously had to bring a
foreign "friend" to sign up for the service. Payment was in advance and
in hard-currency cash for all equipment and services, the same
conditions that will apply to Cubans who want service.
Rudi, a Cuban artist recently returned from a hard-currency-earning tour
of his works abroad, came to the shop two days before the restrictions
"I can't buy a mobile phone in my own country, even though I have the
money!" he groused. He had a cellphone bought abroad and needed only the
service contract and SIM card to get connected, but had to rely on a
North American friend.
Outside Havana, another free-market reform effort by Castro is stirring
Beyond the five-story blocks of dreary apartments, where urban sprawl
gives way to tidy rows of crops and roadside farm stands, those tilling
the rich soil of this tropical island see hope for boosting output and
income as socialism's micromanagers bow out.
That Cuba produces so little of the food it needs despite a year-round
growing climate is one of the nagging forces driving Castro to shake up
the status quo in the countryside. Cuba imports more than 80% of the
commodities distributed in the monthly ration basket, notes Paolo
Spadoni, an expert on the Cuban economy who teaches at Rollins College
in central Florida. He estimates that food imports cost Havana more than
$1.6 billion a year.
In an effort to dramatically expand crop output, the leadership has
begun making more land available to farmers and allowing them to sell
fruit, vegetables, meat and milk at prices set according to demand,
instead of government edict.
At prosperous farms such as a 25-acre plot in Barbosa, half an hour from
the capital, the expectation of doubling cultivated acreage and profit
has the private collective planting from sunup to sundown.
The eight laborers who work the land earn 35 pesos for an eight-hour
day, only about $1.40, but a kingly sum in a country where a month's
work, whether by a manual laborer or a doctor, brings home less than $20.
"We are getting more land because we've shown what we can do with it,"
Victor, the farm's agronomist, said proudly of the state loan of another
25 acres for their collective.
The work is grueling, with only two oxen and not a mechanized vehicle in
sight among the orderly rows of lettuce, corn, carrots, peppers, spinach
Private farmers remain uncertain how far Castro, who took over from his
brother Fidel less than two months ago, will go in removing the
ideological obstacles to initiative and independence. But they believe
their fortunes can change quickly.
The easing of rules against selling produce at market prices —
previously considered exploitation — is expected to boost income and
buying power among farmers. Urban Cubans hope the step is a sign that
more opportunity for self-employment also will emerge in the cities.
Entrepreneurial by nature and exposed to the dollar-bearing tourists who
flood Cuba each year, city dwellers saddled with low-wage jobs often
moonlight to make ends meet.
Many of the young people plying the bustling Malecon seaside promenade
to clandestinely hawk salsa music CDs or lure customers to dance halls
and private restaurants say they want to open their own businesses and
be their own bosses.
"I can't feed my family on what I earned working for the government,"
said Joel, who left his transportation engineering job to chauffeur
tourists in his late father's 1954 Buick.
He is among the growing ranks of urban Cubans rejecting state employment
in favor of working "on the left," the unsanctioned black-market
activities that fill yawning gaps in services across Cuba. The Communist
Party daily Granma reported last month that nearly one in five Havana
residents refuses official employment.
That's not to say they aren't working.
A walk down Concordia, one of the ramrod-straight streets paralleling
the Malecon, reveals a bustling warren of underground industry. Sparks
fly out of an auto-repair yard behind a partially opened gate. A cobbler
with bench and stool just inside the open door to his apartment examines
a pair of loafers with soles peeled back. A barber working out of an
apartment entryway no bigger than a closet swivels a young boy
streetward to show his father the buzz cut.
Near the Partagas cigar factory, off-duty workers hawk the products they
are given, two per day, as supplements to their $10 monthly pay. They
purloin ribbon-hinged boxes, gold leaf bands and government certificates
of authenticity for the Cohibas or Montecristos, selling entire boxes of
25 at one-third the state price.
Brothers Alberto and Carlos scurry along Amistad, behind the Capitol, in
search of the coronas sought by a foreign shopper.
Carlos shrugs when asked whether their business might emerge from the
fringes at some point, if and when the government embraces more
fundamental change to allow Cubans to make and market their own products.
He disparages the official line that the government's huge profits from
premium rum and cigars fund the island's universal healthcare and education.
"I studied to be an engineer, but if I worked in that field my family
would starve," the clandestine cigar hawker says. "We'll believe in
change when we can have a dignified life from our salaries."