Published: April 14, 2008 6:00 a.m.
Cubans shrug off Raul's reforms
What good is a microwave, if you can't afford one?
By Carol J. Williams
Los Angeles Times
HAVANA – The young teacher trolling for bargains along Avenida de Italia
in a pink polka-dot halter is amused by the foreign folderol over recent
government announcements that ordinary Cubans could now buy cell phones,
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 cell phones, 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 percent 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 dollars are
second-class citizens. 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.
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 percent of
the commodities distributed in the monthly ration basket, notes Paolo
Spadoni, an expert on the Cuban economy who teaches at Rollins College
in Florida. He estimates that food imports cost Havana more than $1.6
billion a year.
In an effort to expand crop output dramatically, 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, about $1.40, which is a kingly sum here.
"We are getting more land because we've shown what we can do with it,"
Victor, the farm's agronomist, said of the state loan of another 25
acres for their collective.
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 CDs or
lure customers to dance halls and private restaurants say they want to
open their own businesses and be their own bosses.
Near the Partagas cigar factory, off-duty workers hawk the products they
are given, two a 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 disparages the official line that the government's huge profits
from premium rum and cigars fund the island's universal health care and
"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."