Some Cubans can't afford new freedoms
Updated 12h 1m ago
By Alan Gomez, USA TODAY
For the first time in decades, Cubans can stroll through and even spend
a night in the Nacional and the Riviera, iconic hotels with ocean views
that had previously been reserved for tourists.
But the average salary for Cuban workers is $19 a month, and a night in
a hotel runs at least $150, so some Cubans see the gesture as an empty one.
"You have to save up a whole year to stay in a hotel room one night,"
says Oscar Espinosa, a Havana economist.
The opening of hotels was among a series of changes rolled out in recent
weeks by Raul Castro, who officially became Cuba's president in
February, replacing his ailing brother Fidel.
For the first time in their lives, Cubans can legally buy DVD players,
microwaves, cellphones and computers.
Some Cubans snatched up the long-forbidden electronics and took their
first steps inside Havana's signature hotels, according to the
Associated Press. What the changes mean for average Cubans and whether
they are a sign of broader economic and political changes to come on the
island is a mystery.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez dismisses the changes as
meaningless, saying they don't even begin to address the low wages and
other economic problems facing the island.
"I think it's sad that after 50 years of suffering and 50 years of
repression … that the Cuban people are now going to be able to buy a
toaster oven," he says. "It's sad that people see this as reform."
Espinosa says the changes are superficial because the few people who can
afford expensive electronics could already get them on the island
through the black market. Though computers are available, access to the
Internet is heavily restricted, he says.
"These changes don't mean anything," says Espinosa, who was jailed in
2003 during a sweep of dozens of critics of the regime.
Vicki Huddleston, a former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana,
She says the changes are a calculated move by Rau´l Castro, who she says
does not have the charisma to win over Cuba like his brother did. He
knows he must improve the lives of Cubans to survive, she says.
"It makes Rau´l look like a pretty nice guy," says Huddleston of the
Huddleston says Castro's moves could be the first steps in a larger plan
to reform the economy: Cuba could legalize or expand the few private
industries, such as restaurants, taxis and computer services. Such an
action, along with agricultural changes announced in recent weeks and an
easing of travel restrictions, could put Cuba on a path similar to that
of China's shift toward a market economy, she says.
"When you look at the Chinese model, they did agricultural (reform) and
more of this entrepreneurial thing," she says.
Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area
think tank, says the agricultural reforms could be the most significant
of the changes Cuba has implemented.
Cuba has some private farmers who work on government land, Peters says.
They give a certain quota of the food they produce to the government and
are then allowed to sell for profit whatever surplus they harvest.
Government television says 51% of arable land is underused or fallow in
Cuba, according to the AP. Officials plan to transfer some of that land
to individual farmers and associations of small, private producers.
Peters says the country is working to decentralize most of the
decision-making in the agricultural field, paving the way for
negotiations on how much the farmers must hand over to the government
and how much they pay for fuel.
Such changes could become a model for other privatized industries in
Cuba, Peters says. "It could be a big deal."
Despite the changes implemented and rumors of more to come, Robert Muse
Muse, a Washington lawyer who advises companies on U.S. laws related to
Cuba, says the underlying economic system remains unchanged, giving him
little reason for optimism.
"I think there's wishful thinking that the Cuban government is
neo-liberal in some secret way, that it's yearning to become a
free-market economy," Muse says. "I tend to take Cubans at their word.
And when they reiterate that it's a centrally planned socialist economy,
I tend to believe them."