End of electronics ban still a 'cruel joke' for many Cubans
Ray Sanchez | Direct from Havana
June 1, 2008
At a central Havana mall where a popular new store sells computers to
those who have hard currency, an epidemiologist named Diana was shopping
with her son Alberto.
Chinese-made Haier PCs range from $720 to $984; for the budget-minded,
do-it-yourselfers, motherboards go for $180 to $300.
Diana, 44, who asked that her family's full name not be used for fear of
retribution, said she was able to shop at the store only because her
former husband, a doctor in West Palm Beach, sends her money. She spent
$220 on a new 17-inch color monitor, computer speakers and a mouse for
For Alberto, the sudden ability to buy consumer electronics is a "cruel
joke," said the 20-year-old, who is completing his military service and
hopes to join his father in West Palm Beach.
The lifting of restrictions on consumer electronics for those who can
pay in hard currency has further exposed the social divide created by
the island's two-currency system. President Raul Castro has pledged a
gradual revaluation of the peso, but economists here and abroad concur
that no immediate relief is expected because the state lacks sufficient
foreign reserves to back a single currency.
The currency that can buy a rice cooker or other appliance is the
convertible peso, known as the CUC, which was introduced four years ago
to replace the U.S. dollar. But only Cubans who receive remittances from
abroad or have jobs in tourism, restaurants or the thriving black market
Most Cubans are paid in Cuban pesos, also known as moneda nacional,
which will buy government-subsidized items such as food rations,
transportation and medicine. Twenty-four pesos can be exchanged for one CUC.
Analysts said roughly 60 percent of Cuba's 11.2 million inhabitants have
at least some access to CUCs, while the remainder rely almost
exclusively on pesos.
Economists in Cuba and abroad said a sudden increase in state salaries
without an increase in productivity and solid economic recovery would
cause an unprecedented buying spree. Goods would disappear from store
shelves, they predicted, forcing the state to import heavily to meet
consumer demand. Furthermore, any change in the monetary system would
have to be gradual, they said.
"If the government decides to reduce the exchange rate of the peso
'nacional' for the CUC, it would have to do it slowly and over a long
period of time," Carmelo Mesa-Lago, professor emeritus at the University
of Pittsburgh, wrote in a recent report for the Real Instituto El Cano,
a think tank in Madrid.
Alberto said, "Most people can't afford this stuff unless they're
getting money from outside the country or running some illegal business
on the side."
Outside the mall, as a history professor and part-time taxi driver named
Jorge Blanco hauled a big box with a new 21-inch Philips TV to his car,
several people stopped to admire the purchase.
Blanco, 51, gently squeezed the cardboard container onto the front
passenger seat of his old sedan. As more admirers gathered, Blanco
admitted he wasn't the proud owner. He was the deliveryman.
"We could never afford a television like this," said Blanco, who, like
most Cubans, ekes out a living in pesos. His two jobs bring in about $32
a month. The TV cost $324.
"You have to do a lot of improper and illegal things to make these
purchases," he said.
Ray Sánchez can be reached at email@example.com.