Cuba Continues To Roll Out Reforms

A woman walks past the El Comendador hotel in Havana, Monday, March 31, 2008. New President Raul Castro's government has lifted a ban on Cubans staying at hotels previously reserved for foreigners.
AP Photo/Javier Galeano
Shoppers snapped up DVD players, motorbikes and pressure cookers for the first time Tuesday as Cuba loosened its control 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 substantial changes are being driven by new President Raul Castro, who vowed when he took over from his brother Fidel to remove some of the more irksome limitations on the daily lives of Cubans. But even expert Cuba-watchers wonder how far the communist government will 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 mourned 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," said a 40-something man, emerging from a shopping center with a red-and-silver electric motorbike that set him back US$814 (euro520). The Chinese-made bikes can be charged with a power cord and had been prohibited for general sale because the government feared a drain on the power grid.

On Monday, the Tourism Ministry said any Cuban with enough money can 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 reform, however, potentially could put more food on the table of all Cubans while helping to develop 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, the president of Cuba's national farmers association.

The change is a 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 with the University of Pittsburgh. "Assuming, of course, they have the freedom to sow and sell whatever they want."

Lines formed before the doors opened Tuesday at the Galerias Paseos shopping center on Havana's famed seaside Malecon boulevard, and shoppers wasted little time once inside. 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 around US$650 (euro415).

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 security guards limit how many people can enter at a time. But waits were longer and stores more packed than usual at Havana's best-known retail outlets, and clumps of shoppers and gawkers clustered around display cases at smaller locales.

"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, about US$19.50 (euro12.50) a month.

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 pilfering and greed has created a class of rich Cubans.

"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."