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Cubans now can enjoy cellphones, DVDs ... legally

Some are rushing to take advantage of the new consumer freedoms, but few can afford to go beyond window shopping.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 11, 2008

Consumer: A woman bought a pressure cooker last week after Cuba lifted a ban on many goods.

Javier Galeano/AP

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A crowd huddles around a glass case, squinting for a better view; from afar it looks as if they might be ogling a rare sea creature.

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But this is an electronics store in Havana, and the item on display is a DVD player.

Down the street, young men jot down the prices hanging off electric motorbikes in the window of a mechanic shop.

A Cuban woman heads into a tourist hotel and, not hiding the skepticism in her voice, asks the front desk: "Is it true that if I had the money, I could stay here?" The answer: "Yes."

These are just a few examples of consumer freedom playing out across Cuba under new rules announced by Cuban leader Raúl Castro.

In the broader scheme of transition, the changes are fairly minor. But many Cubans resented limitations on basic consumer goods that are accessible essentially everywhere else in the world.

Even Mr. Castro, who permanently became Cuba's leader six weeks ago after his brother Fidel Castro's nearly 50-year reign, called the prohibitions "excessive." And while his government has taken some criticism from those who say the changes are merely cosmetic, for most the relaxed rules underscore a new pragmatic leadership that they hope points to deeper economic and political change in coming months.

"Things are changing here. Who knows how far this will go, but this is a good start," says Emilio, a carpenter in Havana who looks down at the DVD he is carrying under his arm. Like many Cubans, he declined to share his last name with a foreign journalist.

Can Cubans afford the new toys?

For most, the right to own a computer, for example, will mean nothing in reality. Such products are out of reach in a country where the average salary is $17 a month.

A night at a hotel costs well over $100, or more than five times the monthly pay. The motorbikes on display in the mechanic shop are priced at between $750 and $2,000.

At the electronics shop, one woman burst into laughter when asked whether she was there to purchase a DVD player. "I'm just here to look," she says, eyeing the $130 price tag.

Still, the announcement sends a message of flexibility. "The reforms introduced seem designed to make ordinary daily life easier," says William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University in Washington. "It also shows a degree of political confidence, that they can open up information flows and that it won't threaten them."

If the bans on owning a computer or DVD player seem anachronistic to many Cubans, many say the reform they most welcome is the freedom to stay in hotels, even if it is just symbolic.

Like many of the limits, the hotel ban was a measure to ensure social equality and restrict contact with foreigners. But since tourism has flourished here, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, it has been a controversial restriction that came to be called a form of "tourist apartheid."

It irked many Cubans like Daliana, a professional dancer who for years has worked in hotels. "We work there, but we couldn't stay there, as if we were second-class citizens," she says. "Now we can participate in our own culture."

Many greet the changes with a shrug