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

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    Consumer: A woman bought a pressure cooker last week after Cuba lifted a ban on many goods.
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    Window Shoppers: Cubans look at consumer electronics at a store in Havana. Some residents say the recent changes by President Raúl Castro are merely cosmetic.
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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.

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.

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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

As is true for most things related to Cuba's transition since the island nation's iconic leader Fidel Castro fell ill in the summer of 2006 and temporarily ceded control to his brother Raúl, the response to the changes here is somewhat muted, resonating much wider in the rest of the world.

Most greet the announcements with a shrug.

"Poco a poco," Cubans say. "Little by little" things are improving.

That is perhaps because not only are there a limited number of Cubans who can afford the services and goods now on offer, those with the purchasing power had already found their way around the many restrictions placed on them.

Cuba is, in many ways, one giant black market.

Anything you need is sold by the neighbor, or the neighbor's cousin. Mostly people look the other way, sometimes for a small bribe.

So while they live in modest homes, where refrigerators are often decades old, many have long had computers in their living rooms or on their kitchen tables.

They carry cellphones in their pockets, which they often access by registering under foreign names.

Emilio, the carpenter with the DVD player under his arm, says it's for his mother. "I got one on the black market a while ago," he says, shrugging.

Some say the changes are cosmetic

Some critics say the changes only boost the international image of the administration while doing little to really benefit the people.

"We think this is a political change, not an economic change," says Georgina Noa Montes, a human rights activist in Havana. "You can buy a microwave, but only if you stop eating."

She says real change will only come when political prisoners are released from jail and human rights are respected. "Just because they changed the government does not mean anything will really change," she says. "It is a dog with a different collar."

In addition to these "crowd pleaser" reforms that help Cubans feel more connected to the world they sometimes see reflected on the Internet and in the movies, the government also announced new policy decisions, including a plan to give farmers more autonomy over how they use their land and one to make filling medical prescriptions less bureaucratic.

A few months ago a fleet of Chinese buses was rolled out in Havana, boosting a public transportation system that was inadequate at best.

But many say a complete economic overhaul is needed.

Among Cubans' top concerns is that their wages are paid in pesos, while most products are purchased with convertible pesos, which are worth about 24 times more.

An estimated 60 percent of the population has access to convertible pesos, in the form of remittances or wages in tourism or foreign companies. Those who don't feel the disadvantage.

"Computers and hotels are not the top economic concern to most Cubans. The real issue is purchasing power; their salaries don't give them purchasing power to buy basic necessities," says Philip Peters, a Cuba expert and vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

Eva, a medical statistician, illustrates the inconsistencies.

After 30 years working in the government's public health department, she makes $18 a month.

She says she would never get by without the cash she receives from family in Washington, Miami, and Mexico. "I love life here, you don't have to worry about crime, and things are improving," she says. "But we have to be able to live off of what we make. If we don't, what is the point?"

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