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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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?"