Castro counts the blessings of the revolution

Pressure cookers and rice steamers, essential tools of the Cuban kitchen, are the weapons in Fidel Castro’s latest battle to reassert control over the nation’s economy—while still making the island’s housewives happy.

Made during an unusually optimistic five-and-a-half hour speech broadcast live on Tuesday night on state television, Castro announced that 100 000 new pressure cookers would be distributed for sale at government-subsidised prices every month, underscoring his communist country’s continued move toward greater political and economic centralism.

The plan “will do away with the rustic kitchen,” Castro told top members of the Federation of Cuban Women, allowing the replacement of energy-wasting, homemade cookers sold by private artisans. “The industrial ones use half the energy,” he said.

If successful, the programme to eventually distribute millions of pressure cookers could wipe out what has become a popular—and in most cases legal—private business that uses moulds to construct rustic ones from cheap aluminum.

Although imported pressure cookers are sold in stores for about $25—more than the average Cuban earns in a month—the homemade ones cost around $5,50.

At subsidised prices, the new government-distributed cookers would cost about the same as a homemade ones.
Although still costing about half the average monthly salary, the government’s cookers would be more affordable because they could be bought over time with monthly payments.

In the typical Cuban household, the pressure cooker is used every day to steam the black beans or other dried legumes that accompany many meals. They are used to cook many other traditional Cuban foods such as yucca and sweet potatoes known as boniato.

Cuba was forced to allow some private business beginning in the mid-1990s amid a severe economic crisis in the years following the withdrawal of Soviet aid and trade. Those modest reforms were seen as temporary, but necessary, evils.

But after a slow recovery, recent discoveries of oil deposits off Cuba’s coast and increasingly strong economic alliances with Venezuela and China, Castro clearly believes the island is strong enough to return to a more centralised economy of the past. The government began moving last year to trim back the already small

number of people legally allowed to work for themselves.

Distribution of the cookers is only part of an offensive against “the errors, deviations and confusions” in economic planning of the more recent past, Castro said.

On Tuesday night, the “federadas”—members of the women’s government support group—gave Castro a standing ovation when he said distribution of the Cuban and imported pressure cookers would start in April.

Castro said the state would also distribute Chinese-made rice cookers—highly coveted by Cuban women—and perhaps later small electric stoves, all at subsidised prices.

The announcement recalls the first few decades after the triumph of the Cuban revolution when the government was the central point of distribution for all goods—ranging from appliances and furniture to clothing and food.

Now, only a few essential foodstuffs are distributed on the government ration at very low prices: rice, beans, chicken, eggs, coffee, sugar, and a few other items.

Everything else is bought at “el shopping”—the consumer goods stores where prices for imported products are tied to the US dollar, making them exorbitantly high for the average Cuba.

“We hate those types of stores,” Castro said on Tuesday of what were known as “dollar stores” before Cuba stopped using the American dollar as legal tender and replaced it with its own “convertible peso” last autumn.

Indicating those stores also may become a thing of the past, Castro said: “We hated having to do that. It created so many inequalities.”

Initially limited to foreigners with American dollars, the stores were opened to Cubans 11 years ago when the government allowed its citizens to use foreign currency.

Cubans quickly got used to shopping at the stores with dollars for almost all goods except for that provided on the very slim government ration.

But Cuba is now in better economic shape and “beginning to put itself on the map of this chaotic and hopeless world,” Castro told the women leaders.

Cuba now can consider raising some government salaries, which he said now average about 300 Cuban pesos a month, or about $11. He also said there are plans to build 100 000 new homes this year.

“I am working more than I ever have in my life, and I feel more enthusiastic than ever,” he said.

Castro noted some economic weak spots, including the once critical sugar industry. He said this year’s harvest is expected to be especially small because of drought in the nation’s east, probably between 1,5 and 1,7 million tonnes.

The last harvest, for the 2003-2004 season came in at 2,5-million tonnes. The 2002-2003 harvest yielded 3,6-million tonnes and 2001-2002 registered 3,5-million tonnes.

“But in the country, nothing is lacking, important problems are being resolved,” Castro said. “All credits are being paid, to the last cent. These are miracles of the revolution.” - Sapa-AP

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