Cuba's pressure-cooker pace of change

It took Fidel Castro four decades to accept limited economic reform in communist Cuba, but it has taken his brother, Raul Castro, the President since February, just weeks to launch a flurry of changes.

On Tuesday, Cubans lined up outside stores to gawk at, and enjoy the new right to buy, appliances such as pressure cookers, DVDs and electric bikes. The government, since 2003, had banned their sale amid severe power shortages.

And this was no ordinary consumer experience: plenty of demand, low supplies and zero financing.

In a country where the average monthly salary is 408 pesos ($17), window shopping was the watchword.

“I came just to look. With the 200 [Cuban] pesos (about $9) I get for my retirement, I wasn’t going to be buying.
But I think it’s great that whoever has their money can,” said a 70-ish woman who refused to give her name.

And on the first day that many items such as microwaves and computers were directly available to Cuban consumers, several items—out of most Cubans’ financial reach for now—had yet to make it on to store shelves.

But “I am really happy about the changes, and with my little pressure cooker”, glowed Marlen Perez, a university student shopping at Havana’s Galerias Paseo mall.

“I got it for 35 convertible pesos ($37,80), which is about half the price on the black market; I just love it,” Perez said.

Access to appliances was just the latest of some traditional “bans” to be dumped by Raul Castro (76), five weeks after taking over permanently after the ailing Fidel Castro (81), who did not seek re-election.

On Monday, the government dropped its controversial ban on Cubans staying in hotels reserved for the tourists who generate the lion’s share of the Caribbean island’s hard currency. Some rights groups had dubbed it “tourist apartheid”.

The change is expected to be a welcome one for Cubans living abroad who come home for visits and want to treat relatives to hotel stays. Cubans living here will not be stampeding hotels where rooms often range from over $100 to $300 a night.

The government also on Monday made it possible for Cubans to rent cars. It sounds nice but the price, at international levels in hard currency, is not right for Cubans.

“Those measures are more political than economic, because who is going to go to a hotel or rent a car?”—paying in hard currency—asked engineer Alfredo Rodines (43). “Still, people like to know that they have the freedom to do it,” he added.

Lazaro Paneque, a 34-year-old bricklayer, marvelled at the prices.

“Those prices are still really high; if you buy a DVD for 115 convertible pesos, that is 2 700 [Cuban] pesos—almost half of what I earn in an entire year.”

On April 14, all Cubans also for the first time will be allowed to sign contracts for cellphones.

Cuba watchers say there is likely a short-term political benefit of allowing greater economic openness, though they also warn many changes in the Americas’ only centrally controlled, one-party regime could build pressure for more change than the government is prepared to allow.—AFP

Client Media Releases

Conference validates contribution of traditional birth attendants
What makes IIE Rosebank College cool?
The right to take refuge