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    Cubans buy into Raúl's new consumer freedoms

    CUBA
    Cubans buy into Raúl's new consumer freedoms
    Cubans have enthusiastically embraced Raúl Castro's lifting of
    restrictions on products such as cellphones and TVs.
    Posted on Sun, May. 18, 2008
    BY MIAMI HERALD STAFF
    Cuba@MiamiHerald.com

    HAVANA —
    Buses are running, household goods are flying off store shelves, and
    Cubans are giddily comparing their latest cellphone features.

    After decades of stagnation in a communist country with an average
    salary of $17 a month, around here that's cause for celebration.

    ''It's logical,'' said Julio, a Havana nurse. “If one president
    prohibited drinking this glass of water and the second president comes
    and lets you have it, well of course you are going to think the new
    president is better.''

    The changes unfurled by new leader Raúl Castro are hardly profound
    structural economic reforms needed to reverse decades of a failed
    economy. But they've stirred a new sense of hope in a nation with its
    first new president in 49 years and a population eager for Castro to
    lift millions from poverty and improve their lives.

    In conversations with dozens of people throughout the capital, The Miami
    Herald found that even if that progress comes in the form of cellphones
    most people cannot afford, Cubans will take it.

    `LIKE BATTERED WIVES'

    ''Cubans are like battered wives,'' said Eduardo, a 30-year-old Havana
    bachelor who spent a recent afternoon admiring the latest $5,000
    flat-screen TVs on sale here. “The husband beats the wife every day.
    Then one day he doesn't beat her, and it's like, `He's so good to me; he
    didn't beat me today.'

    “For people here, the DVD and cell thing are a breath of fresh air.''

    Castro's first 100 days in office were marked by a flurry of mostly
    consumer-related policies that allowed the sale of items such as
    computers, microwaves and DVD players. Some experts say his first months
    in office underscore a desperate attempt to curry favor with Cuba's
    growing middle class and hold on to power.

    At least on the retail level, the strategy seems to be working: products
    are being snapped up as soon as they hit the shelves, creating a
    euphoric sense of hope that even better and more important changes are
    to come.

    Castro's measures also show that Cubans who receive money from abroad,
    work in the tourist industry or the underground economy do have cash to
    spend, and he has been quick to appease them — managing all at once to
    siphon discontent, boost morale and capture dollars previously lost to
    the black market.

    CASTRO'S RISK

    However, as Cubans welcome the previously banned housewares on store
    shelves, they await higher salaries and lower prices, which will be
    harder for Castro to deliver. It's a dangerous gamble for Castro, who,
    even though his early decisions are a clear response to the peoples'
    biggest grievances, faces the risk of creating more expectation than change.

    ''A lot of this is psychological,'' said Juan Carlos, a store clerk who
    has watched people flock to make purchases. “It's the mentality of
    being allowed to do what has always been prohibited. You get excited
    about that, even if you really still can't do it, because you don't have
    the money. “People don't analyze very deeply.''

    Castro took office Feb. 24 after nearly 17 months filling in temporarily
    for his brother Fidel, whose intestinal illness has kept him out of
    public view since July 2006.

    That interim period was slow, steady, and marked by minor announcements.
    That all changed when Fidel announced his retirement and the National
    Assembly officially named Raúl Castro head of state, releasing him from
    the shackles that had confined him for nearly 50 years to the shadows of
    his older brother.

    Just weeks after taking office, Castro began lifting the kinds of
    Fidel-era restrictions that had long rankled Cubans: from the inability
    to purchase electronic goods to visiting hotels reserved for tourists,
    viewed by many on the island as an important step toward lifting what
    had been dubbed “tourist apartheid.''

    Castro also commuted the death penalty for most Death Row inmates and
    raised pensions. It's also now easier for some renters to receive
    property titles, and the agricultural industry was decentralized in a
    pursuit to increase production.

    ''He puts himself in the position of riding a bicycle — he has to keep
    pedaling to not fall off,'' said Cuba analyst Daniel P. Erikson of the
    Inter-American Dialogue think tank. “There are many expectations that
    he'll do more, so he keeps pedaling. He keeps pulling rabbits out of his
    hat in order to keep the people happy.''

    RAUL'S IMAGE

    Castro is forging the image of a man willing to address the things
    Cubans have long griped about, and buy himself the time he needs to
    establish a new phase of the Cuban revolution that lives on without its
    icon Fidel. The measures allow him to portray himself as a responsive
    president — even as repression against dissidents continues and
    democratic elections remain distant.

    As Castro takes credit for a vastly improved public transportation
    system, an increasingly critical government press and newfound consumer
    liberties, he gets to be the good guy.

    Some critics dismiss the measures as frivolous attempts to gain
    political capital, but they are crucial for people like Yali, a cleaning
    lady who earns $4 a week and is anxious to see decisions that will
    trickle down to people like her.

    ''The government saw this country was going backward and not forward,''
    Yali said. “I believe this is only going to get better. I am going to
    continue thinking that way, even if with all these changes, I realize
    that most things are going to stay the same.''

    Yali cannot take advantage of Castro's measures: mobile phone rates are
    60 cents a minute, and it would take six months' wages to pay for a
    night in a decent Havana hotel. But like many of Cuba's 11.2 million
    people, none of that matters to her.

    Yali has embraced the rapid changes introduced in Castro's first 100
    days in office and is anticipating higher salaries and an end to the
    dual-currency system that frustrates people with little access to hard
    currency.

    ''Now you have a life where you can speak a little more freely, take the
    bus and make purchases — that's something,'' Yali said. “It raises
    hope in people, and I'm sure the government is well aware of that.''

    ''Now you are going to start seeing things open up and an end to all
    those silly regulations,'' said David, a tour guide. “People are more
    optimistic.''

    Several media outlets have reported that the government will soon allow
    the sale and renting of cars and real estate and could lift the dreaded
    permission slip Cubans need to travel outside the country, but no
    official announcement has been made.

    COSMETIC CHANGES

    In South Florida and Washington, Castro's moves have been decried as
    superficial.

    ''Our assessment is that this series of steps announced over the past
    several weeks really amount to cosmetic changes,'' State Department
    spokesman Sean McCormack said at a news briefing. “It is still a fact
    that the Cuban people can't freely select who runs their country, who
    will govern them. It still remains a fact the Cuban people can't think
    at work for themselves or can't think at home . . .

    “You don't get points for transitioning power from one dictator to
    another.''

    While the
    new measures have been welcomed by most Cubans, many
    questioned when Castro would begin to make the structural reforms aimed
    at the millions of people who can't afford the new luxuries. Experts say
    that by addressing so many consumer-oriented complaints, Castro could
    ultimately risk causing tensions between Cuba's haves and many have-nots.

    ''People feel more stimulated,'' said Elvis, a high school sophomore
    from Havana. “They feel things are better. Honestly, we see the
    changes, but Raúl still hasn't offered a budget to pay for those changes.''

    The Miami Herald withheld the name of the correspondent who wrote this
    report and the surnames of the people quoted, because the reporter did
    not have the journalist visa required by the Cuban government to report
    from the island.

    http://www.miamiherald.com/news/americas/cuba/story/537589.html

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