Cubans buy into Raúl's new consumer freedoms
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
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
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.
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.''
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
''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
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.
In South Florida and Washington, Castro's moves have been decried as
''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
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.