Cubans line up to gawk at, or buy, DVDs and motorbikes

(China Daily - Agencies)
Updated: 2008-04-03 08:21

HAVANA -- Shoppers snapped up DVD players, motorbikes and pressure cookers for the first time on Tuesday as Cuba loosened its control on consumer goods and invited private farmers to plant tobacco, coffee and other crops on unused state land.

Combined with other reforms announced in recent days, the measures suggest changes are being driven by new President Raul Castro, who vowed when he took over from his brother Fidel to remove some of the limitations on the daily lives of Cubans.

Cubans shop for DVD players in Havana on April 01, 2008. [Agencies]

Many of the shoppers filling stores on Tuesday said the goods are unaffordable on their salaries. But that didn't stop them from lining up to see electronic gadgets previously available only to foreigners and companies.

On Monday, the Tourism Ministry said any Cuban with enough money can stay in luxury hotels and rent cars, doing away with restrictions. And last week, Cuba said citizens will be able to get cell phones legally in their own names.

The land initiative, however, potentially could put more food on the table of all Cubans and bring in hard currency from exports of tobacco, coffee and other products, providing the cash inflows needed to spur a new consumer economy.

Government television said 51 percent of arable land is underused or fallow, and officials are transferring some of it to individual farmers and associations representing small, private producers. According to official figures, cooperatives already control 35 percent of arable land - and produce 60 percent of the island's agricultural output.

"Everyone who wants to produce tobacco will be given land to produce tobacco, and it will be the same with coffee," said Orlando Lugo, the president of Cuba's national farmers association.

The change is a contrast to the early days of Cuba's revolution, when the government asked private farmers to turn their land over to the state or form government-controlled collective farms.

It was still too early to tell the significance of program, which began last year but was announced only this week.

"If this means all land that's not being used, like for private farmers, cooperatives and state farms, is available, that's positive," said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a Cuba economics expert with the University of Pittsburgh.

Lines formed before the doors opened on Tuesday at the Galerias Paseos shopping center on Havana's famed seaside Malecon boulevard, and shoppers wasted little time once inside. There was no sign yet of computers and microwaves, highly anticipated items that clerks across Havana insisted would appear soon on store shelves, with desktop computers retailing for around $650.

Cuba's communist system was founded on promoting social and economic equality, but that doesn't mean Cubans can't have DVD players, said Mercedes Orta, who rushed to gawk at the new products.

Lines outside electronics boutiques and specialty shops are common in Cuba because security guards limit how many people can enter at a time. But waits were longer and stores more packed than usual at Havana's best-known retail outlets, and clumps of shoppers and gawkers clustered around display cases at smaller locales.

"DVDs are over there, down that aisle," an employee in a white short-sleeved shirt repeated over and over as shoppers wandered into La Copa, an electronics and grocery store across from the Copacabana Hotel.

"Very good! DVD players on sale for everybody," exclaimed Clara, an elderly woman peering at a black JVC console.

Government stores offered all products in convertible pesos - hard currency worth 24 times the regular pesos state employees get paid. The government controls well over 90 percent of the economy and the average state salary is 408 regular pesos, about $19.50 a month.

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