April 2, 2008 in Nation/World

Cuba eases restrictions on land, consumer goods

Will Weissert Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Shoppers look at DVD players Tuesday at a store in Havana. Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

Raul Castro months into job

» Raul Castro was selected to head Cuba’s government on Feb. 24.

» Castro, 73, had been serving as Cuba’s interim president for 19 months in place of his ailing older brother, Fidel.

HAVANA – Cubans snapped up DVD players, motorbikes and pressure cookers for the first time Tuesday as Raul Castro’s new government loosened controls 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 real changes are being driven by the new president, who vowed when he took over from his brother Fidel to remove some of the more irksome limitations on the daily lives of Cubans.

Analysts wondered how far the communist government is willing to go.

“Cuban people can’t survive on the salaries people are paying them. Average men and women have been screaming that at the top of their lungs for many years,” said Felix Masud-Piloto, director of the Center for Latino Research at DePaul University. “Now after many years, the government is listening.”

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

“They should have done this a long time ago,” one man said as he left a store with a red-and-silver electric motorbike that cost $814. The Chinese-made bikes can be charged with an electric cord and had been barred for general sale because officials feared a strain on the power grid.

On Monday, the Tourism Ministry announced that any Cuban with enough money can now stay in luxury hotels and rent cars, doing away with restrictions that made ordinary people feel like second-class citizens. And last week, Cuba said citizens will be able to get cell phones legally in their own names, a luxury long reserved for the lucky few.

The land initiative could put more food on the tables 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, president of Cuba’s national farmers association.

Lines formed before the doors opened at the Galerias Paseos shopping center on Havana’s famed seaside Malecon boulevard, and shoppers wasted little time once inside.

But there was no sign yet of computers or 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 shouldn’t have DVD players, said Mercedes Orta, who rushed to gawk at the new products.

“Socialism has nothing to do with living comfortably,” she said.

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