The Miami Herald
Tue, May. 11, 2004

Cuba closes stores, restaurants; blames closures on new U.S. policy


Cubans awoke Tuesday to shuttered stores and fast-food chains that sell goods in U.S. dollars following a government announcement that many sales in greenbacks would be suspended indefinitely.

The government blamed the new measure, first announced on television Monday night and repeatedly broadcast throughout the day Tuesday, on the Bush Administration's decision last week to tighten trips and cash remittances to the island.

Notices posted on the government-owned stores and restaurants that do business only in dollars all said the same thing: ``Closed for inventory.''

Although the exact details of the new measure remained unknown, analysts said it could have serious ramifications for daily life for some of the island's 11 million people.

By the government's estimates, about 30 percent of Cubans have direct access to hard currency, either through cash sent by relatives abroad or dollar-related jobs, usually in the tourism industry. Such dollars were most often spent in the so-called "dollar stores.''

In a country where a normal monthly salary of 200 pesos amounts to about $10, the dollar stores provide Cubans with the ability to purchase items, such as clothing, appliances and other goods, usually unavailable on the peso market.

The government said peso prices, usually for rationed basic essentials such as foodstuffs, would remain stable. It was not clear if or when the dollar sales would resume.

''Many people are completely dejected,'' a journalist in Havana told the Herald by telephone. ``They are shocked by the government's decision because they consider it to be a form of punishment.''

''The effect has been crushing,'' said the journalist, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. ``There is a lot of anguish. And nobody knows what will come of this.''

Monday night's announcement that most dollar sales would be ''suspended until further notice,'' sent scores of Cubans to late-night mini-marts to stock up on dollar-priced goods such as soap, over-the-counter medications and foodstuffs.

The official announcement said food, gasoline and personal hygiene products would be exempted from the halt in dollar sales. But it also hinted that prices would be raised on food and gasoline and perhaps other products.

''Days of work and sacrifice await,'' the government warned.

Cuba blamed the move on ''the brutal and cruel'' measures adopted last week by President Bush to hasten the end of the communist government and prepare for a new democratic system.

Among the measures embraced by Bush:

A reduction in travel by Cuban-Americans to the island to once every three years rather than once a year, and then only to visit immediate family -- no longer including cousins or uncles or aunts.

A cut in the money that U.S. visitors can spend while in Cuba, from $164 to $50 a day.

Excluding distant relatives, Communist Party members and some government officials from the list of those who can received the annual $1,200 in remittances.

The Bush administration also announced it would be spend an additional $45 million over the next two years to support the dissident movement on the island and purchase an aircraft that can be used to boost U.S-funded Radio and TV Martí broadcasts to Cuba.