Los Angeles Times
April 11, 2008

Cuba reforms bring shrugs and expectations

Despite an official go-ahead, people are no more able to buy cellphones and other gadgets than before. But hope for change is in the air.

By Carol J. Williams
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

HAVANA The young teacher trolling for bargains along Avenida de Italia in a pink polka-dot halter is amused by all the foreign folderol over recent government announcements that ordinary Cubans could now buy cellphones, computers and microwave ovens.

"I can't afford to buy food to cook in pots," Idelma, who like most Cubans questioned by foreigners doesn't want to give her full name, said with a dismissive laugh when asked whether she's eyeing a microwave to make her domestic life easier.

It's the same for cellphones, which cost a new subscriber $137 for activation and a minimum of $20 in prepaid minutes every two months to maintain the account. The average Cuban worker at state-run enterprises, which still constitute 90% of the economy, earns just $17 a month.

President Raul Castro's decision to rescind prohibitions against Cubans owning high-tech and energy-consuming appliances has sparked expectations here, and abroad, that more fundamental change is on the horizon aimed at freeing Cubans from the shackles of a planned economy that imposes on most a daily struggle for subsistence.

But for workers such as Idelma, a $300 microwave represents a year and a half's income and is another reminder that those without U.S. currency are second-class citizens here. About one-third of Cuban households benefit from monthly remittances from relatives abroad, and growing numbers get dollars from tourist tips or joint-venture employment, but state employees are no more likely to buy the newly available baubles than when the items were forbidden.

Urban workers unable to afford the long-banned luxuries contend that the government is just eliminating the foreign middlemen who have long obtained cellphones and other electronics for Cubans -- for a fee.

"These aren't changes to our system. They are indications the government recognizes it was losing money to the black markets," said Eduardo, who works nights at a warehouse but drives a friend's car as a taxi to earn most of his income.

At ETECSA, the Cuban-Italian joint venture that operates cellphone service in Cuba out of a modern office in the leafy Miramar district, dozens of blue-uniformed sales agents review contracts for cellphone service in air-conditioned comfort. Cubans previously had to bring a foreign "friend" to sign up for the service. Payment was in advance and in hard-currency cash for all equipment and services, the same conditions that will apply to Cubans who want service.

Rudi, a Cuban artist recently returned from a hard-currency-earning tour of his works abroad, came to the shop two days before the restrictions were eased.

"I can't buy a mobile phone in my own country, even though I have the money!" he groused. He had a cellphone bought abroad and needed only the service contract and SIM card to get connected, but had to rely on a North American friend.

Outside Havana, another free-market reform effort by Castro is stirring broader interest.

Beyond the five-story blocks of dreary apartments, where urban sprawl gives way to tidy rows of crops and roadside farm stands, those tilling the rich soil of this tropical island see hope for boosting output and income as socialism's micromanagers bow out.

That Cuba produces so little of the food it needs despite a year-round growing climate is one of the nagging forces driving Castro to shake up the status quo in the countryside. Cuba imports more than 80% of the commodities distributed in the monthly ration basket, notes Paolo Spadoni, an expert on the Cuban economy who teaches at Rollins College in central Florida. He estimates that food imports cost Havana more than $1.6 billion a year.

In an effort to dramatically expand crop output, the leadership has begun making more land available to farmers and allowing them to sell fruit, vegetables, meat and milk at prices set according to demand, instead of government edict.

At prosperous farms such as a 25-acre plot in Barbosa, half an hour from the capital, the expectation of doubling cultivated acreage and profit has the private collective planting from sunup to sundown.

The eight laborers who work the land earn 35 pesos for an eight-hour day, only about $1.40, but a kingly sum in a country where a month's work, whether by a manual laborer or a doctor, brings home less than $20.

"We are getting more land because we've shown what we can do with it," Victor, the farm's agronomist, said proudly of the state loan of another 25 acres for their collective.

The work is grueling, with only two oxen and not a mechanized vehicle in sight among the orderly rows of lettuce, corn, carrots, peppers, spinach and tomatoes.

Private farmers remain uncertain how far Castro, who took over from his brother Fidel less than two months ago, will go in removing the ideological obstacles to initiative and independence. But they believe their fortunes can change quickly.

The easing of rules against selling produce at market prices -- previously considered exploitation -- is expected to boost income and buying power among farmers. Urban Cubans hope the step is a sign that more opportunity for self-employment also will emerge in the cities.

Entrepreneurial by nature and exposed to the dollar-bearing tourists who flood Cuba each year, city dwellers saddled with low-wage jobs often moonlight to make ends meet.

Many of the young people plying the bustling Malecon seaside promenade to clandestinely hawk salsa music CDs or lure customers to dance halls and private restaurants say they want to open their own businesses and be their own bosses.

"I can't feed my family on what I earned working for the government," said Joel, who left his transportation engineering job to chauffeur tourists in his late father's 1954 Buick.

He is among the growing ranks of urban Cubans rejecting state employment in favor of working "on the left," the unsanctioned black-market activities that fill yawning gaps in services across Cuba. The Communist Party daily Granma reported last month that nearly one in five Havana residents refuses official employment.

That's not to say they aren't working.

A walk down Concordia, one of the ramrod-straight streets paralleling the Malecon, reveals a bustling warren of underground industry. Sparks fly out of an auto-repair yard behind a partially opened gate. A cobbler with bench and stool just inside the open door to his apartment examines a pair of loafers with soles peeled back. A barber working out of an apartment entryway no bigger than a closet swivels a young boy streetward to show his father the buzz cut.

Near the Partagas cigar factory, off-duty workers hawk the products they are given, two per day, as supplements to their $10 monthly pay. They purloin ribbon-hinged boxes, gold leaf bands and government certificates of authenticity for the Cohibas or Montecristos, selling entire boxes of 25 at one-third the state price.

Brothers Alberto and Carlos scurry along Amistad, behind the Capitol, in search of the coronas sought by a foreign shopper.

Carlos shrugs when asked whether their business might emerge from the fringes at some point, if and when the government embraces more fundamental change to allow Cubans to make and market their own products.

He disparages the official line that the government's huge profits from premium rum and cigars fund the island's universal healthcare and education.

"I studied to be an engineer, but if I worked in that field my family would starve," the clandestine cigar hawker says. "We'll believe in change when we can have a dignified life from our salaries."

carol.williams@latimes.com