Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CUBA: New Freedoms Unaffordable to Many

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Apr 4 2008 (IPS) - The wall of prohibitions that has marked Cuban life for years has begun to crumble, with the lifting of the bans on Cubans staying in upscale tourist hotels and buying mobile phones and computers. The obstacle now is the same one faced by a majority of people in any developing country: money, or lack thereof.

“It doesn’t matter if I have to spend 10 years saving up to go to Varadero. It’s my right,” a Cuban colleague told IPS, referring to a popular resort. She said she was never able to accept the unwritten ban on Cubans staying in hotels reserved for tourists, which dates back to the 1990s.

María Ramírez, a 70-year-old retired nurse, said she is grateful that she belongs to “another era,” and treasures her good memories. “I stayed in the Habana Libre hotel and the Hotel Nacional when you could pay in pesos, in the early 1960s. I was able to give myself that treat, but I don’t think my daughter could afford to stay a single night there,” she said.

With the Cuban monthly salary averaging 400 Cuban pesos, equivalent to 17 dollars, hotels that charge 70 to 100 convertible pesos (CUCs) a night are off-limits to people like Ángela, Ramírez’s daughter.

CUCs, the hard currency accepted in Cuba, sell for 25 pesos or 1.25 dollars at the CADECA state exchange bureaus.

But above and beyond the affordability of Cuba’s tourist hotels, the lifting of the ban has restored the right of Cubans, “regardless of skin colour, gender, religious beliefs or national origin,” to stay in “any hotel,” as article 43 of the constitution states.

“It is exciting to know that if I want, I can make the sacrifice of such an expense,” said small farmer Rubén Torres by telephone from the province of Villa Clara, referring as well to the fact that he could now purchase a computer or cell-phone. “I mean, I’m not thinking about doing any of those things, because they are very expensive, but the new measures are interesting.”

Up to late March, the purchase of computers or cell-phones was basically limited to foreigners or companies in Cuba. The elimination of the restrictions is among the changes ushered in by President Raúl Castro since he took over from his ailing brother Fidel on Feb. 24.

But having a home computer would logically increase the hankering after Internet connection, which is still limited to certain sectors of society, and at rates that can run to 200 dollars a month.

According to official figures, there were 335,000 computers in Cuba in mid-2005, or just under three per 100 population. In 2004, only 13 of every 1,000 people in Cuba had access to Internet, although it is not possible to verify how many people actually used the 480,000 email accounts registered on the island at that time.

While city dwellers have begun calculating whether they can afford to purchase home appliances whose sale was restricted due to energy shortages that are now considered to have been overcome, measures are being studied and adopted in the countryside to bolster productivity and food production.

Earlier this year, private farmers began to receive better prices for their products from the state, and many expect to benefit from a programme that will lend unused land to farmers who belong to cooperatives.

Through various measures adopted over the last few years, the state has lent out land to small farmers for the production of coffee and tobacco, or for raising livestock. Faced with the pressing need for structural changes that would boost productivity in agriculture, government officials are now studying ways to expand the distribution of idle land, for the production of other crops.

Orlando Lugo, president of the non-governmental National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) and a member of the Council of State, said the plan is currently being analysed, and the conditions are being put in place to prevent the widespread distribution of land from turning into “chaos.”

Lugo mentioned a restructuring that includes the creation of municipal agriculture delegations and a land oversight centre with municipal and provincial offices. He did not explain how these new structures, which have already been set up in most of the provinces, would operate.

“We hope these bodies do not become new bureaucratic hurdles,” said an expert who asked not to be named.

State-run television, meanwhile, reported that 51 percent of the country’s arable land is unused or under-exploited.

The expert who spoke to IPS said the deficient food production in Cuba and the steady increase in food imports, along with low wages that make it virtually impossible for many families to cover their basic needs, are among the most pressing problems facing the Cuban economy today.

The government expects to spend 945 million dollars this year just to guarantee the basic food supplies distributed to all Cuban families through the ration book system, which is used to ensure that everyone has access to a basket of basic goods at heavily subsidised prices.

However, the ration book falls far from completely satisfying the daily dietary needs of Cubans.

Apparently the system, in effect since the 1960s, may be scrapped as part of the wave of changes to be brought in by the government of Raúl Castro, who referred on Feb. 24 to “the entitlements and the subsidies running in the millions presently required by numerous services and products distributed on an egalitarian basis, such as those provided by the ration card which under the present conditions of our economy become irrational and unsustainable.”

“I understand that they are studying the possibility of doing away with the ration card,” said the expert who spoke to IPS. “The problem is figuring out how to protect the neediest segments of society.”

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