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Mobile phones for some but restrictions remain

Toby | 22.05.2008 14:03

In a widely welcomed move new Cuban president Raul Castro has allowed ordinary Cubans to but mobile phones although the vast majority can't afford them. Until now, mobile phones in Cuba were restricted to key government workers and foreigners.

In one of his first acts since officially taking over the presidency, Raul Castro lifted the ban on owning cell phones, along with a range of other restricted items such as DVD players and computers.

Only a few can afford to take advantage of these new-found freedoms. The average salary here is less than $20 (£10) a month, though many people do receive help from relatives living abroad. Certainly, crowds gathered in front of shops on the first day that mobile phones became available.

Even those who cannot afford to buy anything have been visiting the shops, just to have a look at what is now on offer. In another move, the government has decided to allow Cubans to stay at the same hotels as foreigners. It was a deeply unpopular restriction - the resort hotels monopolise many of the best beaches on this Caribbean island. Now there are rumours that restrictions on foreign travel could soon be lifted.

Critics call the moves cosmetic and point out that there are no signs of any moves towards greater democracy. But the changes have created goodwill and bought Raul Castro time to try and grapple with how to improve the economy while maintaining this one party state. All sorts of things have got better for farmers - we've been offered a bit more land, and resources like fertilisers and pesticides

Between the decades long US trade embargo and the inefficiencies of this highly centralised state-run system, Cuba's economy is struggling.

Along with North Korea, Cuba has one of the most centrally-controlled economies in the world. Only in agriculture is there a small private sector.

The small family farms and private co-operatives produce more than half the country's food on just a fifth of the arable land.

For years, the communist authorities have tolerated them.

Now private sector farmers are being actively encouraged to expand. A system is being set up to offer those with good track records leases to take over unused or unproductive state owned land.

There will also be less red tape and centralised control over what to plant along with better access to supplies.

"There really are some big changes taking place," said Felix Oliva. He manages a 40-hectare family farm growing a range of fruit, vegetables and salad in the Quivican region in Havana Province.

"All sorts of things have got better for farmers like us. We've been offered a bit more land, and resources like fertilisers and pesticides."

In the nearby town of Guira de Melena, a new shop recently opened, one of just four in the entire country. It sells basic farm tools such as spades, rakes, machetes and horseshoes.

Until now, farmers had to apply to the ministry for such supplies.

"It's something new, for the first time in the country anyone can walk in and buy the tools they need," shop manager Pedro Matos explained.

"Now the farmers are asking us to stock more things, like Wellington boots, gloves, rope and fencing."

'Night and day'

Workers will soon be able to earn bonuses based on productivity

One of the driving forces behind Raul Castro's reforms is to cut imports. Last year this Caribbean island spent more than $1.5bn a year on food imports.

With the current global food crisis the cost is likely to shoot up.

Dairy production is a prime example. Half the grazing land on the state farms has been overrun by a high, prickly brush called "marabu" which renders pasture useless.

There is only enough milk for pregnant women and young children. The rest is imported at great cost.

Raul Castro has doubled and tripled what the state pays for milk, cattle and other farm products.

One private dairy farmer, who did not want to be named, said the difference under the younger Castro "was like night and day."

There are incentives now and he can, for the first time, legally hire farm labourers.


But Cuban economist Juan Triana, from the University of Havana's influential Centre for the Study of the Cuban Economy, believes they are significant.

"The changes in agriculture are very important because agriculture is a test for future changes in the Cuban economy. Cuba in general needs greater efficiency and productivity."

If the agricultural reforms are successful then small business, self employment and co-operatives in the cities could follow.

One key change has already been announced - workers will soon be able to earn bonuses based on productivity and there will be no upper limit to salaries.

The Cuban revolution has long prided itself on its attempt to produce an egalitarian society, where professionals like doctors earned almost the same as factory workers.

There may be no signs of any move towards greater democracy, but the economic controls are starting to ease.