Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Cuba to hold new Communist Party meeting


Cuba to hold new Communist Party meeting
Party meeting next year likely to reshape country's aging Politburo
The Associated Press
updated 10:13 p.m. PT, Mon., April. 28, 2008

HAVANA - President Raul Castro announced Monday that Cuba will convene its first Communist Party congress since 1997 — a gathering that could chart the island's political future long after he and his older brother Fidel are gone.

Castro also said the government within weeks will commute death sentences for several inmates. The prisoners are likely to include two Central Americans sentenced for planting bombs, one of which killed an Italian tourist, in Havana tourist locales a decade ago. Capital punishment will remain on the books in Cuba.

The congress — planned for next year — follows a series of minor social changes the younger Castro has decreed during his first two months in power to make life easier and less restrictive for ordinary Cubans.

"We have worked hard in these past few months, and will have to do so even more," Raul Castro said during a Central Committee gathering aired on state television. He said the nation's leadership must prepare for "when the historic generations are no longer around."

Fidel Castro, 81, has not been seen in public since July 2006, when he first fell ill and relinquished interim powers to the 76-year-old Raul. He stepped down as president in February, but officially remains head of the party as its first secretary.

His post could be awarded to someone else at the congress, scheduled for the second half of 2009. An exact date has not been set.

The congress also likely will replace some members of the party's select 24-member Politburo and the larger policy-making Central Committee it heads.

Setting a new path?
Castro, who wore a white tropical dress shirt, said the commutation of the death sentences was a gesture of good will, but he did not say how many prisoners would be affected.

Castro said most cases being studied involved common crimes. But he said the government also was reviewing the death sentences of Ernesto Cruz Leon and Otto Rene Rodriguez Llerena, arrested in 1997 after allegedly planting a series of bombs.

"We have not made this decision under pressure but as a sovereign act as a consequence of the humanitarian and ethical conduct that has always characterized the Cuban revolution," Castro said, adding that Cuban policies have "always been motivated by a sprit of justice but not revenge."

The Communist Party is the only one Cuba legally recognizes, and is virtually indistinguishable from the government, with all of the same major players.

The party congress in 1997 set general policy for five years but made no major changes in Cuba's political course, instead dedicating much of its debate to demanding greater efficiency from state farms and factories as Cuba struggled to spark its moribund economy.

That was a drastic change from the fourth party congress in 1991, when Cuba was still recovering from the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

That meeting helped open the way for modest economic and political reforms, including the direct election of parliament, a rapprochement with churches and creation of small-scale private businesses.

Much of the Communist Party's leadership consists of men and women who were children _ or not yet born — when Castro's revolutionaries toppled a dictator and marched into Havana in January 1959.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Bloggers offer glimpse of uncensored Cuba

Miami Herald
Posted on Mon, Apr. 28, 2008
Bloggers offer glimpse of uncensored Cuba
Only a month has passed since ordinary Cubans won the right to own computers, and the government still keeps a rigid grip on Internet access.

But that hasn't stopped thousands from finding their way into cyberspace. And a daring few post candid blogs about life in the communist-run country that have garnered international audiences.

Yoani Sanchez writes the "Generacion Y" blog and gets more than a million hits a month, mostly from abroad - though she has begun to strike a chord in Cuba. On her site and others, anonymous Cubans offer stinging criticisms of their government.

But it isn't simple. To post her blog, Sanchez dresses like a tourist and slips into Havana hotels with Web access for foreigners. It costs about $6 an hour and she can't afford to stay long given the price and the possibility someone might catch her connecting without permission.

It's a testament to the ingenuity and black-market prowess Cubans have developed living on salaries averaging $20 a month, with constant restrictions and shortages.

The connections Cuban bloggers are making with the outside world via the Internet are irreversible, said Sanchez, who this month won the Ortega y Gasset Prize for digital journalism, a top Spanish media award.

"With each step we take in that direction, it's harder for the government to push us back," she said.

On an island where many censor themselves to avoid trouble, Sanchez says Generacion Y holds nothing back.

"It's about how I live," she said. "I think that technically, there are no limits. I have talked about things like Fidel Castro, and you know how taboo that can be."

But she added that "there are some ethical limits. I would never call for violence, for instance."

Since taking over from his ailing brother Fidel in February, Raul Castro has lifted bans on Cubans buying consumer electronics, having cell phones and staying in luxury tourist hotels.

While the changes have bolstered the new president's popularity, most simply legalized what was common practice. In a typically frank recent posting, Sanchez noted that many Cubans already had PCs, cell phones and DVD players bought on the black market.

"Legally recognizing what were already facts prospering in the shadows is not the same as allowing or approving something," she wrote. Cuba's leaders are responding to the inevitable, "but they won't soothe our hunger for change."

Authorities have made no sustained effort to stop Sanchez's year-old blog, though pro-government sites accuse her of taking money from opposition groups.

Only foreigners and some government employees and academics are allowed Internet accounts and these are administered by the state.

Ordinary Cubans can join an island-wide network that allows them to send and receive international e-mail. Lines are long at youth clubs, post offices and the few Internet cafes that provide access, but the rest of the Web is blocked - a control far stricter than even China's or Saudi Arabia's.

Still, thousands of Cubans pay about $40 a month for black market dial-up Internet accounts bought through third parties overseas or stolen from foreign providers. Or they use passwords from authorized Cuban government accounts that hackers swipe or buy from corrupt officials.

Sanchez said so many Cubans read her blog that fans stop her on the street.

Generacion Y takes its title from a Cuban passion for names beginning in Y. It offers witty and biting accounts of Cubans' everyday struggles against government restrictions at every turn.

Some of the bloggers hew to the belief that openness is the best answer to official surveillance.

"By signing your name, giving your opinions out loud and not hiding anything, we disarm their efforts to watch us," Sanchez wrote on her blog.

On a blog called "Sin EVAsion" ("Without Evasion"), Eva Hernandez dared to mock "Granma," the official Communist Party newspaper, for taking its name from the American yacht that brought Castro and his rebels back to Cuba from Mexico to launch their armed rebellion in 1956.

"Cuba is the only country in the world whose principal newspaper, the official organ of the Communist Party and the official voice of the government, has the ridiculous name 'granny,'" she wrote. Piling on the heat, she added that the name "perpetuates the memory of that yacht that brought us so much that is bad."

Generacion Y is maintained by a server in Germany, and Sanchez says the Cuban government periodically attempts to block her site within Cuba, though the problem is always cleared up within hours.

Administrators of the "Petrosalvaje" site also claim to struggle with government-imposed limits. A recent post called uncensored Internet access a "virtual raft" - a reference to the rafts on which Cubans flee to the United States.

The government is also into blogging - maintaining dozens of sites dedicated to promoting the island's image overseas.

"Raul needs time," reads a post on Kaosenlared.net, a forum based in Spain. "We are confident, calm and staying united in favor of the direction of our revolution." It is signed Rogelio Sarforat and was apparently posted from Cuba.

Reynaldo Escobar, Sanchez' husband and a former journalist for official media, now uses his own blog to criticize the government. He said Cuba pays supporters to flood the Internet with positive opinions.

He says he knows of nobody who would spend money to go on the Web and defend the system. "Everyone who argues in favor of the government is paid to do so, or does so because they have been asked to," he said.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Cuba could ease rules on travel abroad, property sales

Miami Herald
Posted on Mon, Apr. 21, 2008

Cuba could ease rules on travel abroad, property sales
Cuban citizens may soon be allowed to travel abroad without official permits. They may also soon be able to freely rent their homes, sell properties with ownership titles and acquire automobiles without special authorizations.

The Cuban government has already instituted such liberal measures as allowing the purchase of computers, cellphones and other electronics; authorizing Cuban nationals to stay at resort hotels -- once exclusively for foreign tourists -- eliminating salary caps; and allowing farmers to keep produce they grow.

Now the Cuban government under Raúl Castro plans to lift restrictions further.

''These are the most complex measures, because they have legal implications and repercussions for the nation, and have generated much debate within the directorate levels,'' a Cuban government official who requested anonimity told El Nuevo Herald.

Besides the migration reform that will loosen requirements for overseas travel, the following reforms are expected to be announced by the Cuban government:

• Freedom to rent homes and rooms, both to foreigners and Cuban citizens and the controlled sale of real estate by registered owners.

• No restrictions on the sale of automobiles; previously prohibited from transferring titles. The government is also considering selling vehicles to the public.

• Elimination of the decree that limits citizens from traveling freely within the island, especially toward Havana.

Also being studied by the Cuban government are the following measures that could be instituted by this year or next:

• Revaluation of the Cuban peso in relation to the convertible peso (CUC) to the tune of 19 Cuban pesos per CUC; with the intention of gradually aligning the values until there is a single monetary currency.

• Flexibility of restrictions for private enterprise and freelancers; allowing citizens to open small businesses.

• Reorganization of government agencies by fusing those that are currently governing similar sectors.

The path to easing restrictions on the rental market was cleared on April 11 when the Cuban National Housing Institute made public a resolution to give ownership of state housing to the occupants or their heirs.

Within weeks, many Cubans will become first-time homeowners as a result of the resolution, multiplying the real estate rentals market in a nation where housing continues to be a problem for much of the population.

''The orientations for these authorizations are already in the hands of the provincial delegations [for housing],'' said a housing official in Havana.

According to information obtained by El Nuevo Herald from housing officials in Cuba, the plan is to initially deregulate the renting of homes and rooms, followed by a second phase of reforms allowing the sale and purchase of real estate properties, which are currently restricted by the 1984 National Housing Law.

A panel of experts is studying the matter of property in Cuba and results are expected to be revealed by 2010.

''There is a consensus for the sale of houses under certain requisites to avoid real estate speculation, illicit sales to foreigners through front men and the uncontrolled escalation of prices,'' said the National Housing Institute official, who asked to remain anonymous.

Measures deregulating the sale and purchase of automobiles, including those that cannot be transferred, may be imminent. The Cuban regime seems not only to have decided on divesting itself of its fleet of used cars, but also willing to explore the market for offering new vehicles in state-run dealerships, costing about $11,000.

The 1997 decree restricting travel within the island as a means to deter rural migration to Havana may soon be repealed, according to officials. Of all the short-term reforms, migration continues to be the central topic of debate.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Changing Cuba: Monster buses vanish from Havana streets


Changing Cuba: Monster buses vanish from Havana streets

By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press Writer 44 minutes ago

First comes the stink of diesel, then a metallic roar, and finally a tower of black smoke that tells you the "camello" — the camel — has reached your stop.

These hulking 18-wheeled beasts, iron mutants made of two Soviet-era buses welded together on a flatbed and pulled by a separate cab, have long been Havana's public transport nightmare — bumpy, hot and jammed with up to 400 passengers at a time.

But their gradual disappearance is a telling sign of change in the twilight of the Fidel Castro age. The last "camello" is expected to go out of service in Havana on Sunday night.

The camello, so named for its humped front and rear sections, is being eclipsed by thousands of new city buses from China as the government under Castro's brother, Raul, resuscitates a public transportation system on the brink of collapse.

Route M-6, running from the capital's southern outskirts uptown to the University of Havana, is the city's last remaining camello route, and municipal authorities say they have been told to pull all camellos off it this weekend.

"I think we should build a monument to the camello," said retiree Salvador Carrera, a camello passenger. "It has been an extraordinary thing."

The capital aside, camellos are far from extinct. The government has an island-wide fleet of more than 1,000, and those from Havana could be used to augment bus service elsewhere, transportation employees say.

Like those ubiquitous Detroit cars that predate the U.S. embargo, the camello is a definer of Cuba on wheels, but without the fun of a San Francisco cable car ride or the clean efficiency of the Washington, D.C. Metro.

What it lacks in glamor, it makes up for in sheer mass that dwarfs its Chinese successors.

"We can carry up to 400 people. The bus cannot," lamented conductor Estela Doira. "I'm happy, also sad, because the camello handles a lot more than the bus."

At the start of a camello run one morning last week, it took just over five minutes for 75 passengers to swarm up the steep steps and through the narrow doors at the rear. Doira hung out of a window to make sure no one got stuck. The doors, thin metal with sharp edges, shut with a metallic crack that sounded sharp enough to sever limbs.

The fortunate got one of the 58 plastic seats, while the rest had to stand. Each alighting passenger paid Doira 20 centavos, less than an American penny.

Camellos have no shock absorbers, and every pothole sends a violent jolt through one's feet. At each stop more passengers crowd in — people carrying infants, backpacks, gardening tools and beer bottles stuffed with black market honey. Baby-faced soldiers squeeze in beside college students in hot-pink sunglasses and elderly men looking thin enough to be crushed in the crowd.

It's hard to work one's way on or off, and the driver in his cab can't hear people screaming, "The door! Open the door!"

"Move it, companeros! Move to the front!" they yell.

With no air conditioning, the tropical heat quickly becomes unbearable, and the stench sets in — fresh sweat and body odor, mixed with exhaust and rotting food. Those seated stick their heads out of the windows.

"Only in Cuba. In other countries people wouldn't put up with so much," whispered retiree Mari Gonzalez, who was fortunate enough to snag a seat.

Cubans joke that camellos are racier than a Saturday night at the movies — full of sex and crime, pickpockets and gropers. Overheard conversations between passengers feed the onboard rumor mill: Fidel Castro is dead. No, wait, he's healthy again; he spent last weekend at the beach. The peso will strengthen against the dollar. Or maybe will be replaced with a new currency.

The camello was born in response to fuel shortages in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its annual $6 billion in subsidies. The economy has since recovered thanks to heavy borrowing from China and nearly 100,000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela.

Cuba is spending $2 billion to upgrade public transportation and has imported 3,000 modern buses just for the capital. The Yutongs are less sturdy than the camellos and crews are repaving streets to spare them wear and tear.

Fares are double the camello's but offer far more seats and a dramatically smoother ride. Riders can climb on and off easily, ensuring faster trips.

Carmen Lopez, waiting for a Chinese bus to whisk her to her janitor's job, said she's glad to be rid of the camellos but doesn't believe she's seen the last of them.

"When the new buses break down," she said, "they will bring the camellos back again."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Fidel: I don't like recent reforms

Miami Herald
[links to Cuban papers in original article]

Posted on Thu, Apr. 17, 2008
Fidel: I don't like recent reforms
Not even two months into his brother Raúl Castro's reign in Cuba, Fidel Castro has openly expressed displeasure with supporters of economic and societal reforms. Fidel Castro formally gave up power Feb. 24 after more than a year and a half in his sick bed, but continues to write newspaper editorials. His latest missive is a direct attack on a column published in one of Cuba's state run newspapers, which suggested that the lastest series of reforms launched by Raúl Castro are a step toward progress.

Although Castro has written slight barbs at his brother's policies before, it was the first reference to a recent string of reforms recently enacted that reversed years of Castro regulations.

In a column published Wednesday in Granma, the Communist Party daily, the former Cuban leader chided those who seek changes to avoid a repetition of the ''special period'' of retrenchment in Cuba that followed the demise of the socialist bloc.

In the article, titled ''Do not make concessions to enemy ideology,'' Castro wrote that ``People must be very careful with everything they say, so as not to play the game of enemy ideology. They cannot blame the Special Period for the system that imperialism has imposed upon the world. [...] The Special Period was the inevitable consequence of the disappearance of the USSR, which lost the ideological battle and led us to a stage of heroic resistance from which we still have not wholly emerged.''

Cuba's ''special period'' was the term given to the period of widespread shortages that came after the fall of the Soviet Union. Reforms like allowing the U.S. dollar and some private business also followed to help address the economic crisis.

Since Raúl Castro took over Feb. 24, he has launched a series of new minor but symbolically important reforms such as allowing Cubans to stay in hotels, buy cellular phones and computers.

Last week, the government announced it would allow longtime tenants of government housing to obtain property titles and pass them on to heirs.

In what may have been veiled advice to reformers, Castro wrote: ``Meditate hard on what you say, what you affirm, so you don't make shameful concessions.''

The article, Castro said, was written ``after listening to a public comment disseminated by one of the Revolution's mass media, which I shall not mention specifically.''

He appears to be taking a direct jab at an article published Friday in the Havana daily Rebel Youth, written by senior columnist Luis Sexto.

Titled Going in reverse is not going forward, it refers to the concessions -- the adjustments -- Cuba had to make after it lost the economic backing of the Soviet Union.

Concessions are not necessarily bad, Sexto implied. The word should be redefined.

''For example, if the experience accumulated in our deteriorating circumstances indicates that big agricultural companies are not recommended and that [...] family or individual labor be cooperatized or encouraged, why should we insist on that which does not prosper or that which needs an excess of resources for completion?'' Sexto wrote.

'Is a 'concession' a step backward?'' he wrote. ``...Of course, the man who is accustomed to issue dictates from his office or from his Jeep -- what to sow, how to harvest -- may be distressed to see producers gaining autonomy, gaining the ability to make their own decisions.''

A ''step backward,'' he said, is often ''promotes movement'' and can be considered progress.

Miami Herald correspondent Frances Robles contributed to this report.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Raul's Cuba tweaks housing, wage rules

Miami Herald
Posted on Sat, Apr. 12, 2008
Raul's Cuba tweaks housing, wage rules
Thousands of Cubans will be able to get title to state-owned homes under regulations published Friday - a step that might lay the groundwork for broader housing reform.

The measure was the first legal decree formally published since Raul Castro succeeded his brother Fidel as president in February. It comes a day after state television said the government also will do away with wage limits, allowing state employees to earn as much they can as an incentive to productivity.

Together, housing and wage restrictions have been among the things that bother Cubans the most about their socialist system.

The housing decree spells out rules to let Cubans renting from their state employers keep their apartment or house after leaving their posts. They could gain title and even pass it on to their children or relatives.

Thousands of Cubans could take advantage of this move, including military families, sugar workers, construction workers, teachers and doctors.

Holding onto state housing originally designated for specific workers has been a widespread but usually informal fact of Cuban life. A 1987 law had foreseen transferring such housing to occupants, but this new measure should clarify their legal status.

"This is like no man's land that they are legalizing," said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a state-trained economist who became a critic of the government. "It gets rid of that insecurity many people had and alleviates bureaucratic pressure."

By law, Cubans still cannot sell their homes to anyone but the government, though they can swap housing with government approval - a process that can take years to complete.

Two officials at Cuba's National Housing Institute said Friday's law was likely the first in a series of housing reforms. Both asked not to be named, however, because they were not authorized to speak to foreign media. They said "thousands and thousands" of Cubans would be affected, but did not give exact figures.

Espinosa Chepe, who was jailed for his political views during a 2004 crackdown but subsequently released on medical parole, said that "giving people deeds could give them more freedom to sell their homes and maybe rent them as long as they pay taxes."

Home to 11.2 million people, Cuba suffers from a severe housing shortage. Officials say they need half a million additional homes. Critics claim the need is twice that.

The housing law was published a day after a commentator on state television said the government also will do away with wage limits, allowing state employees to earn as much they can as an incentive to be more productive. Economic commentator Ariel Terrero said a resolution approved in February but not yet published will remove the salary caps designed to promote social and economic equality.

"For the first time, it is clearly and precisely stated that a salary does not have a limit, that the roof of a salary depends on productivity," Terrero said.

Interviewed Friday night at the closing ceremonies of a forum opposing free-trade agreements, Raymundo Navarro, national secretary of Cuba's central workers union, called doing away with salary limits a "step the Cuban government has taken to conform to the conditions of today" and an "acknowledgment that one is not paid collectively, but paid for what one produces."

"Salaries in Cuba for workers have deteriorated a lot," he told The Associated Press. "This resolution tries to reorganize salaries to stimulate workers based on the principle of socialism, each according to his contribution to production."

The government controls more than 90 percent of the economy, and while most Cubans get free education, health care and heavily subsidized food rations, the average salary is just US$19.50 (euro12) a month.

An end to wage caps could one day lead to a true middle class, since it would potentially allow Cubans to openly accumulate wealth. But it defies the notion of an egalitarian society that Cuba has worked for decades to construct.

Since becoming Cuba's first new president in 49 years, Raul Castro has done away with bans that prohibited Cubans from owning cell phones in their own names, staying in tourist hotels and buying DVD players, computers and coveted kitchen appliances.

He also has acknowledged that state salaries are too small to live on, and pledged steady improvements.

Cubans line up for cell phone service

Miami Herald
Posted on Mon, Apr. 14, 2008
Cubans line up for cell phone service
Lines stretched for blocks outside phone stores Monday as ordinary Cubans were allowed to sign up for cellular phone service for the first time.

The contracts cost about US$120 (euro76) to activate - half a year's wages on the average state salary. And that doesn't include a phone or credit to make and receive calls. Still, lines formed before the centers opened, and waits grew to more than an hour.

"It's great. It's really great. And everyone wants to be first to sign up," said Usan Astorga, a 19-year-old medical student who stood for about 20 minutes before her line moved at all.

Getting through the day without a cell phone is unthinkable now in most developed countries, but Cuba's government limited access to cell phones as well as kitchen appliances, hotels and other luxuries in an attempt to preserve the relative economic equality that is a hallmark of social life in communist Cuba.

President Raul Castro has pledged to do away these small but infuriating restrictions on daily life, and his popularity has surged as a result, defusing questions about whether his relative lack of charisma would make governing Cuba more difficult after his older ailing older brother Fidel formally stepped down in February.

The new phone contracts allow Cubans to make and receive overseas calls, a key feature because the overwhelming majority of Cubans have relatives and friends in the United States.

Astorga planned to buy about US$65 (euro41) in credit - enough, she hopes, for three months of very brief conversations.

"You can't talk all day because it's too expensive," she said. "It's only, 'hello, I'm here. Goodbye.' Or 'where are you?' and hang up."

She and about 90 others were waiting in a line that crossed the street and stretched for about half a block outside a phone store on Obispo Street, a crowded pedestrian mall running from Havana's Central Park to the historic Old Town district.

Outside a phone store in the upscale neighborhood of Miramar, meanwhile, the line split in two and snaked off in different directions.

Teenagers and college students with expensive sunglasses and fashionable clothes dominated in the lines. But elderly housewives and an occasional construction worker with dusty boots and threadbare T-shirts also waited for the chance to buy.

Lines outside stores are common in Cuba since security personnel limit how many people are allowed in at a time, and phone centers are often especially crowded with Cubans waiting to pay their home phone bills.

But Monday's waits were longer than normal - and everyone who turned up was waiting for a cell phone contract.

"I am in need, I need to have one," said Juana Verdez, a retiree who said a cell phone would make it easier to stay in touch with family members.

People also were lining up for cell phones in Santiago, the island's second-largest city, although residents said the lines were not as long as in Havana. Waits were also reportedly shorter elsewhere across the country.

Only foreigners and Cubans holding key government posts were allowed to have cell phones since they first appeared on the island in 1991. Thousands of ordinary Cubans had already obtained mobile phones through the black market, but could activate them only by finding foreigners willing to lend their names to the contracts.

A March 28 announcement by Cuba's state-controlled telecommunications monopoly, a joint venture with Telecom Italia, made it legal for all Cubans to have phones in their own names.

Cuban Reggaeton star Elvis Manuel feared dead

Telemundo and MSNBC
Reggaeton star Elvis Manuel feared dead
Mother returned to Cuba after 17 seek to escape island in skimpy raft
Telemundo and MSNBC.com
updated 11:45 a.m. PT, Mon., April. 14, 2008

MIAMI - The anti-Castro reggaeton star Elvis Manuel was missing and feared dead Monday, a week after he and 16 other refugees sought to flee the Communist island on a raft, family members and refugee advocates said.

The U.S. Coast Guard rescued Irioska María Nodarse, Elvis Manuel’s mother, who manages his musical group, and 13 other people in the Florida Straits on Wednesday, two weeks after they left Pinar Del Rio seeking to make the passage to Florida. Five others, including Elvis Manuel, 19, one of Cuba’s biggest musical stars, could not be found and were presumed dead after rescue efforts were called off over the weekend.

Twelve of the 14 survivors, including Irioska María Nodarse, were returned to Cuba on Saturday; the two others, believed to have been the group’s U.S.-based smugglers, were in custody.

Two other musicians, Carlos Rojas Hernandez, who performs as DJ Carlitos, and Alejandro Rodriguez Lopez, known as DJ Jerry, were also reported to have been on the raft. It was not clear Monday whether they were among the repatriated survivors.

Last week, after it became known that Elvis Manuel was missing, dozens of Cuban-Americans held vigils in Miami, and Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., called on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration officials not to repatriate the rescued refugees.

‘Obviously, they’ve been repressed’
Besides expressing concern for Elvis Manuel, Ramon Saul Sanchez, head of the Cuban advocacy group Democracy Movement, said he feared for the safety of the 14 who were repatriated.

“The Cuban government has indeed gone into a concert that Elvis Manuel was conducting and ended the concert with tear gas and other kinds of proceedings, so obviously they’ve been repressed," Sanchez said.

Music producers and executives involved in reggaeton, an infectious Latin-flavored fusion of reggae, dancehall, hip hop and electronica, said Elvis Manuel could expect to launch a lucrative career if he made it to the United States. His recent singles “La Tuba” and “La Mulata” both became hits on U.S.-based music-streaming and video sites, even though he has never performed in this country.

In a posting on his MySpace page, Elvis Manuel said shortly before he left that he had been approached by several U.S. record producers eager to work with him. But in a recent interview, he frequently expressed frustration with his confinement to Cuba, having been quoted as complaining, “My music is everywhere, but I don’t have a cent to buy something to eat.”

Javier “Voltaje” Fernández, owner of Metamorphosis Music and Production, who worked with Elvis Manuel on his recent single “Esa Mujer,” described the singer as a “simple, kind person” devoted to his mother.

“Everything he does is for her, and his biggest hope is to get her out one day,” Fernández told The Miami Herald.

Hundreds of fans had left messages of concern and sorrow on Elvis Manuel’s MySpace page Monday.

“We are asking God that you are well,” wrote one fan. “I have faith that you are well and that you will achieve what want in Miami.”

“The love of all Cubans is with you,” wrote another. “We support you until the last moment and we ask God that you are here soon.”
Alex Johnson of msnbc.com, Telemundo affiliate WSCV-TV of Miami and NBC affiliate WTVJ of Miami contributed to this report.

Cuban Reggaeton musician missing at sea

Miami Herald
Posted on Sun, Apr. 13, 2008

Missing reggaeton star's mom details trip
A few hours into a trip that promised to bring them to the shores of South Florida, the boat carrying Cuban reggaeton star Elvis Manuel and 18 others started to take on water.

They started bailing water furiously, trying to keep the boat afloat under a dark sky.

Mother and son were separated as the rain pounded down and the wind roiled the sea.

'My son yelled at me, `Mami!, Mami!,' and I called back, 'Elvis, come to me,' '' said Irioska María Nodarse.

She lost sight of him in the choppy water -- he is presumed missing at sea.

On Sunday, Nodarse gave The Miami Herald the first detailed account of the ill-fated effort to escape from Cuba so her son could ''realize his dream'' of musical stardom.

In a telephone interview from Havana, Nodarse said the boat capsized in choppy seas in the Florida Straits, dumping all 19 people into the water.

Nodarse, who was rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard along with 13 others, was returned to Cuba on Saturday where she is desperate for news about her son's fate. She holds out hope that he is still alive somewhere, either on a boat or an island. The Coast Guard said Sunday that it has no new information on Elvis Manuel's whereabouts.

''I don't really know what happened, but my heart tells me that my son is alive,'' she said, speaking in a calm tone in Spanish.

The voyage began on the evening of April 7, a week ago Monday, she said. The group left on a 25-foot boat, organized and paid for in Miami.


According to Nodarse, the trip proceeded uneventfully at first. Then the engine broke down and the boat began filling with water. Someone lifted what she described as a lid, only causing the water to come in faster. Everyone was bailing out water, including her son. Then the boat overturned, throwing everyone into the cold water.

Nodarse said she saw a big shadow, something she thought was either a wave or a boat. That's when she lost sight of her son.

The 14 survivors managed to cling to the overturned catamaran. They ate gasoline-soaked crackers and drank from water bottles that had packed while they waited to be rescued.

It wasn't until Wednesday morning -- two days later -- that the crew of a passing cargo ship spotted the group about 50 miles south of Key West. Elvis Manuel and four others were still missing.

The ship's crew rescued the migrants and summoned the U.S. Coast Guard, whose helicopters then searched the waters.

It's unclear how quickly the survivors told authorities that Elvis Manuel and four others were missing.

The Coast Guard says they gave officials conflicting stories.

Nodarse admits the group lied to the Coast Guard, saying two boats were initially involved.

On Sunday, she said they withheld information from the officials on the Coast Guard cutter because of pressure from the two suspected smugglers on the boat.

She said the pair wanted to create the impression that they had rescued the group. As a result, she added, they told officials their original boat had capsized, and that they had been rescued by another boat -- the vessel they were found clinging to.

''It was a lie due to pressure from the pilots,'' she said.

Coast Guard officials on Sunday expressed regret that the migrants misled searchers because they lost valuable time. ''If there was an opportunity to say 19 people were on the vessel, they should do it when we are talking to them,'' said Chief Petty Officer Dana Warr, a Coast Guard spokesman.

Nodarse, 43, said her son is 18. Friends in Miami had said that Elvis Manuel is 19. His full name is Elvis Manuel Martínez Nodarse, but he is known as Elvis Manuel.

His mother said the voyage was a smuggling operation, designed to bring her son to the United States to expand his music career.

Elvis Manuel is a recent addition to the Cuban reggaeton scene. He had two hits in Cuba last year, La Tuba and La Mulata.


''We were leaving Cuba not because we have any political problems with the government,'' she said. ``We were leaving Cuba because he wanted to realize his dream.''

She claimed to have a lot of information about who helped arrange the trip but she wouldn't discuss the details until she knows what happened to her son.

''It was a trip organized and paid for in Miami,'' she said.

While Nodarse and 11 survivors were repatriated on Saturday, the two crew members who are the suspected smugglers were turned over to Border Patrol officials, the Coast Guard said.

Nodarse said that Elvis Manuel's fellow musicians Carlos Rojas Hernández, who goes by ''DJ Carlitos,'' and Alejandro ''DJ Jerry'' Rodríguez Lopez, also were returned to Cuba.

Although the search for Elvis Manuel has been suspended, the Coast Guard has asked crews on cutters and aircraft that patrol the Florida Straits, the Gulf of Mexico and other waters to be on the lookout for him and any others.

''There's the possibility they're alive,'' Warr said. ``We don't know where they are or where they could possibly drift to. It's unfortunate they've taken their lives into their own hands.''

Sunday, April 13, 2008

More Cubans abandoning communist island in 'silent exodus'

AFP (Agence France Presse)/Yahoo

More Cubans abandoning communist island in 'silent exodus'

by Patrick LescotSun Apr 13, 10:12 PM ET

Despite a dizzying array of reforms since Raul Castro took the helm of Cuba's government, 2008 looks to be a record year for emigration, as inhabitants abandon the communist island in droves.

In the first half of the US fiscal year, which began on October 1, almost 3,000 Cubans tried to reach US shores by crossing the shark-infested Florida Straits, according to the US Interests Section in Havana. The number represents a 21 percent increase over the previous year.

Some Cubans are abandoning the island of some 11 million inhabitants legally; Others leave illegally, crowded on smugglers' fastboats. Almost all are heading to the islands nearby arch-enemy, the United States.

Illegal emigrants -- who are returned to Cuba by US authorities if picked up at sea, but get to stay in the United States if they reach US soil -- are joined another 20,000 Cubans to whom the Interests Section grants legal immigrant visas here every year, under the immigration accords Havana and Washington struck in 1994 and 1995.

And to their total one can add some 10,000 who hand themselves to US authorities at the Mexican border.

US authorities estimate that some 35,000 Cubans will arrive to stay this year in the United States, which grants them immediate residency and working rights for fleeing communism. It does not do the same for Chinese or Vietnamese immigrants.

Cuba charges that the US policy granting Cubans special benefits encourages dangerous and potentially deadly illegal migration.

The number of Cubans who additionally are departing for Europe and Latin American countries is not known.

Far from tapering off, what often is described as a "silent exodus" has actually picked up since Raul Castro took the reins of government -- officially as president in February, and for over a year as interim leader before then -- although his government has introduced a steady stream of minor reforms aimed at eliminating unpopular restrictions and boosting economic efficiency.

With calm weather at sea, illegal departures by sea were up sharply in February and March, from 219 to 412, US data show. Most of those picked up at sea are between 19 and 35, US Interests Section figures show.

Indeed, fully 70 percent of Cubans who made the crossing to the United States did so with smugglers, paying 8,000-10,000 dollars per person, the section's data showed.

Witnesses say the smugglers' craft sometimes even set out in broad daylight from isolated locations including on the Island of Youth, witnesses say.

In addition, the United States now is stepping up a family reunification program for Cubans who want to go live with US-based relatives. Paperwork that had been taking up to seven to 10 years now can take as little as a few weeks. There are some 1.5 million Cuban-Americans, including immigrants and their US-born descendants.

Many of them send remittance funds back to Cuba to help their families make ends meet; Cubans earn an average of the equivalent of less than 20 dollars a month and those living abroad send home about one billion dollars a year.

Earlier this month, access to appliances such as microwaves and computers was just the latest of some traditional "bans" to be dumped by Raul Castro, 76, five weeks after taking over permanently from his 81-year-old brother Fidel, who did not seek reelection.

The Raul Castro government also has dropped its controversial ban on Cubans staying in hotels reserved for the tourists who generate the lion's share of the Caribbean island's hard currency. Some rights groups had dubbed the policy "tourist apartheid."

The change is expected to be welcomed by Cubans living abroad who come home for visits and want to treat relatives to hotel stays, although locals are unlikely to be stampeding for rooms that can cost up to 300 dollars a night.

The government also has moved to try to boost farm output with some small reform steps, and said it would allow Cubans who are renting homes from state employers to gain title to them that can be passed on to their heirs.

On April 14, all Cubans for the first time will be allowed to sign contracts for cell (mobile) phones, and will be able to reach friends and relatives in the United States and beyond.

Cuba watchers say there is likely a short-term political benefit of allowing greater economic openness, though they also warn many changes in the Americas' only centrally-controlled, one-party regime could build pressure for more change than the government is prepared to allow.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Telmary Diaz: A Cuban (Rhyming) Revolution

Telmary Diaz: A Cuban (Rhyming) Revolution
By Latino USA

KUT, March 28, 2008 - Telmary Diaz — singer, street poet, rapper — is one of the leaders of the hip-hop revolution in Cuban popular music.

Of course, the country's musical past is not forgotten. Diaz and her contemporaries take the rumba and the Son of Cuba, and add in the sensibility and style of hip-hop, funk and jazz.

The Toronto-based artist speaks with host Maria Hinojosa about her latest album, A Diario.

Though Cuba is often viewed as culturally isolated, Diaz's music reflects rhythms from around the world. "You can be surprised how many styles you can find in Cuba," Diaz says. "You can find in Cuba the ska, drum 'n' bass, I don't know, it's so many different kinds of music. ... Even when everybody thinks that Cuba is, you know, salsa, timba, Buena Vista Social Club, there is a lot of different movements of rock and punk. So everybody's open to new music all the time — that's what's happening."

Female rappers are greatly outnumbered in most hip-hop communities, and the Cuban scene is no different. But Diaz has managed to stake a claim, she says, by staying grounded in her identity.

"It's just that it's not easy — it's not easy in Cuba [for women to make hip-hop]," she says. "So for me to make an original hip-hop, a Cuban hip-hop, I think you have to reach in your roots. You have to keep your roots — you have to try to bring to the stage, to bring to your music the feeling of your ancestors, you know."

To match her internationally-influenced beats, Diaz has developed a flexible delivery, capable of spitting powerful, rapidfire verses. But she says she also strives to maintain a slower, more laid-back style.

"I think it's also part of my style to be also slow, to be smooth," Diaz says. "Because one thing that I didn't like from the hip-hop movement sometimes is that they like when women [are] aggressive like them. So what's the point? ... I use my language, I use my soft part also to communicate and to provoke, to transmit my feelings."

Those feelings are often overlaid by socially-conscious messages. Diaz says she wants to convey both modernity and spirituality in her music, as in the song "Spiritual Sin Egoismo."

"How important is it to be spiritual in this world that is so crazy," Diaz says. "I mean, what we are doing with our planet is crazy. So I think the best we can do is try to fix it from inside of ourself, and try to bring our spirit to our life."

M&C note: NPR has sound file samples as well.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Communist Cuban solution: private farms


Communist Cuban solution: private farms

By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ and WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press Writers 46 minutes ago

In a country where almost everyone works for the communist state, dairy farmer Jesus Diaz is his own boss. He likes it that way — and so does the government.

Living on a plot of land just big enough to graze four dairy cows, Diaz produces enough milk to sell about four quarts a day to the state.

This is independent production on a tiny scale, but it has proved so efficient that Cuba has decided on a major expansion of its program to distribute underused and fallow farmland to private farmers and cooperatives.

"It's a way for the land to end up in the hands of those who want to produce. I see it as a very good thing," said Diaz, 45. He received his land and cows from the state in 1996, and now hopes to get access to more property.

The government is preparing for a "massive distribution of land," Orlando Lugo, president of Cuba's national farming association, said last week. Private farmers have begun receiving land for the cash crops of coffee and tobacco, and will soon be able to lease state land for other crops.

The idea is to revolutionize farming, one tiny plot at a time.

While attention has focused on President Raul Castro's crowd-pleasing moves to allow any Cuban who can afford it to buy a cell phone or stay in a luxury hotel, farmland distribution has been less noticed and is potentially much more important for easing chronic food shortages.

The bet is that independent farmers will do better on their own than toiling for state-run agricultural enterprises, which suffer from red tape, bad planning and lack of funding.

"The authorities, they leave you alone and let you produce," said Aristides Ramon de Machado, who got permission to plant bananas, papaya and guava in a lot by his home in Boca Ciega, east of Havana.

De Machado only grows enough for his family to eat and is prohibited from selling any surplus. But he said entrusting larger private farmers with more land will encourage them to increase production.

"Seeing the fruits of your own labor gives you pleasure in ways that working for someone else does not," he said.

Fidel Castro's revolutionaries seized all large farms for the state after toppling dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, and officials insist the new liberalization isn't a betrayal of revolutionary values.

Independent farmers still face rules about what and how much they can plant, and risk losing their land if they fail to meet government production quotas. They are also required by law to sell any surplus to farmers' markets.

Increasing food production has been a top priority for 76-year-old Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother as president in February.

While distributing farmland to individuals has been tried before in Cuba, this time the government seems willing to give up more control to get better results.

For example, it has authorized state stores to sell supplies directly to farmers — a key concession, since for decades, individuals had trouble legally obtaining so much as a shovel. The state also is providing free fertilizer and feed.

And this time, local farming associations are being empowered to oversee the land reallocation, a prerogative once reserved for the Agricultural Ministry in Havana, although Lugo added that the municipal delegations still must report to a new "central control center" lest land distribution "degenerate into chaos."

Cuba spends $1.6 billion annually on food imports, about a third of it from the United States, which exempts food and farm exports from its embargo of the island.

Cuba even imports 82 percent of the $1 billion in rice, powdered milk and other staples it then rations to the public at subsidized prices — an astoundingly high figure for such a fertile country.

At farmers' markets, basics like cabbage and oranges are almost always available, but tomatoes and lettuce disappear during the rainy summer, and imported apples are considered a rare delicacy.

State-controlled cooperatives operate like modern mega-farms on huge swaths of land, often using heavy equipment and sophisticated irrigation systems. The cooperatives control all kinds of crops, including signature products like sugar, though the high-quality tobacco that goes into Cuba's famous cigars is already mostly in private hands.

Many large cooperatives are losing money and failing to meet production quotas. Their workers have little incentive to improve things, since wages remain low no matter how well the farms do.

Meanwhile, many of the 250,000 private Cuban farmers must plant and pick their crops by hand, plowing with oxen and watering with buckets.

In Guira de Melena, 30 miles south of Havana, El Guateque is one of three supply stores islandwide that are now allowed to sell supplies directly to private farmers. It offers small items such as gloves, machetes, hoes and horse bridles.

Such tools may be humble and low-tech, but they help to produce 60 percent of Cuba's total food output on just a third of its arable land.

In other moves to invigorate the industry, Cuba has settled outstanding debts to farmers and more than doubled what it pays milk and meat producers. Farmers say the government also is paying more for potatoes, coconuts, coffee and other products.

But if a farmland revolution is coming, it hasn't brought big profits to farmers yet. Diaz gets 2.50 pesos per quart of milk, up from one peso. A peso is worth slightly less than a nickel.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Cuba TV to show foreign content, add 24-hour channel

MSNBC and Reuters
Cuba TV to show foreign content
Few details offered, but move follows other reforms opening up country
updated 12:29 p.m. PT, Thurs., April. 3, 2008

HAVANA - Cuba's state-run television broadcaster says it plans to launch a 24-hour channel with mostly foreign content in a move to provide Cuban audiences with more variety.

The Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, ICRT, made the announcement Wednesday at a conference of the Cuban writers and artists guild, where intellectuals have criticized the poor quality of television programming in the socialist state.

The welcoming of more foreign content to Cuban TV comes at a time when Cuba's new president, Raul Castro, who succeeds his ailing brother, Fidel, has begun lifting what he has called "excessive prohibitions" in the country.

Since becoming Cuba's first new leader in almost half a century, Raul Castro's government has allowed Cubans to buy cellular phones, DVD players and computers, and stay at tourist hotels previously reserved for foreigners.

ICRT vice president Luis Acosta said the new channel will feature content from a dozen countries, but he did not give details.

Cuba has five channels that are all run by the state. One of them, Cubavision International, can only be seen over cable television. It carries official Cuban news and culture to the world 24 hours a day.

Cuban cable TV distributed in Havana and at beach resort hotels includes three Chinese channels.

Cuban television frequently broadcasts American films. Many are pirated, even though their sale to Cuba is not banned by U.S. trade sanctions imposed since 1962 against the communist government.

Many Cubans watch satellite television, such as DirectTV, on illegal dishes that allow them to see Spanish-language channels in Miami, the heart of the large Cuban exile community in the United States.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Cubans Struggle to Enjoy New Economic Freedoms

Posted: Tuesday, April 01, 2008 3:05 PM
Filed Under: Havana, Cuba
By Mary Murray, NBC News Havana Bureau Chief

Cubans can strike another complaint off their laundry list of grievances about life’s daily grind.

Sunday night, the Cuban government ended its decade-old ban against ordinary people staying at tourist hotels and renting cars. This is Raul Castro’s third edict in less than a month aimed at loosening government controls over consumer spending.

Previous rulings allowed any Cuban to buy a cell phone and pay for cell phone service and anyone with enough money in their pocket to walk into a government store and legally buy electronic items like computers, microwave ovens and DVD players.

The old regime of Raul’s brother Fidel Castro strictly limited these luxury items to foreigners or the upper echelon of Cuban society holding privileged jobs. The only way regular consumers gained access had been through purchases on the black market.

Lucy Alvarez, a retired electrical engineer who learned to cut hair to supplement her pension, doesn’t expect to take advantage of her new economic freedoms anytime soon. "We live hand-to-mouth," she said.

Under Cuba’s dual economy, people receive their salaries in national pesos (NP) while nearly all imported goods are priced in a convertible peso (called the CUC) that is tied to the U.S. dollar – valued at 24 times stronger than the national peso (NP). In practical terms, foreign goods are well beyond the reach of most Cubans.

For example, a 26" Panasonic flat screen TV, which went on sale Tuesday for the first time in a Havana electronics store, sells for 1,961 CUC, equal to $2,120 – more than double its retail price in other countries. And a Chinese-made moped costs some 795 CUC, a little under $860.

Nora Alonso would like a cell phone, but the 400 national pesos she earns a month working as a physical therapist in a state hospital barely covers her everyday expenses like food and clothing. A cell phone and a year of service would cost Alonso the equivalent of approximately two years of her salary.

Still she welcomes the change. "It doesn’t cost anything to dream," she said.

Alonso hopes more reforms are in the works – she wants better wages and a national currency with real purchasing power.

Hoping for real economic reform
In fact, many working people in Cuba think their government should dump the convertible money and return the island to a one-currency economy.

Reforming the island’s economy demands structural changes, argues Dr. Jaime Suchlicki from the University of Miami, changes far beyond what currently is taking place -- everything up to now, he said, is "not important."

He believes the motive behind the new measures is an "aim to appease the Cubans and give them a little hope about more things to come. They are also for external consumption to show the world that there are some changes happening in Cuba."

Suchlicki also warned that this could backfire. Instead of bridging differences in access between Cubans and foreigners, the measures might lead to more economic and social disparity between Cubans.

One government source who asked not to be named does report that government planners are considering various ideas that would lead to a stronger Cuban peso – enhancing what it could buy.

Rapid change unlikely
But most local economists agree that an across-the-board wage adjustment at this time is just not in the cards.

A recent front-page editorial in Granma, the Communist Party daily, tried to dampen public expectation of seeing any considerable improvement in the standard of living. It stressed, instead, that the workforce concentrate on improving labor discipline.

Many people employed in government-run enterprises readily confess they have little incentive to put in an 8-hour day when their pay envelopes provide little purchasing power.

In fact, there’s even a joke here that ends with the punch line, "the workers don’t work and the state doesn’t pay."

Countless workers admit that their personal goal is to find some outside source of income that will either supplement their state salary or supplant it all together. It’s currently estimated that some 60 percent of the Cuban population has regular access to hard currency – some through family remittances and others through direct earnings.

One thing that is clear is that people resent being told how they can spend their money.

That complaint surfaced last year when Raul Castro encouraged people to publicly air their grievances in controlled official settings. Upon taking office this past February, he personally pledged that his government would respond to public demands and lift its "excessive" controls -- controls that not only irritated consumers but led to discrimination.

People complained that Cuba was the only nation on earth where foreigners enjoyed more rights than the local population.

With their uncanny ability to poke fun at the surreal, Cubans even turned the ugly truth into the butt of popular jokes:

A first grade teacher asks her student Pepe, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"A foreigner!" he replies.

But government critic and free speech advocate Manuel Cuesta Morua never found the subject funny: "Maybe now we can begin to erase our feelings of national inferiority."

Land reforms could reshape Cuba

Land reforms could reshape Cuba
Raul Castro lets loose unproductive land to boost agricultural production
The Associated Press
updated 4:17 p.m. PT, Tues., April. 1, 2008

HAVANA - Communist Cuba is opening up unused land to private farmers and cooperatives as part of a sweeping effort to step up agricultural production.

The program is among reforms announced in recent days that suggest substantial changes are being driven by the new president, Raul Castro, 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."

Buying DVD players, pressure cookers
On Tuesday, Cubans snapped up DVD players, motorbikes and pressure cookers for the first time since the new government loosened controls on consumer goods.

Many of the shoppers filling stores Tuesday lamented the fact that the goods are unaffordable on the government salaries they earn. 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.

Sharp change in land policy
The land reform, however, potentially could put more food on the table of all Cubans while helping to develop a new consumer economy.

Government television says 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.

The change is a sharp contrast to the early days of Cuba's revolution, when the government forced or encouraged private farmers to turn their land over to the state or form government-controlled collective farms. But without more details, it was difficult to tell the significance of program, which began last year but was announced only this week.

"If this means all land that's not being used, like for private farmers, cooperatives and state farms, is available, that's positive," said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a Cuba economics expert at the University of Pittsburgh. "Assuming, of course, they have the freedom to sow and sell whatever they want."

Microwaves are no-shows
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 and 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 can'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.

Lines outside electronics boutiques and specialty shops are common in Cuba because guards limit how many people can be inside at a time. But waits were longer and aisles more packed than usual at Havana's best-known stores.

"DVDs are over there, down that aisle," an employee in a white short-sleeved shirt repeated over and over as shoppers wandered into La Copa, an electronics and grocery store across from the Copacabana Hotel.

"Very good! DVD players on sale for everybody," exclaimed Clara, an elderly woman peering at a black JVC console. "Of course nobody has the money to buy them." Like many Cubans, Clara chatted freely but wouldn't give her full name to a foreign reporter.

Earning $19.50 a month
Government stores offered all products in convertible pesos — hard currency worth 24 times the regular pesos state employees get paid. The government controls well over 90 percent of the economy and the average state salary is just 408 regular pesos a month, about $19.50.

Still, most Cubans have access to at least some convertible pesos thanks to jobs with foreign firms or in tourism, or cash sent by relatives living in the United States.

Graciela Jaime, a 68-year-old retired clothes factory employee, complained that widespread corruption and greed has created a class of rich Cubans.

"Everyone wants to spend money and that is what's happening," she said. "If everything they earned went to the state like it should, there wouldn't be as much corruption as there is."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.