Cuba puts first computers on sale to public
Another despised restriction on daily life falls with Raul Castro in charge
By Will Weissert
The Associated Press
updated 3:46 p.m. PT, Fri., May. 2, 2008
HAVANA - Cubans are getting wired.
The island's communist government put desktop computers on sale to the public for the first time Friday, ending a ban on PC sales as another despised restriction on daily life fell away under new President Raul Castro.
A tower-style QTECH PC and monitor costs nearly $780. While few Cubans can afford that, dozens still gawked outside a tiny Havana electronics store, crowding every inch of its large glass windows and leaving finger and nose prints behind.
Inside, four clerks tore open boxes, hastily assembling display computers. By the time a sign went up listing the PCs specifications, more than a dozen shoppers were lined up to get in.
"Look at that!" murmured Armando Batista as he pressed against the window. Although he can't afford to buy one, he said, "these are good for a start."
The gray and black QTECHs, complete with DVD players, bulky CRT monitors and standard-issue black mice and keyboards, are the only model available.
The Cuban PCs have Intel Celeron processors with 80 gigabytes of memory and 512 RAM and are equipped with Microsoft's Windows XP operating system. Both could be violations of a U.S. trade embargo, but not something Washington can do anything about in the absence of diplomatic relations with Havana.
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Clerks said the PCs were assembled by Cuban companies using parts imported from China. For about $80 less, buyers in the U.S. can get a desktop with more than twice the memory, a 80 GB SATA hard drive and 22-inch LCD flat screen monitor.
The crowded store in central Havana's Carlos III shopping center is the only outlet in the country now selling the PCs. Clerks at a few other government-run stores — where Cubans must buy everything — said they expect to receive deliveries sometime after next week.
Brian Brito, 14, saved his allowance for two years to buy himself a PC for his upcoming 15th birthday.
"It's good for playing games," he said, while lugging his new computer from the mall.
But his mother had other ideas. "He'll use it for school, for learning," she said. "And besides, it's a form of healthy entertainment."
Except for some trusted officials and state journalists, most Cubans are banned from accessing the Internet at home. So many of these new computers may never be connected to the Web.
Some people buy limited e-mail access on the black market, usually sharing an account with the authorized holder, who usually works for the state. Even if they could access the Web, Cubans can't shop on line because they don't have credit cards.
Raul Castro promised to eliminate many of these prohibitions when he assumed the presidency on Feb. 24, after his ailing 81-year-old brother Fidel resigned. Besides selling consumer goods, he has ended bans that kept most Cubans from having cell phones, staying in luxury hotels or renting cars.
An internal government memo had indicated that PCs, DVD players, motorbikes and plug-in pressure cookers would be sold for the first time in April. Everything but the computers made it to the shelves last month.
Computers have been sold on Cuba's black market for years — at prices comparable to the $780 now seen in the store. But now that computers are available legally, some consumers expect black market prices to fall.
The government controls more than 90 percent of Cuba's economy, paying an average state salary of $19.50 per month. But most Cubans have access to extra income through jobs with foreign firms, tips from working in tourism or money sent by relatives living abroad.
Thousands have snapped up phones and coveted kitchen appliances in recent weeks.
"Hotels, cell phones, DVD, Cuba is changing a lot," said Oscar Perez, who came to help his 14-year-old cousin carry his new computer to the car. "That's positive. But we want more."