Cuba lifts ban on computer and DVD player sales

HAVANA Thu Mar 13, 2008 7:14pm EDT

Students look at an image of late rebel hero Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara while working with a computer during class in Allen in the province of Santiago de Cuba October 20, 2006. REUTERS/Stringer

Students look at an image of late rebel hero Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara while working with a computer during class in Allen in the province of Santiago de Cuba October 20, 2006.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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HAVANA (Reuters) - Communist Cuba has authorized the unrestricted sale of computers and DVD and video players in the first sign that its new president, Raul Castro, is moving to improve Cubans' access to consumer goods.

An internal government memo seen by Reuters on Thursday said the appliances long desired by Cubans can go on sale immediately, although air conditioners will not be available until next year and toasters until 2010 due to limited power supplies.

Only foreigners and companies can buy computers in Cuba at present, while DVD players were seized at the airport until last year, when customs rules were eased.

Now Cubans will be able to buy them freely, paying for them in hard currency CUCs, or convertible pesos, worth 24 times more than the Cuban pesos state wages are paid in.

"Based on the improved availability of electricity, the government at the highest level has approved the sale of some equipment which was prohibited," the memo said.

It also listed television sets, which were already on sale, electric pressure cookers and rice cookers, electric bicycles, car alarms and microwave ovens.

Raul Castro, 76, has led Cuba since July 2006 when his older brother Fidel Castro provisionally handed over power after intestinal surgery from which he has not fully recovered.

The younger Castro was formally named president on February 24, becoming Cuba's first new leader in almost half a century, and he promised to ease some of the restrictions on daily life.

"The country's priority will be to meet the basic needs of the population, both material and spiritual," he said as he replaced Fidel Castro, a staunch critic of capitalist consumer society.

Last year, under Raul Castro's provisional government, customs regulations were eased to allow Cubans to bring in some electronic equipment and car parts.

AIR CONDITIONERS AND TOASTERS

The new memo circulated within the state-run retail system said Cubans will have access to a second group of products in 2009, including air conditioners, which are much in demand to help endure the hot summer days in the tropical country.

If Cuba's electricity supplies permit, additional appliances to be sold freely in 2010 include toasters and electric ovens, the memo said.

Cubans were delighted with the prospect of being able to buy items such as microwave ovens and air conditioners that were previously only available as stolen goods on the black market.

Shop attendants in central Havana had not heard about the measure but said there was great demand for the items.

"That's great. I hope this is the necessary start along a new path," said second-hand clothes vendor Maritza Hernandez, eager to see further reforms to Cuba's command economy.

The sale of many electric appliances was banned in the 1990s when the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived Cuba of billions of dollars in subsidies and oil supplies, resulting in an energy crunch and daily blackouts of as long as 18 hours.

Cuba put an end to power cuts in 2006 by importing hundreds of electricity generators run on fuel supplied by Venezuela, its main foreign ally.

Raul Castro has encouraged debate of Cuba's economic woes and has received a torrent of complaints focusing mainly on poor wages and limited access to consumer goods that are priced in hard currency.

In December, he said Cuba had too many restrictions and last month, formally assuming leadership, he vowed "in the next few weeks we shall start removing the most simple of them."

Many Cubans expect the state to soon allow them to buy cellular telephones. While they will now be able to buy computers, access to the Internet remains controlled by the government.

(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes, Editing by Anthony Boadle and Kieran Murray)

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