HAVANA (Reuters) - Cubans crowded shops on Tuesday to buy DVD players and electric bikes that went on sale for the first time as new President Raul Castro moved to lift many restrictions in the one-party socialist state.
Stores were authorized to sell dozens of electric goods that were previously banned, including microwave ovens, flat-screen televisions and even computers.
“This should have been done long ago. They should never have been banned,” said Felipe, a 53-year-old engineer, who lined up impatiently to buy his first DVD player.
The Philips and Panasonic DVD players were priced between $118 and $162, much more expensive than in other countries but lower than the going rate on Cuba’s thriving black-market.
Raul Castro succeeded his ailing brother Fidel Castro as president on February 24, promising to lift “excessive prohibitions” on daily life in Cuba.
His government has since moved quickly to allow Cubans to buy cellular phones and stay at hotels previously reserved for foreigners.
The changes made so far by Cuba’s first new leader in half a century are aimed at reducing pent up frustrations in the country of 11 million where the ruling Communist Party has a firm grip on power.
Cubans welcomed greater access to consumer goods that are available virtually anywhere else in the world.
“After so many years of restrictions, this is great. Now Cubans have new options and I can resolve my transport problem,” said Raydel Leyva, 42, the first at a Havana shopping center to buy a battery-driven moped made in China and priced at $900.
“These measures are meant to improve life and make us feel better living in our country,” he said.
With wages averaging $17 a month in Cuba, many of the new goods on sale were out of reach for most pockets, but even some of those who could not afford to buy anything were happy they are now available.
“The prices are astronomical. But at least I have the choice, and I can save up to buy things I want. People will work harder to buy them,” said Gelis, a self-employed tennis coach.
Computers, which until now could only be bought in Cuba by government or foreign companies, were also supposed to go on sale but none had changed hands by Tuesday afternoon.
At a shop in western Havana, Microsoft keyboards and mouses were on show, but Dell laptops and desktop computers were still in their boxes awaiting for prices to be decided.
A saleswoman said computers with 80 gigabytes of hard drive memory, 512 megabytes of RAM and a Celeron P4 chip made by Intel would sell for about $865.
“I have been saving up for three years, since I was 15, and I think I am close to buying one,” said Paula, a university student waiting for the new stock to come in.
Cubans have to pay for the consumer goods in hard currency CUCs, or convertible pesos, worth 24 times more than the Cuban pesos that state wages are paid in.
About 60 percent of Cubans have access to CUCs, through cash remittances from relatives in the United States, bonuses, tips from tourists and black market dealings.
Havana shops had on sale 21-inch flat-screen television sets and home theater sets worth more than $1,300. It would take a Cuban with average six years to earn enough to buy one.
“This is all good and fine, but my purchasing power is too low to buy anything,” said Yaima, a teacher who earns 592 pesos a month, about $26.60. “I’ll have to wait until they strengthen the peso.”
(For special coverage from Reuters on the changes in Cuba, see: here)
Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Kieran Murray
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