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Inklings of Economic Reform in Cuba
Academic sources consulted by IPS see the measure as more far-reaching than a lifting of the restrictions that keep Cubans from purchasing computers, microwave ovens and other electrical appliances, a move that is apparently imminent but has not yet been confirmed by the government.

"The free sale of farm supplies implies a structural change in the countryside," said one expert, who noted that the new procedure has already been put in practice in some towns and that stores are being opened for the purpose around the country.

Initially, the farmers will buy their tools, irrigation equipment, fertiliser, fencing, work clothing like boots and other supplies in the governments hard currency or former dollar stores, where they can only pay in "convertible pesos", known as CUCs or "chavitos".

Nevertheless, the measure is a first step away from "the concept of centralised distribution of supplies, and links farmers more directly to the production levels that they achieve," said the expert, who asked to remain anonymous.

In the government exchange bureaus, one CUC is traded for 25 Cuban pesos or 1.25 U.S. dollars.

"I can now only buy what I am assigned by the Cooperative (of Credit and Services), which does not always receive all of the supplies that we need. But in these stores that are going to open, were supposed to be able to directly look for what we need, without worrying about red tape," said a farmer who sells his produce in a Havana farmers market.

Rubén Torres, a small farmer from Villa Clara, 268 km from the capital, told IPS by phone that he had not yet heard about the new measure, although Agriculture Ministry officials in that province had said that they would eliminate the bureaucratic mechanisms standing in the way of increasing production.

"The fields cant wait till tomorrow when an input is needed," said Torres. "Thats why it is important to be able to obtain supplies without being blocked by red tape."

The expert said he knew the measure would be expanded throughout the entire country.

"This measure and others will be put into practice gradually and discreetly, without public announcements or coverage in the local press," he said. "Agriculture is one of the sectors in most dire need of change, which is the only way to boost food production."

According to official figures, Cuba spends one billion dollars a year on imports of basic food items, which are sold to the public at subsidised prices by means of the "ration book" system that guarantees all Cubans access to a basket of staple food products at extremely low cost.

As interim president, Raúl Castro stated in a now famous July 2007 speech that it was absolutely essential to strengthen agricultural productivity in Cuba and give farmers incentives to boost the low production rates, and he said that all of the necessary changes would have to be introduced to achieve those goals.

When he permanently succeeded his ailing brother Fidel on Feb. 24, Castro announced that some bans and legal restrictions that "do more harm than good" would begin to be eliminated "in the next few weeks."

His words prompted a flurry of speculation about the changes that might be adopted to alleviate the difficulties plaguing Cubans in their daily lives.

In response to questions, the secretary of culture in the ruling Communist Partys Central Committee, Eliadas Acosta, admitted Wednesday to journalists that the government is studying a number of measures "that the people expect and need," although he did not specify what they were.

"They are being analysed and will be put into effect as soon as possible," said Acosta.

An employee at a state-run CIMEX store confirmed to IPS that at an as-yet unspecified date, computers and a number of other electronic appliances currently off-limits to Cubans would begin to be sold freely.

"We know its coming, but we don't know when, maybe in a few months," said the employee, who preferred not to be named.

A memorandum circulating among the foreign press and people with access to email in Cuba states that "based on the improved availability of electricity," the government "has approved the sale of some equipment that was prohibited."

The dismantling of the restrictions will take place in three stages, from now to 2010, adds the document, described by the foreign press as an internal government document.

In the first stage, sales will be permitted of computers, 19-24 inch TV sets, VCRs, pressure cookers, microwave ovens, electric bicycles and car alarms.

According to the memo, the ban will first be lifted in the capital, in three CIMEX shops, where goods are sold in CUCs.

CUCs are basically available to Cubans who receive remittances from relatives abroad or who work in tourist-related areas or for foreign companies operating in Cuba in joint ventures with the Cuban state.

Earlier this year, Cubas dairy farmers began to receive two cents of a CUC per litre of milk sold to the state, to go towards purchases of supplies.

"Facilitating access by farmers to other goods and services would also be recommendable," said the expert who talked to IPS.

Many believe that sales of electronic and home appliances will have a more psychological than practical impact.

"I don't have 'chavitos, to be able to buy things like that, but Im glad to know that I could do so someday," said university student Maribel Cuesta.

Another academic pointed to different aspects of the measure. "We will see a more diverse choice of products, shifts in spending by Cuban families, new work incentives, a greater inflow of revenues into the state coffers through increased sales, and, above all, more options for Cubans," Juan Triana, a researcher at the Centre for Studies on the Cuban Economy, told IPS.


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