Cuba Lifts Ban on DVD Players, Cell Phones

Since taking over the Cuban presidency earlier this year, Raul Castro has quietly put a series of reforms into effect designed to make Cubans, well, happier. His government has lifted a ban on owning DVD players, cell phones, microwaves and electric bicycles. NPR's Susan Stamberg speaks with Michal Voss, BBC correspondent in Havana.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.

Coming up, is the iPod shuffle mode really random?

But first, computers, DVD players, flat screen TVs, MP3 players - those are some of the items that Cubans have been forbidden to own. But last month, Cuba's new president, Raul Castro, quietly began removing some restrictions.

Fidel Castro ruled Cuba for almost 50 years. When he officially passed the government reins to his brother in January, Raul Castro immediately pledged that he would lift a number of restraints on Cuban life. And he's held true to his word, but his word is not likely to have much meaning in a country where the average salary is the equivalent of about $20 a month.

Michael Voss is the BBC Havana correspondent. He's on the line with us from there now. Welcome to you.

Mr. MICHAEL VOSS (BBC Havana Correspondent): Thank you, Susan.

STAMBERG: Since the vast majority of Cubans won't be able to afford any of these products, Raul Castro's reforms are mostly symbolic. But what do they say about the ideological mindset going on now in Cuba?

Mr. VOSS: I think ideologically there are two things going on. One is, as you say, he's lifted the restrictions on certain goods that have been banned for years. Now, yes, it's beyond the reach of most ordinary Cubans who, as you say, earn about $20 a month. However, with so many people here having relatives abroad - in Miami, for example - they do receive money from abroad.

There's also a growing class of Cubans who work in the tourist industry, for example, so believe it or not. But on Tuesday when the very first DVD sales went on legally, the shops were full. There were a lot of people out there buying them.

STAMBERG: What is Raul Castro's motivation for all of this? Is it that he's trying to just ease up on the economic problems in Cuba to get more money into circulation there?

Mr. VOSS: Many people thought when Fidel Castro got sick almost two years ago that the system would collapse without him. What Raul is trying to ensure is that the system continues. And to do that he does need some reform, some symbolic, some will have to be, I think, a little deeper.

The biggest thing Raul Castro has to do is put more food on the table and more money in people's pockets. The restrictions that we've just been talking about - the DVDs and the mobile phones and also the right to stay in the hotels that have been reserved for foreigners now. These are easy ones to do. However to allow private enterprise or foreign investment, we're just seeing the very first shoots of that in terms of agriculture.

STAMBERG: How so?

Mr. VOSS: I'll give you the background on this. Ever since the revolution there have been some small holding farmers and a few cooperatives. Now, they account for about a third of all the farmland in Cuba yet they produce more than two-thirds of all the food here. The big state farms are totally inefficient.

So what Raul Castro is saying is to those private farmers that have shown that they could produce well and produce lots that if they want more land they will be able to lease off the government state-owned land to make it productive.

STAMBERG: What are you hearing from the men and women on the streets about these changes?

Mr. VOSS: I think people are really happy to see these changes going through. I mean, a lot of people say, okay, I can't afford to go to a hotel or I can't afford to buy a mobile phone now, but at least I know I can do it. And if I get a bit of money, if I save up, these are things I can aspire to.

Raul Castro has raised expectations that life here will improve under the communist system. But he's yet to really deliver the fundamentals.

STAMBERG: Michael Voss is BBC Havana correspondent.

Mr. VOSS: Goodbye, Susan.

STAMBERG: Thank you so much.

Mr. VOSS: Thank you.

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