WASHINGTON – Opening a crack in Cuba’s closely controlled communist economy, the Cuban government reportedly will soon allow ordinary Cubans an unrestricted possibility to purchase items such as computers and microwave ovens.

The move is viewed as part of the long-awaited reforms promised by Raul Castro, who criticized the island’s “excess of prohibitions and regulations” when he took over Cuba’s presidency from his brother Fidel on Feb. 24.

A government memo obtained by the Reuters news agency showed that restrictions on the sale of goods such as computers, DVD players and microwave ovens will be lifted.

Computers were reserved for foreigners and companies and Cubans with special government permission to buy them. Internet access remains tightly restricted to foreigners and specially designated Cubans. Permission for travelers to import some electronic goods such as DVD players was approved last May.

But on Friday the Communist Party newspaper Granma published an editorial trying to tamp down expectations, saying bolder reforms would have to wait until productivity improved.

The memo issued to all government stores said the open sale of consumer goods will have a staggered roll-out: DVD and video players, microwave ovens and computers would be sold to all comers immediately, as well as electric pressure cookers and rice cookers, electric bicycles and car alarms.

Energy-hungry items like air conditioners and water heaters will have to wait until April of next year. Kitchen stoves, ovens and toasters will have to wait even more, until 2010, due to tight supplies.

Certain kinds of TV sets, which before were only available in hard-currency stores, would be sold more widely, according to Reuters and other published reports.

The memo cites an easing of the island’s energy crunch as a reason for allowing the sale of more consumer products. The goods will initially be available in three government-owned stores in Havana.

Granma’s editorial also hinted that Cubans would be given greater access to tourist hotels. Signed by Lazaro Barredo, a member of the National Assembly, it lumped hotel access together with consumer goods as part of a set of prohibitions that most Cubans despise.

But with the average Cuban making only $15 a month, a $1,000 computer or $100 weekend getaway at the beach is beyond the reach of most family budgets.

Echoing Castro’s cautious style, Granma’s editorial sought to manage expectations by warning that a salary boost would not occur anytime soon.

One thing is to tackle “certain restrictions” like Cubans’ access to tourist hotels, Barredo wrote, and quite another to do away with Cuba’s dual currency system. Most salaries are in pesos but prices for many goods are pegged to “hard pesos” known as CUCs and equal to 25 pesos.

The dual currency system gives much stronger purchasing power to those who have access to hard currencies. Low salaries is one of the most frequently cited criticisms in Cuba.

“It is no doubt essential to improve services, consumption, to have products and resources,” Barredo wrote “These won’t fall from the sky, they arise from work and from a higher salary for the person who produces more.”


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