Cubans queue for computers as PC ban lifted, but web still outlawed

CUBANS are getting wired. The island’s communist government put desktop computers on sale to the public for the first time last Friday, ending a ban on PC sales, as another restriction on daily life fell away under President Raul Castro.

A tower-style QTECH PC and monitor costs nearly $780 (€505). While few Cubans can afford that, dozens gathered outside a Havana electronics store to peer in the window.

Inside, four clerks tore open boxes, hastily assembling display computers. By the time a sign went up listing the PCs specifications, more than a dozen shoppers were lined up to get in.

"Look at that!" murmured Armando Batista as he pressed against the window. Although he can’t afford to buy one, he said, "these are good for a start."

The gray and black QTECHs, complete with DVD players, bulky CRT monitors, mice and keyboards, are the only model available.

Clerks said the PCs were assembled by Cuban companies using parts imported from China. For about $80 less, buyers in the US can get a desktop with more than twice the memory, a 80GB SATA hard drive and 22" LCD flat screen monitor.

The store in central Havana’s Carlos III shopping centre is the only outlet in the country selling the PCs. Clerks at a few other government-run stores said they expect to receive deliveries after next week.

Brian Brito, 14, saved his allowance for two years to buy himself a PC for his upcoming 15th birthday.

"It’s good for playing games," he said, lugging his computer from the mall.

But his mother had other ideas. "He’ll use it for school, for learning," she said. "And besides, it’s a form of healthy entertainment."

Except for some trusted officials and state journalists, most Cubans are banned from accessing the internet at home. So many of these computers may never be connected to the web.

Some people buy limited email access on the black market, usually sharing an account with the authorised holder, who usually works for the state. Even if they could access the web, Cubans can’t shop on line because they don’t have credit cards.

Raul Castro promised to eliminate many of these prohibitions when he assumed the presidency on February 24, after his ailing 81-year-old brother, Fidel, resigned. Besides selling consumer goods, he has ended bans that kept most Cubans from having mobile phones, staying in luxury hotels or renting cars.

An internal government memo had indicated PCs, DVD players, motorbikes and plug-in pressure cookers would be sold for the first time in April. Everything but the computers made it to the shelves last month.

Computers have been sold on Cuba’s black market for years — at prices comparable to the US$780 now seen in the store. But now that computers are available legally, some consumers expect black market prices to fall.

The government controls more than 90% of Cuba’s economy, paying an average state salary of $19.50 per month. But most Cubans have access to extra income through jobs with foreign firms, tips from working in tourism or money sent by relatives living abroad.

Thousands have snapped up phones and kitchen appliances in recent weeks.

"Hotels, cell phones, DVDs, Cuba is changing a lot," said Oscar Perez, who came to help his 14-year-old cousin carry his computer to the car. "That’s positive. But we want more."