Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

One step forward, two steps back in Cuba

  • Print

When the Cuban government said in December that it intended to let the population buy modern cars without requiring permits, many suspected that there would be a catch. They were right.

The cars, which can be bought only through state-owned suppliers, cost a fortune.

A 2013 Peugeot 508, marketed in Europe as an affordable sedan costing around $30,000, has a price tag of more than a quarter of a million dollars at a rundown showroom in Havana.

A Chinese Geely, with more than 80,000 kilometres on the odometer, is on sale for about $30,000. The average salary in Cuba is less than $20 a month.

"What do they think they are selling, airplanes?," jokes Erik, a handyman, as he looks at the price list.

"They don't want to sell any cars," agrees Ernesto, a mechanic. "It's all a show."

The prices certainly seem designed to deter purchasers. Some even wonder whether there has been a clerical error causing the prices to be listed in Cuban pesos, Cuba's local currency, which is worth 24 times less than the dollar-pegged convertible peso.

Another theory is that the high prices are a preview of a widely predicted devaluation of the convertible peso as part of the government's commitment to unify the island's two currencies.

A further explanation might lie in the immediate effect of the reform: the elimination of a thriving black-market trade in the permits to buy new cars. For decades these have been awarded to valued individuals, such as exceptional party workers, sports stars and artists, but more recently they had become a currency themselves, changing hands for about $12,000 each. The government says that those with permits will be first in line to buy new cars, a dubious benefit given that many have quadrupled in price since the reform.

"There could hardly be a stronger signal that this remains a controlled economy," one Havana-based diplomat says.

Since taking over from his brother, Fidel Castro, in 2008, President Raù Castro has taken some steps to reduce the state's economic role. He has allowed small-scale self-employment, permitted Cubans to buy houses and given private farmers more autonomy to grow and sell their produce.

He always has insisted that such reforms will be "without haste," however, and now there are signs that he deliberately is slowing things down.

On Jan. 1, the 55th anniversary of the revolution, Castro gave a speech in Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city.

He made no mention of further reform, instead castigating unnamed foreign groups for attempting to introduce "neoliberal" and "neocolonial" thinking.

That day the government also enacted a law banning the resale of clothes imported from abroad.

The trade of "tailor and dressmaker" is one of around 200 private occupations that were officially permitted in 2010. Since then thousands of entrepreneurs have stretched its definition, setting up small clothing stores stocked with brands from Europe and the United States.

The clothes often are imported in suitcases by Cuban travelers taking advantage of another reform, which eliminated the requirement for a permit to travel.

Eva, a 27-year-old from Havana, says that since 2011 she has been flying to Madrid every two months to stock the fashion store she maintains in the back of her apartment. Now, she says, she will close her business.

"Every time we start to breathe a little," she says, "we know the government's grip will soon tighten."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 15, 2014 A8

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Total Body Tune-Up: Farmer's Carry

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Two Canadian geese perch themselves for a perfect view looking at the surroundings from the top of a railway bridge near Lombard Ave and Waterfront Drive in downtown Winnipeg- Standup photo- May 01, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


Do you think the Jets will win Game 4 on Wednesday?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google