LAS GUASIMAS, Cuba — Ana Magdalena Melian, a spry 91-year-old, had never seen a microwave oven until one landed in her kitchen courtesy of the communist government.
"There were some rich people in Havana who had a microwave, but the rest of us didn't dream of one," said the great-grandmother who uses the new Daewoo DC to prepare flan and defrost chicken.
About 3,000 households in Las Guasimas, a town named for a stubby evergreen tree just southeast of Havana, were given microwaves in December as part of a pilot program.
Metallic white and barely big enough to hold a loaf of sandwich bread, the Daewoos don't look like the key to Cuba's future. But many here hope they mean new President Raul Castro will do away with bans prohibiting Cubans from buying a host of consumer goods available nearly everywhere else in the world.
For three months, officials visited families using the ovens and quizzed them about the appliances' reliability while monitoring electricity consumption.
The ovens were such a hit here, local authorities say that Cuba's supreme governing body, the Council of State, is considering offering microwaves to families across the island on long-term credit.
Similar programs have allowed Cubans to pay off subsidized color televisions, pressure cookers, air conditioners and refrigerators. But microwaves, like computers and DVD players, have remained off limits to buy for everyone but foreigners and companies.
Hoping for PCs, phones
"It's like the microwaves fell from the sky," said Marisa Gutierrez, a 49-year-old housewife who uses her backyard to grow beans and bananas and is even raising a family of pigs she inherited.
"We hope there will be more in the future," she said. "Computers, telephones in every home."
Gutierrez is a member of Las Guasimas' Revolutionary Defense Committee, neighborhood groups that keep tabs on residents. The committee oversaw the pilot program, and she said the government has thousands of microwaves ready to be distributed on-credit or sold in state-run stores.
According to an official-sounding but undated memo leaked to foreign reporters this month, the new government already has approved unrestricted sales of microwaves, computers, DVD players, television sets of various sizes, electric bicycles and car alarms — though none of those items have yet appeared for general purchase in state-run department or appliance stores.
"Based on the improved availability of electricity, the highest level of government has approved the sale of some equipment which was prohibited," it read.
China's credit line helps import
Venezuelan oil subsidies have helped Cuba improve its creaky electric grid in recent years, and credits from China have provided the island's government the cash it needed to import consumer goods made there and in South Korea.
The memo directs that computers, microwaves and other electronics be sold in stores that charge in Cuban convertible pesos, worth 24 times as much as the regular Cuban peso.
Under such a system, most Cubans would be unable to afford them. The government controls well over 90 percent of the economy and the average monthly state salary is just 408 Cuban pesos, a little less than $20.
Even under credit payments, the monthly microwave payments would still be a struggle for many.
Las Guasimas residents have been allowed to keep their microwaves even though the pilot program ended this month. But Gutierrez said they may have to buy them on credit soon and that each appliance could cost as much as 2,000 pesos or $90. Government-run electronics stores offer slightly larger Daewoo ovens to foreigners and companies for about $175 each.
20 years to pay off, laments retiree
Melian said her family now loves "el microwave" but the idea of having to pay to keep it scares her.
"We still are missing a lot in our lives," she said. "This helps, but at what price?"
Her neighbor, 76-year-old retired truck driver Sergio Rodriguez, uses his microwave to heat rice and milk.
"If they want to charge me, it will take 20 years to pay off," said Rodriguez, who lives with his daughter and two grandchildren.
Both Melian and Rodriguez earn monthly pensions worth 230 Cuban pesos per month, just under $10.
"The pension's not enough to buy anything and many people suffer," Rodriguez said.
But Gutierrez, the neighborhood committee member, said the microwaves prove everyday life in Cuba will get easier under the new President Castro.
"Everyone here is Fidelista," she said using a common term for supporters of ailing, 81-year-old former Cuban President Fidel Castro. "But with Fidel, they never brought us microwaves."
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