September 5, 2005

Cubans await Castro’s elusive Chinese kitchen

By Marc Frank

CAMAGUEY, Cuba (Reuters) - Six months after President Fidel
Castro promised that every Cuban household would get an
electric rice cooker and other appliances, most Cubans are
wondering where they are.

In announcing the plan earlier this year, Castro took to
the stage like a television game show host touting Chinese-made
rice cookers, fans, stoves, washing machines and other electric
appliances that would soon be available.

The goods were considered evidence of communist Cuba's
recovery from the deep economic crisis the Caribbean island
sank into following the demise of the Soviet Union.

But so far few have been sold, though some state stores
have begun offering pressure cookers made in China and Brazil,
and some residents are growing impatient.

The delays are being blamed on the country's decrepit
electricity grid as officials fear that the onslaught of new
electric appliances will cause power failures and fires.

Previously, the sale of electric stoves and cookers had
been banned due to energy shortages.

But armed with new credit from China and cushioned by
generously financed oil supplies from Venezuela in exchange for
medical services, Castro is spending $600 million to double the
country's generating capacity within a year and import millions
of the Chinese electric appliances to be sold at cost by the

A majority of Cuba's 11.2 million inhabitants still cook
with home-made burners, kerosene, diesel fuel, wood and coal.

In a country where rice and beans is part of every meal,
the promise of electric rice cookers and new pressure cookers
was welcomed by many.

In Camaguey, Cuba's third city in the center of the island,
the evening air smells of kerosene, diesel fumes and burning
wood as some residents cook over open fires in their patios.

One joke circulating locally runs: "Have you heard the
appliances have finally arrived and are being stored at the
church. Why? Because they are going to be distributed when God
feels like it."


Havana port workers say boatloads of electric appliances
have begun arriving. But, as in many of the best laid plans, a
hitch has appeared.

Authorities discovered that Cuba's ancient transformers and
secondary power lines often cannot take the extra load and are
at risk of catching fire.

Castro says he's purchased thousands of transformers and
millions of feet of cable to solve the problem. But it will
take time to make the switch.

Camaguey resident Guillermina Rodriguez, 84, said she would
be patient, as long as she got one of the pressure cookers due
to arrive in the city soon.

"To tell you the truth, I don't even know how to use a rice
maker," Rodriguez said, as she cooked rice in an iron pot on
her one homemade electric burner.

Other local residents said their hardy old pressure
cookers, in which they have cooked rice and beans for 15 to 20
years, were useless due to broken valves and worn out rubber

Most Cubans have never owned an oven, let alone a
microwave. They use pressure cookers not just to make rice and
beans, but to bake cakes, roast chicken and cook other food.

Castro insists the kitchen plan will not only ease the
burden on housewives, but save energy and help pay for the
electric grid's upgrade, since electricity is heavily


In a series of four-hour television appearances earlier
this year, Castro detailed the number of watts each new
appliance would save and demonstrated how homemade electric
stoves and vintage appliances, such as American refrigerators
from the 1950s, wasted energy.

He even explained to Cubans how to cook rice and beans more
efficiently, advice that was not appreciated by all.

"What a lack of respect. I know how to cook," said a
housewife in the capital city of Havana, as she watched one of
Castro's appearances.

Cuba legalized family remittances from abroad, opened-up to
tourism and foreign investment and made some timid market
reforms in the 1990s to cope with the loss of Soviet economic
aid and increased pressure from U.S. sanctions.

Gaps arose in Cuba's egalitarian society between Cubans who
had access to dollars and those who did not, mainly in the
provinces where people still look to the state to improve their

"People in Havana criticize Fidel because they do not need
the new appliances or want them," said Mirelis, a beautician in
a sugar mill town in Ciego de Avila province.

"Here we are happy because women's lives will improve. We
have to cook rice in one pot, beans in another and something
else in another, often one thing with kerosene and another with
wood," she said.

But she added: "We will only believe it when we see it."