Cuba to let citizens buy imports with foreign currencies

HAVANA (AP) – The Cuban government said it will allow citizens to use 10 foreign currencies to buy products like televisions and air conditioners at state stores in an attempt to compete with a multi-billion-dollar informal market in imported goods.

The communist state has a monopoly on most forms of retail sales and all wholesaling, import and export. The only legal vendors of appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners are state stores that charge as much as 200 per cent of the average global price for generally low-quality Chinese-made products that are often out of stock.

That has led to an illegal but tolerated black market in goods purchased abroad by individual Cubans and resold at a profit on the island. Thousands of Cubans each year fly to shopping districts catering to them in countries ranging from Panama to Haiti to Russia. By some estimates, the sellers known as “mules” spend some USD2 billion a year overseas, a major outflow of hard currency from an island already in a serious cash crunch.

Cuban officials announced on Tuesday night that the prices of some consumer goods would drop for Cubans who create special new hard-currency bank accounts denominated in United States (US) and Canadian dollars, Euros, British pounds, Swiss francs, Mexican pesos, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish kroner and Japanese yen.

Cubans will also be able to use the accounts to import goods through state-run companies, officials said on national television, although the precise mechanism for those private-public imports remains unclear.

Products that will be available for foreign currency include 43-inch flat-screen televisions, standing freezers, refrigerators and mini-split air conditioners. The discounts over current prices appear to be marginal — Reports in state media indicated that the government would still charge some 75 per cent above the wholesale price. A 43-inch Samsung television, for example, would sell for USD549, state media said, about twice the cost of a similar item in the US.