HAVANA – Cuban residents these days are dragging hundreds of refrigerators – many of them dating back to the era of dictator Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s – out of their homes and replacing them with modern, more energy-efficient, Chinese-made appliances that the Cuban government is distributing among the population as part of its “energy revolution.”
“It’s as if a relative were leaving,” said 71-year-old Yolanda as she prepared to get rid of a Westinghouse that has been with her since 1950.
Like Yolanda, thousands of Havana residents are waiting for young government workers to park delivery trucks outside their homes and ask them if they want to exchange their old fridge for a new one.
Cuba began implementing the so-called “energy revolution” initiative in 2005 to promote renewable sources of energy production, improve its energy distribution system and reduce electricity consumption on the communist-ruled island.
To fulfill that latter goal, one of the main elements is the elimination of “energy devourers,” as Cuban leader Fidel Castro has termed the old, energy inefficient refrigerators still in widespread use in Cuba, many of them of Russian or U.S. origin and dating back to before the triumph of the 1959 revolution.
“Make way because an old man’s coming through!” 47-year-old Rubén shouted as two other residents of Havana’s Marianao neighborhood helped him remove an old General Electric fridge that had been in use for 60 years and painted over numerous times.
He said that, despite being subsidized in part by the government, his new Chinesemade refrigerator will cost him 6,100 pesos ($270). That’s a steep price to pay in a country where the average monthly salary is around $15, so the state is making the appliances more accessible by offering low-interest loans.
“For me that means 50 or 100 pesos less every month. How am I going to pay for it? Like always, I’ll come up with something,” said Rubén, whose monthly income amounts to some 800 pesos.
Like other sources here, Rubén speaks under the condition of relative anonymity. He said it is unfortunate that he will not receive a single peso for his old fridge considering that the government will strip it of the materials that can be reused.
“For me, in general, it seems positive,” said Andrés, a 30-year-old university professor who exchanged one of the two refrigerators he had.
But he said he wouldn’t trade in the other one, a Japanese model he bought in the 1980s, even if he were “drunk.”
Nevertheless, he criticized the government’s “general subsidy,” which he said makes no distinction between “someone who can pay the 6,000 pesos out of their pocket and someone who has no money.” He also did not hide his displeasure with the way the exchanges are being carried out.
“I’ve spent three days waiting for them to come by and a friend has had to ask for four days of vacation time to be there when they come by to look for you,” he said.
“This hurts people who have to work and the country’s economy, entire days without people being able to go to work to wait for them to come by your house,” he added.
But there have also been other problems stemming from the replacement of old refrigerators with new models, 27-year-old Felipe said.
“My mother-in-law turned off the fridge like she does every night and when she went to turn it on it didn’t work. And just at that moment they came looking for it,” he said, adding that the only requirement is that the appliance that people try to exchange must still be usable.
“In the end I had to give 20 cucs (Cuban convertible pesos, equal to about $36) to the technician who came to pick it up so that he would let it slide,” he said.
But as big a financial blow as the new refrigerators represent, many see the delivery trucks as their last chance to obtain a new model that would be out of their price range if they waited for their dilapidated appliance to stop working.
“My Westinghouse has behaved like a hero. There’ll never be one like him, not the Chinese one or any other. But he’s old now and if he breaks down tomorrow, what am I supposed to do?” Yolanda said.