Javier Galeano, Associated Press
Cuban shoppers in Havana are now able to buy goods that were previously available only to foreigners.

For the first time in decades, Cubans can stroll through and even spend a night in the Nacional and the Riviera, iconic hotels with ocean views that had previously been reserved for tourists.

But the average salary for Cuban workers is $19 a month, and a night in a hotel runs at least $150, so some Cubans see the gesture as an empty one.

"You have to save up a whole year to stay in a hotel room one night," says Oscar Espinosa, a Havana economist.

The opening of hotels was among a series of changes rolled out in recent weeks by Raul Castro, who officially became Cuba's president in February, replacing his ailing brother, Fidel.

For the first time in their lives, Cubans can legally buy DVD players, microwaves, cell phones and computers.

Some Cubans snatched up the long-forbidden electronics and took their first steps inside Havana's signature hotels, according to The Associated Press. What the changes mean for average Cubans and whether they are a sign of broader economic and political changes to come on the island is a mystery.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez dismisses the changes as meaningless, saying they don't even begin to address the low wages and other economic problems facing the island.

"I think it's sad that after 50 years of suffering and 50 years of repression ... that the Cuban people are now going to be able to buy a toaster oven," he says. "It's sad that people see this as reform."

Espinosa says the changes are superficial because the few people who can afford expensive electronics could already get them on the island through the black market. Though computers are available, access to the Internet is heavily restricted, he says.

"These changes don't mean anything," says Espinosa, who was jailed in 2003 during a sweep of dozens of critics of the regime.

Vicki Huddleston, a former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, sees hope.

She says the changes are a calculated move by Raul Castro, who she says does not have the charisma to win over Cuba like his brother did. He knows he must improve the lives of Cubans to survive, she says.

"It makes Raul look like a pretty nice guy," says Huddleston of the Brookings Institution.

Huddleston says Castro's moves could be the first steps in a larger plan to reform the economy: Cuba could legalize or expand the few private industries, such as restaurants, taxis and computer services. Such an action, along with agricultural changes announced in recent weeks and an easing of travel restrictions, could put Cuba on a path similar to that of China's shift toward a market economy, she says.

"When you look at the Chinese model, they did agricultural (reform) and more of this entrepreneurial thing," she says.

Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank, says the agricultural reforms could be the most significant of the changes Cuba has implemented.

Cuba has some private farmers who work on government land, Peters says. They give a certain quota of the food they produce to the government and are then allowed to sell for profit whatever surplus they harvest.

Government television says 51 percent of arable land is underused or fallow in Cuba, according to the AP. Officials plan to transfer some of that land to individual farmers and associations of small, private producers.

Peters says the country is working to decentralize most of the decision-making in the agricultural field, paving the way for negotiations on how much the farmers must hand over to the government and how much they pay for fuel.

Such changes could become a model for other privatized industries in Cuba, Peters says. "It could be a big deal."

Despite the changes implemented and rumors of more to come, Robert Muse isn't sold.

Muse, a Washington lawyer who advises companies on U.S. laws related to Cuba, says the underlying economic system remains unchanged, giving him little reason for optimism.

"I think there's wishful thinking that the Cuban government is neo-liberal in some secret way, that it's yearning to become a free-market economy," Muse says. "I tend to take Cubans at their word. And when they reiterate that it's a centrally planned socialist economy, I tend to believe them."