(Recasts, adds hotel manager quote)
By Marc Frank
HAVANA, March 31 President Raul Castro's
government lifted an unpopular ban on Cubans staying at resort
hotels reserved exclusively for foreigners on Monday in a new
step to ease restrictions in the communist state.
Since Raul Castro succeeded his ailing brother Fidel Castro
last month, Cuba has ended restrictions on Cubans buying
computers, DVD players and cellular telephones.
"Cubans can now stay at our hotels. Out doors are open to
local tourism," said the Cuban manager of a small state-run
hotel in colonial Old Havana.
Managers at five-star hotels run by foreign hotel chains,
such as Sol Melia SOL.MC and Accor (ACCP.PA), Europe's
largest hotelier, confirmed Cubans will be able to stay at any
hotel if they can afford the hard currency prices.
Cubans can also rent cars and use facilities that were
previously off-limits to them, including the best beaches
enjoyed by foreign tourists in Varadero, Cuba's prime resort,
industry sources said.
The ban on staying in hotels was a major source of
frustration for Cubans since their country opened up to tourism
in the early 1990s and gave rise to criticism of Cuba for
having an "economic apartheid" system.
Raul Castro, 76, took over from his ailing brother Fidel
Castro as Cuba's first new leader in almost half a century on
Feb. 24, promising to do away with "excessive restrictions" in
Cuban society and its state-run economy.
On Friday, the government announced an end to a ban on
Cubans buying and using cellular telephones.
As of Tuesday, Cuban shops will be allowed to sell
computers, DVD players and other appliances in a move to
improve the standard of living in Cuba by opening access to
Raul Castro has also begun restructuring agriculture to
reduce bureaucratic bottlenecks and boost food production.
Until now, only newlywed Cubans on their honeymoon and
workers selected for high productivity and revolutionary zeal
were allowed to stay at hotels as a reward.
Cubans will have to pay the going rate in hard currency to
stay at luxury hotels, which few can afford in a country where
the average wage is only $17 a month.
"It took a long time, but its done now. I'm going to start
saving right away to go to Varadero next summer," said Martin
Diaz, 34, a Havana worker.
Cubans who recalled the 1980s when they were allowed to
stay at hotels and had the money to do so welcomed the end of
the ban, but wondered if they could afford a hotel today.
The restrictions were introduced after the 1991 collapse of
the Soviet Union forced Cuba to open up to foreign tourism and
investment and legalize hard currency in the midst of a severe
"I don't think I can afford to go to Varadero, but I'm glad
to know I have the option to do so whenever I want," said
Alfredo Hernandez, a self-employed 43-year-old resident of the
eastern city of Santiago.
Cuba's tourism industry is a major source of foreign
exchange, more than $2 billion a year, but the number of
visitors has declined in the last two years. Foreign managers
said allowing Cubans to stay at tourist hotels will help raise
occupancy during the low summer season.
A major public complaint that Raul Castro's government will
need to deal with is that wages paid in Cuban pesos are too
low, while consumer goods have to be paid for in convertible
pesos, or CUCs, worth 24 times more than pesos.
About 60 percent of Cubans have access to some hard
currency from cash remittances sent by relatives living abroad,
mainly in the United States, or through factory and farm
bonuses and tips from foreign tourists.
A class of "new rich" Cubans that has developed over the
last 15 years will be the first to benefit from access to
seaside hotels, computers and cellular telephone lines that
cost $120, or six times the average monthly wage.
"The government is recognizing that around 15 percent of
the population has 90 percent of the pesos in the banks," said
a Cuban economist who asked not to be named.
"It is tempting the new rich --from farmers to black market
dealers-- to exchange their pesos for CUCs to buy goods, and
thus reduce the pesos in circulation and strengthen the
currency," he said.
(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; editing by Philip