HAVANA (Reuters) - Hundreds of Cubans lined up at state-owned telephone offices on Monday to buy cellular phone services previously available only to government officials and foreigners.
President Raul Castro, who took power in February, has moved quickly to ease restrictions in the communist country and the new reform allows Cubans to buy cellular phones for the first time or register those they had held illegally.
“It is an advance, like other things that are happening in Cuba now,” said Alejandro, smiling with his new contract in hand. The self-employed Cuban has used a cellular telephone illegally for years in the name of a foreigner.
“Before we had to get the line through a foreigner, who was the only person authorized to do so,” said Mayerlin, a mother of two, waiting in line for her telephone.
Thousands of Cubans were expected to take advantage of the opportunity to buy the service in the coming days, even though it costs the equivalent of nine months’ pay for the average wage-earner.
“It is a very good measure, but what we earn does not correspond with the price,” said 33-year-old Gustavo, who nevertheless waited with around 100 others at an office in Havana’s colonial district to buy the service.
Cuba has the lowest rate of cellular telephone use in Latin America. Customers will pay for their calls with prepaid cards bought in hard currency, and will be able to receive and make international calls.
Raul Castro has moved quickly to lift what he has called “excessive prohibitions” in Cuba since succeeding his ailing older brother Fidel Castro as president in February.
Cubans are now allowed to buy DVD players, computers and other electronic goods, and stay at tourist hotels previously reserved only for foreigners.
But increased access to consumer goods and services comes at a price many Cubans can’t afford.
The average state wage is around 400 Cubans pesos, or $18, per month. Most consumer goods are priced in convertible pesos, or CUCs, a hard currency worth 24 times more than the peso.
About 60 percent of Cubans have access to 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 cellular telephone line costs 110 CUCs and the cheapest cellular phone is priced at 60 CUCs, equivalent to about $65.
“It is expensive for us. I can’t pay that in one month or in 10 months,” said Mayerlin. She said only Cubans who rent rooms to foreigners, work for a foreign company or receive money from abroad could afford the prices.
Cuban telecommunications monopoly ETECSA, a joint venture in which Telecom Italia has a 27 percent stake, last month announced it would begin selling the service to Cubans. It said the income would be used to expand land lines, where Cuba has the sixth lowest density in Latin America.
Many Cubans have for long wanted access to cellular phones and hoped it would be among the first steps taken by Raul Castro, who succeed his brother as Cuba’s first new leader in almost half a century on February 24.
“We used to go crazy looking for a foreigner to get us a line,” said Rosario Iglesias, a Havana housewife. “It is a very good decision that benefits all Cubans and raises our self esteem.”
Additional reporting by Rosa Tana Valdez and Nelson Acosta; Editing by Kieran Murray
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