Cuba ends restriction on cellular phones

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba said on Friday it will allow all Cubans to buy and use mobile telephones for the first time in the latest step by new President Raul Castro to improve access to consumer goods.

A man uses a mobile phone in Havana March 28, 2008. Cuba announced on Friday that it will allow Cubans the unrestricted use of mobile telephones for the first time in the latest step by new President Raul Castro to improve access to consumer goods. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa

Cuba has the lowest rate of cellular telephone use in Latin America and the service has been restricted until now to foreigners or government officials and employees.

Cuban telecommunications monopoly ETECSA, a joint venture with Telecom Italia, said it would begin selling the service to the general public within days in hard currency.

“ETECSA is able to offer mobile phone service to the public,” it said in a statement published in the Communist Party newspaper Granma.

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 ailing brother Fidel Castro as Cuba’s first new leader in almost half a century on February 24.

“This shows there is a change in mentality at the top and recognition that Cuba has to move into the 21st century,” a young computer technician said, asking not to be named.

Raul Castro has begun lifting some of the many restrictions on the daily life of Cubans as he tries to meet popular demands for better living standards in the socialist state.

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Taking office last month, he promised to start lifting “excessive regulations and prohibitions” within weeks.

Some Cubans already have mobile phones registered in the name of foreigners or their work places. They will now be able to put the contracts in their own names, ETECSA said.

Cubans will be able to buy computers and DVD players next month for the first time, if they have the hard currency to pay for them. Just two years ago, banned DVD players were being confiscated by airport customs officials on arrival in Cuba.

Raul Castro, 76, has also launched a restructuring of agriculture to reduce bureaucratic bottlenecks and boost food production.

A major public complaint that his government will have 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.

Cubans will pay for their mobile telephones with prepaid cards bought in CUCs that will allow them to receive and make international calls.

ETECSA, in which Telecom Italia has a 27 percent stake, said the hard currency income would be invested in the expansion of land lines, where Cuba has the sixth lowest density in Latin American.

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.

In the streets of Havana, the freeing of cellular phones services came as welcome news to all.

“It was an obvious measure. There will have to be more like it to get rid of the thousand and one obstacles that make life bitter in Cuba,” said university student Jofre Valdes, 23.

“This was an anachronism. They have to end all unnecessary restrictions,” said state employee Humberto Vega.

Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Kieran Murray