- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2008

From combined dispatches

HAVANA — President Raul Castro’s government said yesterday it is allowing cell phones for ordinary Cubans, a luxury previously reserved for those who worked for foreign firms or held key posts with the communist-run state.

It was the first official announcement of the lifting of a major restriction under the 76-year-old Mr. Castro, and marked the kind of small freedom many on the island have been hoping he would embrace since succeeding his older brother, Fidel, as president last month.

Some Cubans previously ineligible for cell phones had already received them by having foreigners sign contracts in their names, but mobile phones are not nearly as common in Cuba as elsewhere in Latin America or the world.

Telecommunications monopoly Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A. (ETECSA), a joint venture with Telecom Italia, said it would allow the general public to sign prepaid contracts in Cuban Convertible Pesos, which are geared toward tourists and foreigners and worth 24 times the regular pesos Cuban state employees are paid in.

The decree was published in a small black box on page 2 of the Communist Party newspaper Granma.

The government controls well over 90 percent of the economy and while the communist system ensures most Cubans have free housing, education and health care and receive ration cards that cover basic food needs, the average monthly state salary is just 408 Cuban pesos, a little less than $20.

A program in Convertible Pesos likely will ensure that cell phone service will be too expensive for many Cubans, but ETECSA’s statement said doing so will allow it to improve telecommunication systems using cable technology and eventually expand the services it offers in regular pesos.

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

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.

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