Cubans finally will be allowed to have their own cellphones, under a decree issued today by new Cuban dictator Raoul Castro, who has been busily lifting some of the more onerous restrictions imposed by his older brother.
The move follows permission from Raul for the population, starting next week, to buy PCs, DVD players and other consumer-electronics gear and various appliances. Toasters will be available on the island starting in 2010, for instance, for the first time in more than a decade.
Cuba has had cellular service - both TDMA and GSM - but it has been restricted to companies, foreigners and top government officials. Coverage, outside of Havana and some major cities, is spotty at best and generally nonexistent. At least some Cubans, however, are said to have managed to circumvent the rules, generally by getting non-Cubans or others with the right to a phone to subscribe for them. But the bottom line has been that cellular penetration on the island nation has remained the lowest in the Western Hemisphere as a result of the long-standard ban.
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News of the change of heart appeared as a small item in this morning's issue of the Communist Party newspaper Granma, which reported that telecommunications monopoly Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A. (ETECSA) - partially funded by Italcom - said it would allow the general public to sign prepaid wireless contracts.
Somewhat amusingly, the Cuban government gave tacit consent to those who had managed to obtain cellphones despite the ban on such ownership. "In the next days, the public will be informed of the procedures for changes of title for Cuban citizens who to date have acquired cell phones indirectly, and the initiation of new contracts for interested Cubans," ETECSA said.
There was, though, one hitch to the ETECSA announcement. Prepaid subscribers will have to hand over so-called "Cuban Convertible Pesos," a form of "hard" currency worth 24 times the regular pesos in which Cuban state employees are paid. Given that the average monthly state salary is 408 pesos, worth a little less than $20 (less than the price of a nice Cohiba, if you can find one), that's not going to leave much left for the average Cuban to buy cellular service for now (however, housing, education, health care, basic food needs and much else is free). ETECSA did, though, hold out hope that, at some indeterminate time in the future, it would start accepting regular pesos for service.