Cuban Government Eases Up on Cellular Phone Ownership

APA woman making a call as others line up to buy cell phone service in Havana.
HAVANA -- Lines stretched for blocks outside phone centers this week as the government allowed ordinary Cubans to sign up for cellular phone service for the first time.

The contracts cost about $120 to activate -- half a year's wages on the average state salary. And that does not include a phone or credit to make and receive calls.

But most Cubans have at least some access to dollars or euros thanks to jobs in tourism, with foreign firms or money sent by relatives abroad. Lines formed before the stores opened, and waits grew to more than an hour.

"Everyone wants to be first to sign up," said Usan Astorga, a 19-year-old medical student who stood for about 20 minutes before her line moved at all.

Getting through the day without a cell phone is unthinkable now in most developed countries, but Cuba's government limited access to mobile phones and other so-called luxuries in an attempt to preserve the relative economic equality that is a hallmark of life on the communist-run island.

Cuban President Raul Castro has done away with several other small but infuriating restrictions, and his popularity has surged as a result -- defusing questions about his relative lack of charisma after his ailing older brother Fidel formally stepped down in February.

An article Friday in the Communist newspaper Granma said it was Fidel Castro's idea all along to lift bans on mobile phones and that he was behind recent government orders easing restrictions that had prevented most Cubans from staying in hotels, enjoying beaches reserved for tourists and buying consumer goods.

"They are part of a process initiated and called for by Fidel," the paper said.