Cuban government lifts cellphone restrictions
The easing of rules on cellphones and other goods could signal a new set of steps toward economic changes on the island under Raúl Castro.
Posted on Sat, Mar. 29, 2008
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BY FRANCES ROBLES
The cellphone on Friday joined the growing list of once-banned items in Cuba, where Raúl Castro's month-old government has begun lifting decades-old prohibitions on household goods like microwave ovens and computers.
And while most of that merchandise was already available on the black market -- and the Cuban government has not taken action toward political reform -- the moves could signal the first steps toward economic changes on the island.
They are among the first major initiatives undertaken by President Raúl Castro, who officially took over the nation's helm last month after serving nearly 19 months on a temporary basis.
He assumed the post on Feb. 24 amid rising expectations and pressure from Cuba's 11.2 million people, who have expressed weariness over regulations that restrict their freedom to make purchases and earn money.
Some Cuba observers say the measures are considered important baby steps, but far from the massive economic overhaul needed to make a failing economy thrive.
The Cuban communist party newspaper Granma reported Friday that new rules will be announced in the coming days detailing how Cubans can sign up for their own cellphones, which have been restricted to high-level officials and foreigners.
A sizable number of Cubans already have mobile phones provided by a government-run company, but had to get a foreigner to sign the contract for them.
The announcement that Cubans could soon sign cell prepay contracts themselves came on the heels of the recent decision to allow the purchase of household appliances and computers, which were long subject to stringent government controls yet widely available illegally in the black market.
The British news agency Reuters recently reported that the Cuban government also plans an overhaul to its agriculture sector, not only by allowing farmers to buy their own supplies, but decentralizing a bureaucratic agency that curbed production.
The government also will eliminate the rule that forced Cubans to buy medicine only at a single designated pharmacy, the news agency reported.
''As a symbol, yes, this is important,'' said dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe. ``You have to understand this is a reversal of policies that have been in place for years and years and years.
''Who would have thought that a Cuban was going to be able to get his own cellphone? Nobody imagined that,'' he said. ``I'm sure some Cubans don't even know what a cellphone is.''
He may be right. United Nations indicators show Cuba has Internet and cellphone use levels on a par with African countries.
While many African nations may be circumscribed by economics and geography, in Cuba, Internet access is deliberately limited to sites sanctioned by the government and closely monitored. Users must have government-issued passwords to get online and the few cyber cafes open to the public are staffed with workers who keep a close eye on users.
The new telephone rules are not likely to cause a rush at island stores. A typical Cuban earns about $20 a month, making a mobile phone out of reach. Most of the items no longer banned are likely to be sold in the convertible peso, a dollar-based currency that, at 24 to 1, is too expensive for most Cubans.
But some Cubans receive remittances from relatives in the United States, earn dollars at hotels or have legal or illegal businesses that bring in cash.
''Basically, the issue is whether Raúl is willing to be more open and allow information to flow more freely by allowing cellphones,'' said Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies. ``I think it's a fool's trick. It's another way for the government to monitor what people are talking about.''
Microwave ovens, Gomez said, are hardly what Cubans need when the housing infrastructure is in shambles and power outages are common.
''Where are you going to connect the microwave if there is no electricity?'' he said. ``Please!''
Recent political refugee Alejandro García Sardiña agreed.
''This is not the opening of a window or a door to change,'' García said. ``Cubans need freedom of association, freedom of expression, and a free economy, not a cellphone.''
He added that it would not make much of a difference in communications for Cuban exiles either, because most recent arrivals are already in regular contact with their families. Pricey long distance charges make more frequent phone calls unlikely, even with the cellphones, García said.
But for Espinosa, who like most Cubans does not have a cellphone, it is a step in the right direction that should be judged in the context of Cuba, a nation that still restricts access to information.
''Now that they have allowed us to buy computers,'' he said, ``let's see if they let us have Internet.''