Cubans were lining up out the door and down the block at telephone centres in Havana on Monday as cell phone service becomes available to all citizens for the first time.
The cell phone contracts cost about $120 — more than six times the average state salary — and don't include a phone or cards with credit to make and receive calls. Nevertheless, hundreds of Cubans were lining up to buy the service.
Many of those waiting to sign up Monday already have cell phones, but most Cubans were prohibited from having them in their own names. The new government of Raul Castro is making a series of changes in Cuba aimed at eliminating some of the more bothersome restrictions on daily life.
Until now, the only people legally allowed to have a cell phone plan were foreigners, Cubans working for foreign companies and top government officials. Thousands more illegally use phones registered to foreign friends or relatives.
The new program could give phones to hundreds of thousands of Cubans, especially those with relatives abroad who send them hard currency. But they will remain out of reach for most on the island because minutes are billed in convertible pesos — a hard currency worth 24 times more than the regular pesos most Cubans receive.
The government controls more than 90 per cent of the economy, and while the communist system ensures that most Cubans have free housing, education and health care and receive ration cards that cover basic food needs, the average monthly state salary is about $18.
In March the government loosened rules on the sale of a wide range of consumer technology items, including PCs, DVD players, car alarms and televisions of all sizes. Those goods previously could be purchased only by foreigners and companies.