By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 29, 2008
MEXICO CITY, March 28 -- Cuban President Ra¿l Castro lifted much-loathed restrictions on personal cellphone ownership Friday, a move that could increase the flow of political ideas and news to the isolated and information-starved island nation.
The decision, announced in an understated manner on Page 2 of the Communist Party daily Granma, adds to an array of developments that indicate that Castro, 76, is beginning to reshape day-to-day life in the Western Hemisphere's last communist outpost after decades of working in the shadow of his older brother, Fidel.
Since succeeding his ailing brother Feb. 24, Ra¿l Castro has set about legalizing products and services that Cubans have been forced to acquire through stealth and guile on the black market. Besides lifting the cellphone restrictions, Castro has quietly ended a ban on personal purchases of some electronic items, including computers, video players, all sizes of televisions, pressure cookers, electric rice cookers, electric bicycles and car alarms.
The ban will be lifted Tuesday, according to a commerce ministry resolution that has not been mentioned in the state-run media. There are unconfirmed reports that Castro also has erased efficiency-sapping rules that forced farmers to buy materials at state-run stores and required medical patients to pick up prescriptions at inconveniently located pharmacies.
Cubans formed long lines Friday outside cellphone stores. Until now, only top government officials and foreigners had been permitted to legally own the devices. But thousands of Cubans have long skirted the rule by persuading foreigners or corrupt government officials to sign cellphone contracts on their behalf. It was tolerated by the Cuban government and was common for Cubans to chat openly on phones acquired on the black market. Even the omnipresent state police seemed to turn a blind eye.
"This could have a massive impact," Manuel Cuesta, a Cuban dissident, said in a telephone interview from Havana. "It opens the possibility for more contact with foreigners, for more text messaging, for a culture of mass communication. You can almost publish a newspaper with messages sent over cellphones."
But Cuesta cautioned against interpreting the decision too broadly. The rule change, he said, does nothing to address limits on free speech and foreign travel, rigid prohibitions on the ownership and sale of private property, or bans on most forms of private enterprise.
"This is not going to affect in any way the total control that the government has," Cuesta said. "This is a small step toward liberalization."
Cubans have been tantalized with prospects for change in recent days. Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe P¿rez Roque said last week that the government was considering ending restrictions on foreign travel. The government denies most Cubans permission to leave the island and discourages travel by imposing high exit-visa fees. Castro's daughter Mariela Castro Esp¿n told the Associated Press in Rome this week that Cuba should abolish travel restrictions, end a ban on Cuban citizens staying at the island's best tourist hotels and guarantee computer access.
"The prohibitions have been necessary, but recently the conditions have begun to exist to eliminate them," Castro Esp¿n said.
But strict government control of information still reigns. Cuba's best-known blogger, Yoani S¿nchez, alleged this week that the government blocked access to her blog, which is written in Havana and posted to a Web site registered outside Cuba. Most Cubans do not have access to the Internet in their homes or offices, but they can pay to go online at a few state-run centers, where many popular sites such as Yahoo and Google are blocked.
Cuban officials blame many of the island's restrictions on the U.S. trade embargo, saying their ability to provide a myriad of services is hampered by the limited access to undersea Internet lines, phone equipment and other key materials. U.S. laws discourage companies doing business in Cuba from accessing the U.S. market.
Friday's decision is likely to increase the number of Cubans who have cellphones, allowing islanders who were afraid to break the ownership rule to have access to the service, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a dissident economist, said in a telephone interview from Havana. "This ends the fiction of the ban," he said. "There's a bit of rationality in this decision."
It costs the equivalent of $119 to start service and $64 for the least expensive phone, a hefty price for state workers who earn the equivalent of as little as $13 a month.
"If it's not affordable, it's only going to be available to people who have a lot of money," said Eduardo, a construction worker who declined to give his last name, in line outside a cellphone store.
Other Cubans seemed to be reveling in a new sense of freedom and independence. "Now we're not going to have to be dependent on foreigners," a woman, who gave her name only as Gisela, said outside a cellphone store. "This is not a luxury. If my mother falls ill, now she'll be able to call me."
Cuba has had cellphone service since 1991. The service is provided by a state-owned company, ETESCA, which is partly owned by the Italian telephone conglomerate, Telecom Italia.
A Washington Post special correspondent in Havana contributed to this report.