Cuba Repeals Ban on Its Citizens Staying in Hotels on Island

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 1, 2008; Page A10

EL PASO, March 31 -- The government of President Raúl Castro has lifted a ban on Cubans staying in hotels on the island, tourism industry employees said Monday, in an apparent end to a policy that exiled bloggers and other critics had dubbed "tourism apartheid."

The reform was not announced in state-run media, but hotel employees speaking on condition of anonymity said they were preparing to open their doors to Cuban citizens Tuesday. Luxury hotels and bars in Cuba had previously been the province of well-heeled foreign tourists. Cubans will also be allowed to rent cars under new rules, sources said.

Castro has enacted multiple reforms since succeeding his ailing older brother, Fidel, on Feb. 24. He has ended a ban on private ownership of cellphones, done away with rules that required farmers to buy materials from state-run stores, voided a rule that forced residents to pick up prescriptions at inconveniently located pharmacies and lifted a ban on purchases of electronics.

The electronics reform, which also goes into effect Tuesday, will let Cubans buy computers, microwave ovens and car alarms, among other items. Several stores were stocking shelves Monday. At La Copa in Miramar, a fancy Havana suburb where many foreign embassies are located, computers were prepared for purchase. Electric bicycles were displayed at Galer¿as Paseo, a store on the Malecon, the avenue that runs along Havana's famed seawall.

The reforms have been met with mixed feelings on the island. Although glad to see restrictions lifted, many Cubans have lamented that meager state salaries prevent them from taking advantage of new freedoms. The items must be purchased with Cuban convertible pesos, a stronger currency than the national pesos paid to state workers. Cubans who earn tips in the tourism industry or receive remittances from abroad have access to convertible pesos.

"It's good that they're relaxing these restrictions, but hotels?" Frank José, an electronics store worker, said Monday. "Who is going to pay for that? They can authorize it, but who is going to go?"

The hotel ban was put in place largely to prevent Cubans from mingling with foreign tourists on an island where information is tightly controlled. Some residents speculated that Cuban prostitutes might be among the beneficiaries of the policy change, as it will now be easier for them to meet the foreign tourists drawn to the island for its renowned, though illegal, and relatively inexpensive sex industry.

Havana is one of Latin America's most expensive cities for tourists, and its hotels -- most of which are run by the Cuban military in partnership with foreign firms -- are especially pricey. Rooms at the boutique Hotel Saratoga, across from Cuba's ceremonial capitol, go for an average of $374 a night, according to a listing on the Trip Advisor Web site Monday. A room at the Super Club Breezes Jibacoa was going for $369 a night, and the Melia Cohiba hotel was charging $213 a night.

Cuban state workers make an average of $19 a month. On that salary, it would take nearly two years to earn enough for one night at the Saratoga. Similarly, car rentals in Cuba -- also managed by the military -- are among the most expensive in Latin America, with vehicles typically going for as much as $100 a day. Most residents are banned from buying private vehicles, though thousands in Havana own 1950s American cars.

Still, the cascade of reforms is giving some hope for more change.

"We all have the right to enjoy what we ourselves have built," said Boris, a waiter who declined to give his last name. "It's our national heritage."

A Washington Post special correspondent in Havana contributed to this report.

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