Mobile phone ban lifted in Cuba

By Brigid Glanville

Hundreds of people have lined up outside phone shops in Cuba’s capital Havana for their first chance to legally own a mobile.

It is one of the bans being lifted under the new government of Raul Castro, who replaced his older brother Fidel in February.

Like many desirable commodities in Cuba, mobile phones have long been available on the black market but until now they have been illegal.

But with the arrival of Fidel Castro’s younger brother as President, the times are changing.

From today, a Cuban may own their mobile phone and like millions around the world pay for calls with prepaid cards.

It has been a popular decision with hundreds of Cubans queuing to buy a phone.

“I like this measure that the government has taken and I hope that it is a good way to keep in touch, both internally and internationally,” one man said.

“Before you had to find a foreigner and the foreigner would take out the phone lines. Now any Cuban can do it. We have the same rights as any other person in the world and can get a telephone line,” another man said.

New freedoms

The former president of the communist country, Fidel Castro, imposed a number of other restrictions that have also been lifted.

Cubans are now allowed to buy DVD players, computers and other electronic goods. They can also stay at hotels previously reserved for tourists.

Manuel Rodriguez is a builder in the capital Havana.

“If you are driving around in a car and the car breaks down and there is no one with you, it is somewhat difficult tracking down a telephone but if you have a [mobile] phone, you can call any of your friends that has a car and they can help you out,” he said.

Chris McGillion has written a number of books on Cuba and is a senior research fellow with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington DC.

He says he is not surprised the ban on mobile phones has been lifted.

“I think it is a sign that the black market was awash with those things for years and there is no way that they can be effectively policed,” he said.

“So the Cuban authorities are, on the one hand, basically just bowing to the inevitable but making a virtue out of it and calling it a degree of liberalisation.”

‘Measured step’

Mr McGillion also says he does not expect this to be the first of many changes that the new President makes.

“It is a very measured step,” he said.

“I don’t think under Raul we are going to see massive liberalisation or a massive change in direction. Raul’s main priorities over the next couple of years or so will be basically concerned with security.

“He has been something of an economic reformer. Not a major one, but he has kind of sailed with the economic reformers in the past.

“So I think there will be kind of liberalisation at the margins but again, the impact of these things can be exaggerated.

“The reality of what is available in Cuba and particularly around Havana in terms of access to outside news broadcasts and so forth, often belies what is officially available.”

While hundreds have gone out and bought phones, the majority of Cubans cannot afford one.

It is estimated the average wage for Cubans is 400 Cuban pesos or $US18 a month.

The mobile phone service is estimated to cost about nine months’ of the average pay.