PCs, cellphones, now hotels: Cuba relaxes rules

April 2nd, 2008 - 10:01 am ICT by admin  

By Silvia Ayuso
Havana, April 2 (DPA) Entering a luxury hotel, checking in and making the most of all the facilities and services it offers - what seems like a normal option in many countries has caused a stir in Cuba. Since midnight Monday, following prohibition lasting over a decade, Cubans may now lodge in top-notch hotels with no restrictions other than their cost.

They can also rent a car or join tours that were until now only for foreign tourists.

Access to such activities was one of the hoped-for reforms after Raul Castro indicated, in his inaugural speech as Cuban president Feb 24, that he would move to end an “excess in prohibitions and rules” within the “coming weeks”.

The hotel access is the latest in a series of relaxation of rules that give Cubans more access to symbols of a modern lifestyle that had long been forbidden.

The retail sale of computers and electronic home appliances is to be allowed starting Tuesday, and new cellphone regulations are expected.

But none of the measures has been announced officially, and Cuban media did not report on the hotel access Monday.

Hotel managers themselves were surprised.

“We all heard about it last night,” Roxana Prieto, commercial director of the Hotel Riviera, told DPA. “I did not expect it, it was a surprise.”

“Plain and simply, all hotel managers were summoned and they were told that from midnight last night Cubans had the possibility to use all services available to foreigners, lodge in the hotels, rent a car, go on tours,” Prieto explained.

“It has been internal, remote-controlled news, many Cubans still do not know about it,” confirmed a Hotel Nacional employee who did not want to reveal his name. “Among personnel (the news) has circulated by word of mouth.”

However, if there is one thing that works fast in the Caribbean communist country, it is word of mouth, or Radio Bemba, as Cubans call it. In fact, Hotel Riviera received its first couple of Cuban guests on the very night the restriction was lifted, Prieto confirmed.

“We already have two Cuban guests staying since last night. They came and lodged,” she said.

Prieto noted that the only conditions are those facing anyone who wants to check into a hotel - showing a document (an ID card, in the case of Cubans) and paying the bill, in cash or with a credit card.

The restriction was never based on a specific law, since the Cuban constitution grants all citizens access to the same resorts. It was rather an answer to the severe economic crisis of the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

There was also talk of the move in car rental agencies Monday.

“For us it is a huge surprise,” said an employee of Cubanacar who chose to remain anonymous.

Until now, Cubans could not directly rent a car in one of the state-owned agencies, the only ones in the country, although the employee admitted that there were “tricks” around this.

“Usually a foreigner would rent and the Cuban would be the second driver,” he explained. “Now, the Cuban can come and be the designated driver for the car.”

He celebrated this and other measures, including the free retail sale of computers and cellphones, but stressed that “in other countries it is an implicit right.”

“Computers, electronic bicycles and microwaves … well, the usual thing, what we are going to have is what anyone can have,” he said in an ironic comment.

“Cubans are very happy. Even if most of them cannot afford this, at least it is no longer forbidden,” he said.

With an average monthly wage of $17, international hotel prices - averaging some $150 per night for a double room - are very far from the reach of most Cubans who do not get remittances from abroad or obtain foreign currency some other way. The rental of a car is around $80 a day, a price that is also beyond most pockets.

However, observers agree that these measures are “psychological” and that Cubans will appreciate the chance to use these services if they ever can afford it.

Many locals had criticized the restriction on hotels, which some defined as Cuban “apartheid.”

Ramon, a private chauffeur who earns around $50 a month, does not know when he will be able to spend a night at one of those luxury resorts he sees everyday from his car.

Still, he said the news is “wonderful” and celebrated the fact that Cubans “can now enjoy the facilities” in their own country.

“Now I see a little more freedom,” he said hopefully.

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