HAVANA, Cuba – Cuba will allow its citizens to stay in hotels previously reserved for foreigners, the latest in a series of decisions to lift bans on goods and services that the average Cuban can’t afford.
The prohibition on staying in foreigners-only hotels unnerved many Cubans, who complained that foreigners were being afforded rights that were denied to ordinary citizens.
Cubans will be allowed to stay in the hotels beginning at midnight Monday, said employees at several Havana hotels. Word of the change came from Tourism Ministry officials, the employees said.
For most Cubans, the measure is largely symbolic, as hotel rates are unaffordable. Tourist hotels in Cuba can cost anywhere from $60 to more than $200 a night — well out of reach for most Cubans, who earn fewer than $20 a month on average.
The hotel announcement comes after the government lifted a ban last week on Cubans owning cell phones. That privilege, too, will be too costly for most Cubans.
The Cuban government did not say how much cell phones will cost, but it currently costs more than $120 to activate a line.
“It’s light years from what I can buy,” one Cuban said of the cell phone cost.
The relaxed rules represent the first nuts-and-bolts changes since February when Raúl Castro succeeded his brother Fidel as president.
When he took the helm, Raúl Castro said reforms would be on the way.
“I have referred to an excess of prohibitions and regulations, and in the next few weeks we’ll start lifting the most simple of them,” he said.
The Cuban government also recently approved the sale of computers, microwaves and DVD players to Cubans — items previously sold only to foreigners and companies.
Before the ban on staying in hotels was lifted, Cuban critics called the restrictions “tourist apartheid.”
In a video that made the rounds on the Internet in February, a student asked the president of Cuba’s National Assembly why Cubans could not travel freely to such resorts.
Though such public displays of discontent are rare, the video echoed sentiments voiced in private for years, particularly since the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991. Cuba lost billions of dollars in subsidies when its ally fell.
Cuba depends on tourism as its major source of revenue. On average, more than 2 million tourists visit Cuba annually.
The country’s Tourism Ministry recently announced that at least 10 hotels will be built in the capital, Havana, between 2008 and 2010.
The United States has long sought to isolate Cuba’s communist government and restricts American travel to the island nation.