Cubans up early to buy cellphones

Yusnel was up early on Monday, and he had a clear goal.

"I wanted to be the first Cuban to buy a cellphone," he explained. ( dpa )

However, when he made it to one of the few stores in Havana allowed to sell cellphones to Cubans long before it was scheduled to open, he found a queue of over 30 people waiting for the same reason.

That happened at other stores too, in the latest move to lift "an excess in prohibitions and regulations" by new Cuban President Raul Castro.

Raul, who took over from his brother and long-time and ailing leader Fidel Castro earlier this year, had already undertaken steps to allow Cubans to check into luxury hotels on the communist island and buy computers, DVD players and other home appliances - provided that they can afford the hefty prices.

Another man, Hector, also wanted to be first in line on the first day the cell-phone prohibition was lifted.

But why risk a long wait if he could have gone any other day?

"The first day is more exciting," the young man said as he fiddled with his phone.

Marta, a woman in her forties, got up early for a more practical reason.

"Just in case, in case they regret the move and stop it after a while," she smiled.

Indeed, many Cubans cannot quite believe the changes that the island has gone through in the past months.

"It is obviously an opening, little by little," Yusnel admitted.

"This is such a beautiful country, but it has barriers to the most insignificant things! Communication is something that is within everybody's reach," complained this young man who works in the hotel business.

While comments on the changes were rife among those waiting their turn at a store in the Havana neighbourhood of Miramar, out came one of the first Cubans to officially own a cellphone.

Smiling, he said he was "happy," although he admitted that it was not quite that much of a novelty.

"This is the first cellphone I have under my name, but I have always had one," he said.

Cellphones in Cuba were until Monday restricted to high officials, foreigners or Cubans working for foreign firms. However, many Cubans got the mobile phones "indirectly," through a foreigner who listed them on the contract as subsidiary users.

Yusnel said he too "considered" this option, although he did not finally dare act on the idea for fear of losing money.

"I had doubts as to doing things through a foreigner, lest they cut off the service at a given point. It would have been losing money that it is not easy to get," he said.

Like many other Cubans, Yusnel thinks having a cellphone is necessary.

"Here in Cuba, public phones are generally broken or have problems, it is not easy to get through," he explained.

However, he admitted that putting together the money to buy a mobile phone required an "effort."

With the cost of a line at about 120 dollars, plus more than 10 dollars for a prepaid phone card, having a cellphone is beyond the reach of most Cubans, whose average monthly salary is below 20 dollars.

In this context, Yusnel puts his hope on further "improvements" in his life.

"I hope for an improvement in my salary, to be able to solve my housing problem. For me, that is more vital than the cellphone," he said.

"I do not expect to buy a scooter or a DVD player. That does not solve anything for me. What would solve things would be for my salary to be able to fix these problems, because I have now bought this phoneline, but I cannot then go out and buy a DVD. That would be something impossible for me," he said.

Raul Castro has openly addressed the salary question, but the new Cuban president - following the decades-long rule of his brother Fidel Castro - requested more "time" to implement deeper economic reforms.

For now, there have only been changes in farming, with an increase in the prices that the state pays producers, the redistribution of idle land and the consideration of potential foreign investment in Cuban agriculture.

Yusnel knows he can only "wait."

"Let us see (what happens with) more important things. I expect a lot more, I expect them to keep opening up things that are normal for the world and are abnormal here," he stressed.

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