Ray Sanchez | Direct from Havana
7:18 AM EDT, March 31, 2008
In a small but symbolically important move, Raul Castro's government
early Monday quietly lifted its controversial ban keeping Cubans from
staying at tourist hotels.
"We've had no Cuban guests so far but the hotel is overbooked right
now," said Sandra, a young woman working the front desk at the Hotel
Nacional shortly after midnight. She said a tourism ministry official
informed hotel management of the change late Sunday.
The decision was the latest in a spate of modest moves that indicate
that Castro, 76, is setting out to reshape daily life on the communist
island. Workers at all-night rental car offices in the capital said the
ban on Cubans renting autos also ended at midnight.
Granma, the Community Party daily newspaper, made no mention of the
change on its website early Monday, but several hotel and rental-car
employees said they were informed of the move late Sunday.
Since officially succeeding his ailing brother Fidel on Feb. 24, the
younger Castro has legalized products and services that Cubans had been
forced to acquire on the black market. Besides lifting restrictions on
cell phone ownership last week, Castro also ended a ban on the purchase
of certain consumer electronics such as computers and DVD players.
The changes may be setting the stage for a revaluation of the Cuban peso
and possible elimination of the dual-currency system that has
impoverished millions of Cubans. State salaries are paid in the nearly
worthless peso, while many products and services are purchased in
convertible pesos. Twenty-four Cuban pesos equal one convertible peso,
known as a CUC.
Those who live solely on government salaries, which average about $20 a
month, struggle to survive, even with free health care and education and
subsidized rations of food.
At the Nacional, for instance, a double room was priced at $184 a night,
a single room $130 per night. A suite was $232.
"I'm very happy," said Sandra, of the policy change. She asked her last
name not be used because she was unauthorized to speak with the media.
"We're all very happy at the hotel. I stayed here before the
restrictions went into place in the early 1990s. We're celebrating."
At the Tryp Peninsula in the Varadero beach resort early Monday, a front
desk employee named Alina, who also asked her name because she was not
authorized to speak with the media, confirmed the change but said she
didn't expect many Cuban guests. A double room cost $351 a night, a
"I hope this helps tourism," she said. "We don't know if many Cubans
will stay here... The hotel is a little pricey for me. This is a new
five-star, all-inclusive hotel but there are cheaper hotels in Cuba."
At the Mercure Coralia Cuatro Palmas hotel in Varadero, a worker , who
declined to give his name for fear of reprisal, welcomed the change.
"Cubans should have the same rights as everyone else," he said.
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