Monday, March 31, 2008

Thanks Raul: Cubans can stay in hotels

Thanks Raul: Cubans can stay in hotels
Posted on Mon, Mar. 31, 2008
Associated Press Writer

Raul Castro's government opened luxury hotels and resorts to all Cubans
Monday, ending a ban despised across the island as "tourist apartheid"
and taking another step toward the creation of a consumer economy in the
socialist state.

Cuba has made a series of crowd-pleasing announcements in the past few
days. Cubans with enough cash will be able to buy computers, DVD players
and plasma televisions starting Tuesday, and soon they'll even be able
to have their own cell phones - consumer goods only companies and
foreigners were previously permitted to buy.

But the latest surprise, allowing ordinary citizens into luxury hotels
and resort beaches long reserved for rich foreigners, is a particularly
symbolic victory for Cuba's everyman.

"I was born here and live here. I believe, as a Cuban, I have the right
to it all," said Elizabeth Quintana, a Havana resident. "It's good.
Really good."

While there was no official word from the government, hotel employees
said Ministry of Tourism officials told them that as of Monday, Cubans
can stay in hotels and resorts across the island, and pay to use gyms,
hair salons and other previously off-limit facilities. Cubans can even
rent cars for the first time.

For now, few Cubans can afford a night at a hotel on a government
salary, but that could change if Castro succeeds in increasing his
citizens' spending power.

Meanwhile, the government is creating the kinds of consumer incentives
any economy needs to thrive. For many years, Cubans haven't been able to
buy certain electronic goods, lounge by the rooftop pool at the Hotel
Capri or enjoy a drink at sunset on the grounds of the historic Hotel
Nacional, no matter how much money they earned

As with other guests, the hotels will charge Cubans in convertible
pesos, or CUCs, worth 24 times the regular pesos most Cubans earn. The
four-star Ambos Mundos, a favorite of Ernest Hemingway in Old Havana,
charges $173 a night in high season - more than eight times the average
monthly state salary of about $20.

Still, at least 60 percent of Cubans have some access to convertible
pesos and foreign currency, either through jobs in tourism or foreign
firms, or cash sent by U.S. relatives. And these initiatives give them
more reason to spend that cash, enabling the government to increase its
reserves, said Arch Ritter, an expert on the Cuban economy at Carleton
University in Ottawa, Canada.

"I think this will get rid of many of the CUCs floating around on the
street," said Magaly, a 69-year-old retiree who, like many Cubans
interviewed, declined to have her full name appear in the foreign press,
citing unspecified reprisals.

But the new government also risks increasing class tensions by suddenly
making income discrepancies more evident in a society founded on the
ideal of promoting social and economic equality.

"Authorization to stay in hotels is fine because it was unfair
discrimination of Cubans with respect to foreigners," said Tatiana, a
doctor in the capital's Vedado district. "But, I have to ask, 'What
Cubans can pay a night in a hotel with a normal salary?'"

Fidel Castro spent decades rallying against any reforms that could
promote a new class of rich Cubans, writing as recently as July that
Cuba's poor are frustrated that the island is awash in convertible pesos.

But since he succeeded his ailing brother as president in February, Raul
Castro has begun to do away with what he called "excessive restrictions"
on daily life.

Relaxing the hotel ban eliminates a glaring historical contradiction
within the Cuban revolution. When the Castro brothers' rebels took power
in 1959, they joyfully overran beach resorts and hotels that had been
the playgrounds of high-rolling foreigners, declaring them open to all

Hotel restrictions were eventually imposed after the collapse of the
Soviet Union, Cuba's chief economic benefactor, to maintain equality
when Cuba embraced tourism to jump-start its economy.

Hotel guards have stopped anyone who looks Cuban, limiting guests'
exposure to hustlers and black-market peddlers, and police have turned
away Cubans trying to enter the glittering, white-sand tourist resort of

On Monday, tourism officials at Varadero said Cubans would now be
allowed to walk the beach without restrictions, though none would
divulge their names, citing government rules.

In Havana, doormen still guarded hotel entrances, and receptionists
reported no immediate run on reservations in the luxurious but slightly
shabby lobby of the Nacional.

Despite the restrictions, Cubans have been able to clearly see what
they've been missing. The tourism industry now generates $2 billion a
year, and while the U.S. travel and economic embargo limits contact with
Americans, Cubans mix freely with other foreigners.

Also, unlike North Korea and other closed societies, the overwhelming
majority of Cubans have family in the United States, and illegal
satellite hookups beam American TV into many homes.

Now some of the gadgets they have seen on TV are finally becoming more
available on the island - and not just to the elite few.

An internal memo distributed to Cuba's largest retailer and obtained by
The Associated Press describes a long list of previously restricted
products that go on sale nationwide Tuesday.

In one store, La Copa, where DVD players were offered for $125 and Dell
desktop computers for $540, a cashier said that starting Tuesday, a sign
saying "only for companies and foreigners" would be removed.

"This is a dream," gasped Miguel, who joined other shoppers gawking at
the shiny red, blue, silver and wine-colored electric bicycles suddenly
on display at a shopping center in the upscale Vedado neighborhood. The
Chinese-made bikes are charged through a power cord and had been
prohibited for general sale because the government feared excessive use
of electricity.

Cuba analysts say it's hard to predict where this is going in the long term.

"They're trickling out policy moves one by one, and there's no road
map," said Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute, a pro-democracy think
tank based outside Washington.

"I would doubt if Raul has a complete model in mind, Chinese,
Vietnamese, whatever," added Ritter, the Canadian economist. "I think
he's going with things that work in the short run. And where it's going,
I don't think he could even say or would want to say."
Associated Press writers Anne-Marie Garcia and Katherine Corcoran in
Mexico City contributed to this report.

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