Image: Cell phones in Cuba
Javier Galeano  /  AP
New President Raul Castro's government has authorized ordinary Cubans, like the man pictured here, to obtain cellular telephones, a luxury previously reserved for those working for foreign firms or holding key posts in the communist-run state.
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updated 3/30/2008 6:24:18 PM ET 2008-03-30T22:24:18

First microwaves, now cell phones. Is this the new Cuba?

Raul Castro is revolutionizing his brother's island in small but significant ways — the latest in a decree Friday allowing ordinary Cubans to have cell phone service, a luxury previously reserved for the select few. The new president could be betting greater access to such modern gadgets will quell demand for deeper change.

Many Cubans hope cell phones and new appliances are only the beginning for a post-Fidel Castro government that will improve their lives. Communist bureaucracy currently limits everything from Internet access to home ownership.

Could cellular phones in dissidents' hands give state security forces an edge in monitoring their conversations or tracking their movements by satellite? Perhaps, but government opponents — including the few who have cell phones — already assume someone's always listening.

Until now, the only people legally allowed to have a cell plan were foreigners, Cubans working for foreign companies and top government officials. Thousands more illegally use phones registered to foreign friends or relatives.

"Finally. We have waited too long for this," said Elizabeth, a middle-aged housewife waiting in line to pay her home telephone bill. She wouldn't give her last name because she already has a cell phone through a foreign co-worker of her husband.

The new program could put phones in the hands of hundreds of thousands of Cubans, especially those with relatives abroad who send them hard currency. But they will remain out of reach for most on the island because minutes are billed in convertible pesos — which cost Cubans 24 times the regular pesos they are paid in.

"I'd love one!" said Juan Quiala, a retiree living on a $10 monthly pension. "But how am I going to pay for it?"

The government controls over 90 percent of the economy, and while the communist system ensures most Cubans have free housing, education and health care and receive ration cards that cover basic food needs, the average monthly state salary is less than $20.

Nobody should expect to see iPhones for sale in Havana anytime soon. Although visitors who bring their Internet-equipped phones to Cuba can use them through Cuba's network, Cuba's cellular phone company offers such phones to only a limited number of corporate clients.

And despite cell-phone images from Tibet and Myanmar that gave the world a glimpse of repression in those closed societies, Cuba has made no attempt to ban phones with photo or video technology. In fact, some models are sold in government-run stores, and Cubans with illegally registered phones already use them to send snapshots off the island.

Of course, if unrest were to develop, Cuba's phone monopoly could close down such transmissions with the flick of a switch.

Friday's announcement came in a small black box on page 2 of the Communist Party newspaper Granma, which said details would be announced in the coming days. It was signed by the state-controlled telecommunications monopoly, a joint venture of Cuba's government and Italy's Telecom Italia.

Limited cell phone service has been available in Cuba since 1991. Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A., or ETECSA, has invested heavily in Cuba's fiber optic network in recent years and clearly believes it is ready to handle heavier traffic.

It also expects a nice profit — enough to let it offer cellular lines in regular Cuban pesos at some point in the future.

It's unclear which manufacturers will be tapped to provide cell phones to an expanded Cuban market. For now, very basic phones bought in bulk from Nokia Corp. or Motorola Inc. are sold. A few phones on sale Friday offered basic camera functions, but those retailed for as much as $280.

The decree came a week after a resolution promising consumer goods including PCs, DVD players, car alarms and televisions of all sizes will go on sale in state-run stores Tuesday. Those goods previously could be purchased only by foreigners and companies.

And in December, the government distributed about 3,000 microwaves made by South Korea's Daewoo Electronics. Local authorities say the pilot program, in a town outside Havana, could lead to a nationwide offering of microwaves on long-term credit.

"We are progressing with the world," said Havana resident Jorge Chavez. "Progress had to reach us, too."

The small steps could help push back demands for greater change that many Cubans have made since an ailing, 81-year-old Fidel Castro stepped down from the presidency last month.

His 76-year-old brother has repeatedly said there will be no major changes in the island's economic and political systems, but has also made clear he understands that Cubans' salaries barely cover their most basic needs.

Some of the measures he has promoted appear designed to make life more pleasant without requiring any major systemic reforms. The younger Castro has pushed for an overhaul of the dilapidated public transportation system with thousands of new buses, and for increased agricultural production to ensure everyone has plenty to eat.

But some said the latest measure was less than revolutionary.

"Suddenly, there will be a lot more people talking on the phone," said Quiala, the retiree. "But not much else will change."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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