updated 3/31/2008 1:22:51 PM ET 2008-03-31T17:22:51

New President Raul Castro’s government has lifted a ban on Cubans staying at hotels previously reserved for foreigners, ending another restriction that had been especially irksome to ordinary citizens.

“They have informed us that with a national ID card, anyone can stay here,” an employee at the Ambos Mundos Hotel in Old Havana. She insisted on anonymity because she is not authorized to speak to foreign reporters, but said non-guests who are Cuban nationals will also be allowed to pay to enjoy other hotel services, including gyms.

Front desk workers and managers at the Nacional, Valencia and Santa Isabel hotels in Havana also said Ministry of Tourism officials told them Cubans can stay in hotels across the island as of midnight on Monday. Like other guests, they will be charged in convertible pesos worth 24 times the regular pesos earned by state employees.

Catering to tourists and foreign executives, many of Havana’s best-known hotels charge well over $100 per night. The four-star Ambos Mundos, for example, charges $173 a night in high season — more than eight times the average monthly state salary of about $20.

Some hotels scheduled meetings with all staff members to discuss the changes, and officials said new rules will also allow Cubans to rent cars at state-run agencies for the first time.

“Access to hotels was a complaint a lot of people had, so this is positive,” said Magaly, a 69-year-old Havana retiree who said she did not feel comfortable divulging her full name. “But the prices are so expensive. I can’t pay for a hotel. Very few people can.”

Everything will be the same again’
Magaly predicted a brief boom.

“Everyone will stay in hotels even if it’s only for one day,” she said. “But then the novelty will wear off and everything will be the same again.”

On Friday, Cuba authorized its citizens to obtain mobile phones, which only foreigners and key officials in the communist government were previously allowed to have — though thousands of Cubans have already obtained phones by having foreigners sign contra23278430cts in their names.

The Interior Commerce Ministry also authorized the general sale beginning Tuesday of computers, electric bicycles, microwaves and DVD players, items which had only been sold to companies and foreigners.

“This is a dream,” gasped a man named Miguel, who joined other shoppers in gawking at shiny red, blue, silver and wine-colored electric bicycles displayed in the windows of a shopping center in Havana’s Vedado district.

The Chinese-made bikes, which can be plugged into wall outlets for charging, previously were prohibited for sale to Cubans because of fears of excessive use of electricity.

Miguel took out a cellular phone equipped with a camera and snapped a photo of the bikes, then added, “We have still to see at what price they sell them.”

Longtime sore spot
Much of the population has access to convertible pesos or other foreign currency, either through jobs in tourism or with foreign firms or cash sent by relatives living in the United States. They will suddenly have a host of new ways to spend their money.

Tourism generates more than $2 billion annually in this country, and official restrictions that banned all Cubans — even those who can afford it — from enjoying beach resorts and luxury hotels were an especially sore point for many on the island since the government began encouraging foreign tourism en masse in the early 1990s. Critics called the bans “tourism apartheid.”

Even if few Cubans can take advantage of the new rule, it eliminates a glaring historical contradiction within the Cuban revolution. When rebels led by Fidel Castro took power in 1959, they joyfully overran beach resorts and hotels that had been largely limited to foreigners, declaring them open to all Cubans.

Governmental restrictions were eventually restored, however, as a way of promoting social equality within the communist system and limiting ordinary Cubans’ contact with foreigners.

Since taking power from his ailing, 81-year-old brother Fidel on Feb. 24, Raul Castro, 76, has pledged to make improving Cubans’ everyday life a top priority and undo “excessive restrictions” on society and the economy.

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