Cubans Buzzing Over First Legal Cell Phones

Will Weissert in Havana
Associated Press
April 15, 2008

Lines stretched for blocks outside phone centers yesterday as the government allowed Cuban citizens to sign up for cellular phone service for the first time.

Cuba's government had limited access to mobile phones and other products and services deemed to be luxuries in an attempt to preserve the relative economic equality that is a hallmark of life on the Communist-run island.

Only foreigners and Cubans holding key government posts had been allowed to have cell phones since the technology first appeared in Cuba in 1991. (See photos of life in Castro's Cuba circa 1998.)

While thousands of residents had obtained mobile phones through the black market, they could activate them only if foreigners agreed to lend their names to the contracts.

After the ban was lifted, lines formed before stores even opened and waits grew to more than an hour.

"Everyone wants to be first to sign up," said Usan Astorga, a 19-year-old medical student who stood for about 20 minutes before her line moved at all.

Teenagers and college students with expensive sunglasses and fashionable clothes dominated the lines, alongside the occasional elderly housewife or construction worker with dusty boots and a threadbare T-shirt.

"I am in need, I need to have one," said retiree Juana Verdez, who said a cell phone would help her stay in touch with family members.

Shorter lines also formed in Santiago, the island's second largest city, and in smaller towns.

Hello, Goodbye

Inside stores, Cubans showed ID cards to sign contracts and crowded around glass cases where cell phones rotated under bright lights.

Cuba's cell contracts cost about $120 (U.S.) to activate—half a year's wages on the average state salary. That cost does not include the phone or the credit needed to make and receive calls.

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