Lines stretched for blocks outside phone stores Monday as ordinary Cubans were allowed to sign up for cellular phone service for the first time. The contracts cost about $120 to activate - half a year's wages on the average salary. And that doesn't include a phone or the cost to make and receive calls. Still, lines formed before the centers opened, and waits grew to more than an hour.
Getting through the day without a cellphone is unthinkable now in most developed countries, but Cuba's government limited access to cellphones as well as kitchen appliances, hotels and other luxuries in an attempt to preserve the relative economic equality that is a hallmark of social life in communist Cuba.
President Raul Castro has pledged to do away these small but infuriating restrictions on daily life, and his popularity has surged as a result, defusing questions about whether his relative lack of charisma would make governing Cuba more difficult after his older ailing older brother Fidel formally stepped down in February.
The phones allow Cubans to make and receive overseas calls, important because most have relatives and friends in the US.
Teenagers and college students with expensive sunglasses and fashionable clothes dominated in the lines, but elderly housewives and an occasional construction worker also waited to buy.
Lines outside stores are common in Cuba since security personnel limit how many people are allowed in at a time, and phone centers are often especially crowded with Cubans waiting to pay their home phone bills. But Monday's waits were longer than normal - and everyone who turned up was waiting for a cellphone contract.
Only foreigners and Cubans holding key government posts were allowed to have cellphones since they first appeared on the island in 1991. Thousands of ordinary Cubans had already obtained cellphones through the black market, but could activate them only by finding foreigners willing to put their names on the contracts. A March 28 announcement by Cuba's state-controlled telecom monopoly, a joint venture with Telecom Italia, made it legal for all Cubans to have phones in their own names. (info from The Associated Press)