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Cubans flock to stores to activate cellular service

A customer listens to a store employee explain how to use her cell phone Monday in Havana. Associated Press photos
 (Associated Press photos / The Spokesman-Review)
A customer listens to a store employee explain how to use her cell phone Monday in Havana. Associated Press photos (Associated Press photos / The Spokesman-Review)

HAVANA – Lines stretched for blocks at phone stores Monday as Cubans were allowed to sign up for cellular service for the first time.

The contracts cost about $120 (U.S.) to activate – half a year’s wages on the average state salary. And that doesn’t include a phone or credit to make and receive calls. Still, lines formed before the centers opened and waits grew to more than an hour.

“It’s great. It’s really great. And 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.

Getting through the day without a cell phone is unthinkable in most developed countries, but Cuba’s government limited access to cell phones as well as kitchen appliances, hotels and other luxuries in an attempt to preserve the relative economic equality that is a hallmark of life in communist Cuba.

President Raul Castro has pledged to do away with these small but infuriating restrictions, and his popularity has surged, defusing questions about whether his relative lack of charisma would make governing more difficult after his ailing older brother, Fidel, stepped down in February.

The new phone contracts allow overseas calls, a key feature because the overwhelming majority of Cubans have relatives or friends in the United States.

Astorga planned to buy about $65 in credit – enough, she hopes, for three months of very brief conversations.

“You can’t talk all day because it’s too expensive,” she said. “It’s only, ‘Hello, I’m here. Goodbye.’ Or ‘Where are you?’ and hang up.”

She and about 90 others were waiting in a line that crossed the street and stretched for about half a block outside a phone store on Obispo Street, a crowded pedestrian mall running from Havana’s Central Park to the historic Old Town district.

Outside a phone store in the upscale neighborhood of Miramar, meanwhile, the line split in two and snaked off in different directions.

Teenagers and college students with expensive sunglasses and fashionable clothes dominated in the lines. But elderly housewives and occasional construction workers with dusty boots and threadbare T-shirts also waited for the chance to buy.

Lines outside stores are common in Cuba because 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 cell phone contract.

“I am in need; I need to have one,” said Juana Verdez, a retiree who said a cell phone would make it easier to stay in touch with family members.

People also were lining up for cell phones in Santiago, the island’s second-largest city, although residents said the lines were not as long as in Havana. Waits were also reportedly shorter elsewhere across the country.

Only foreigners and Cubans holding key government posts were allowed to have cell phones since they first appeared on the island in 1991. Thousands of ordinary Cubans had already obtained mobile phones through the black market, but could activate them only by finding foreigners willing to lend their names to the contracts.