A man in Cuba chats on his new cell phone this Friday, a foreign sight.  (Source: AP)
Cubans say hello to some new little friends.

In an interesting twist, Cuba just approved the use of cell phones, after a ban throughout long-time ruler Fidel Castro's regime.  With Fidel's departure last month and his brother, Raul Castro, assuming leadership of the island nation, some small but noteworthy changes are occurring.  First, Raul allowed microwaves, and now he is allowing cell phones.

Cuba still operates under a communist bureaucracy that controls what items people can have.  This hinders everything from internet access to home ownership.  In the past, only an elite group of Cubans owned cell phones.  Many Cubans hope that more changes are to come.  While some dissidents fear the government will use the new cell phones to snoop on them, most assume that the government already does.

Elizabeth, a middle-aged housewife told the Associated Press that she had already owned a cell phone, but had been forced to live in fear of discovery.  She said of the development, "Finally. We have waited too long for this."

The new cell phone plans will be very expensive, though, billed in more valuable convertible pesos.  Some residents like Juan Quiala, a retiree on a $10 a month government pension, remain rather cynical about the government and the state of the country in general.  Says Quiala, "I'd love one!  But how am I going to pay for it?  Suddenly, there will be a lot more people talking on the phone, but not much else will change."

In Cuba, the government controls 90 percent of the economy.  Most citizens are provided with free housing and are given ration cards to cover food needs.  Quality is often an issue, though.  Most Cubans make less than $20 a month.

Only corporate customers will be able to use internet-equipped smart phones on Cuban networks.  Cuba also is making no effort to control camera phones, despite their previous use to show oppression occurring in Tibet and Myanmar.  Of course, at the first sign of trouble, the government could easily shut the phones off.

The news of the new cell phone policy was announced Friday in the Communist Party newspaper Granma.  The Cuban government is contracting with Italy's Telecom Italia to provide services.  Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A., or ETECSA, has invested heavily in installing fiber optics across Cuba, and feels that its ready to handle Cuba's shift to modern communication.

ETECSA hopes to make enough profit to offer cell phones in normal pesos to customers in the near future.  Currently a few phone models from Nokia and Motorola are available for sale.  Phones cost as much as $280, which is a lot considering the average monthly salary of Cubans.

Cuba also announced a decree that it will finally sell PCs, DVD players, car alarms and televisions of all sizes.  These items previously only were allowed to foreigners and corporations.  Citizens are ecstatic about many of the developments.  Says Jorge Chavez, "We are progressing with the world.  Progress had to reach us, too."

While Raul Castro insisted that he will not alter Cuba's underlying communist political or economic policies, he has stated that he will try to make average Cubans' lives more bearable through modest policy changes.  He states that he understand the rough situation many Cubans live in, with much of the country living in poverty.

"Well, we didn't have anyone in line that got shot waiting for our system." -- Nintendo of America Vice President Perrin Kaplan
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