|By Ray Sanchez, South Florida
Sun-SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Apr. 1, 2008 - HAVANA -- In the lobby of the grand Hotel Nacional, a small celebration erupted early Monday among workers who learned the ban on Cubans staying at tourist hotels had been lifted.
"We're all very happy," said Sandra, a young woman working the front desk. "I stayed here before the restrictions went into place in the early 1990s. We're celebrating."
At the Mercure Coralia Cuatro Palmas hotel, a beach resort in Varadero, a worker said the change was welcomed.
"Cubans should have the same rights as everyone else," he said. The hotel workers asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The end to what government critics have called tourism apartheid in Cuba came quietly after midnight Monday. No official announcement was made, but hotel workers and clerks at car rental companies said they were informed that Cubans could now rent cars and stay or use facilities such as gyms in tourist hotels across the island. The only limitation was whether they had the hard currency to pay the bill and could afford the stays.
The lifting of the hotel ban is the third such change in two weeks by Raul Castro and his new government. It follows the elimination of bans on cell phones and purchases of certain consumer electronics, which go on sale today. Purchasing the previously prohibited goods and services will require hard currency in a country where the average monthly wage is about $20. Analysts and human rights observers said the change was more symbolic than economic.
"The change is significant," said William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University in Washington, D.C. "Even if most Cubans can't afford to spend $200 to stay at the Hotel Nacional, they no longer have to feel like they're prohibited from doing it. It strikes a blow against the whole idea of tourism apartheid."
Now when relatives come from abroad, Cubans can stay with them in their hotels or dine with them in the dining rooms, something they were unable to do under the ban.
Elizardo Sanchez, a longtime dissident who heads the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said the state was only looking to tap in to a new source of hard currency.
"This is good news, but the government is merely following Article 42 of the constitution, which says that all Cubans have a right to stay at any hotel in any city in the country," he said. "That constitutional principle was violated for decades."
The restriction was introduced after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union forced Cuba to open to foreign tourists and investment.
Although tourism generates more than $2 billion a year in foreign exchange, the number of visitors has dropped in recent years. About 60 percent of Cubans have access to hard currency from cash remittances sent by relatives living abroad or through work with foreigners.
"It seems a mockery of ordinary Cubans who earn an average salary of about 15 or 20 convertible pesos a month," Sanchez said. "How can these people stay at a hotel like the Ambos Mundos, which charges 170 convertible pesos [$183] per night?"
In the lobby of the Hotel Florida in Old Havana, the young manager predicted Monday that lifting the ban would have little effect on his business.
"The change will have less effect on the pricier hotels in the historic district than in the cheaper hotels at the beaches," he said. "We're happy to receive Cubans but we don't have a lot of hope that many Cubans will stay here."
A double room at the Florida Hotel is $183 per night, about nine months' salary for most state workers.
On Monday, the Web site of Granma, the newspaper of Cuba's Communist Party, made no mention of the change, causing confusion at some hotels in the capital. Some front desk workers said they had received no official notice of the move.
Since officially succeeding his ailing brother, Fidel, on Feb. 24, the younger Castro has legalized products and services that Cubans had been forced to buy on the black market.
The changes may be setting the stage for a revaluation of the Cuban peso and possible elimination of the dual-currency system that has impoverished millions of Cubans, analysts said. State salaries are paid in the nearly worthless peso, while many desirable products and services are priced in convertible pesos, or CUCs, that can be exchanged for hard currency. The exchange rate for one CUC is 24 pesos.
Raul Castro hinted at such changes during his inaugural speech last month.
"He would be a foolish politician to promise change in issues that important and then not deliver," LeoGrande said.
Ray Sanchez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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