Page last updated at 14:25 GMT, Monday, 31 March 2008 15:25 UK

Cuba loosens controls on hotels

A Cuban man talks on a mobile phone in Havana on Friday
Cuba has one of the lowest rates of mobile phone use in the region

The Cuban government has lifted a ban on its citizens staying in hotels previously reserved for foreigners, hotel staff say.

It is the latest reform announced under new President Raul Castro.

Last week, the state said Cubans would be allowed unrestricted access to mobile phones for the first time.

The new Cuban hotel guests, like the foreign tourists, will have to pay in hard currency - on an island where the average wage is about $17 (9) a month.

Correspondents say the ban on Cuban nationals using hotels - often described as "economic apartheid" - has been a source of frustration for local people since the Communist island opened up to tourism in the 1990s.

Hotel employees, at locations such as Havana's Nacional, said unofficially that they had been told by officials that Cubans would be allowed to stay in hotels across the island from midnight on Monday (0400 GMT Tuesday).

They will also be able to hire cars from state-run agencies, say reports.

Raul's reforms

Raul Castro has introduced a number of reforms since he was selected as president in February, after the retirement of his ailing brother Fidel.

The sale of computers, microwaves and DVD players has been opened up to local people - previously they had only been sold to companies and foreigners.

On Friday, state telecom monopoly ETECSA said it would start offering mobile services to the public. Some Cubans already own mobile phones but they have had to acquire them via a third party, often foreigners.

Cubans will be able to subscribe to pre-paid mobile services under their own names.

Again, the new service must be paid for in foreign currency, so many of the reforms will only benefit wealthier Cubans.

Most Cubans are estimated to earn between 400 non-convertible (Cuban) pesos (eg a factory worker), to about 700 (eg a professional) - the equivalent of between $17 and $30, or 9 and 15.

Non-convertible pesos are good for buying the subsidised official rations of rice, cooking oil and other perishable goods.

Tight restrictions remain in place on internet access in homes and on foreign travel.

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