Apartheid en Cuba
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    Cubans may now stay in tourist hotels – if they can afford it

    Cubans may now stay in tourist hotels – if they can afford it
    Most couldn't afford to stay, but it's a psychological lift
    By Ray Sánchez | Havana Bureau
    April 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

    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

    "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 Sánchez can be reached at rlsanchez@sun-sentinel.com.


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