Cuba lets citizens into luxury hotels; ban was seen as ‘tourist apartheid’

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.HAVANA (AP) – Raúl Castro’s government opened luxury hotels and resorts to all Cubans Monday, ending a ban despised across the island as “tourist apartheid” and taking another step toward the creation of a consumer economy in the socialist state.

Cuba has made a series of crowd-pleasing announcements in the past few days. Cubans with enough cash will be able to buy computers, DVD players and plasma televisions starting Tuesday, and soon they’ll even be able to have their own cell phones – consumer goods only companies and foreigners were previously permitted to buy.

But the latest surprise, allowing ordinary citizens into luxury hotels and resort beaches long reserved for rich foreigners, is a particularly symbolic victory for Cuba’s everyman.

“I was born here and live here. I believe, as a Cuban, I have the right to it all,” said Elizabeth Quintana, a Havana resident. “It’s good. Really good.”

While there was no official word from the government, hotel employees said Ministry of Tourism officials told them that as of Monday, Cubans can stay in hotels and resorts across the island, and pay to use gyms, hair salons and other previously off-limit facilities. Cubans can even rent cars for the first time.

For now, few Cubans can afford a night at a hotel on a government salary, but that could change if Castro succeeds in increasing his citizens’ spending power.

Meanwhile, the government is creating the kinds of consumer incentives any economy needs to thrive. For many years, Cubans haven’t been able to buy certain electronic goods, lounge by the rooftop pool at the Hotel Capri or enjoy a drink at sunset on the grounds of the historic Hotel Nacional, no matter how much money they earned

As with other guests, the hotels will charge Cubans in convertible pesos, or CUCs, worth 24 times the regular pesos most Cubans earn. The four-star Ambos Mundos, a favorite of Ernest Hemingway in Old Havana, charges $173 a night in high season – more than eight times the average monthly state salary of about $20.

Still, at least 60 percent of Cubans have some access to convertible pesos and foreign currency, either through jobs in tourism or foreign firms, or cash sent by U.S. relatives. And these initiatives give them more reason to spend that cash, enabling the government to increase its reserves, said Arch Ritter, an expert on the Cuban economy at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

“I think this will get rid of many of the CUCs floating around on the street,” said Magaly, a 69-year-old retiree who, like many Cubans interviewed, declined to have her full name appear in the foreign press, citing unspecified reprisals.

But the new government also risks increasing class tensions by suddenly making income discrepancies more evident in a society founded on the ideal of promoting social and economic equality.

“Authorization to stay in hotels is fine because it was unfair discrimination of Cubans with respect to foreigners,” said Tatiana, a doctor in the capital’s Vedado district. “But, I have to ask, ‘What Cubans can pay a night in a hotel with a normal salary?’ “

Fidel Castro spent decades rallying against any reforms that could promote a new class of rich Cubans, writing as recently as July that Cuba’s poor are frustrated that the island is awash in convertible pesos.

But since he succeeded his ailing brother as president in February, Raúl Castro has begun to do away with what he called “excessive restrictions” on daily life.

Relaxing the hotel ban eliminates a glaring historical contradiction within the Cuban revolution. When the Castro brothers’ rebels took power in 1959, they joyfully overran beach resorts and hotels that had been the playgrounds of high-rolling foreigners, declaring them open to all Cubans.

Hotel restrictions were eventually imposed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s chief economic benefactor, to maintain equality when Cuba embraced tourism to jump-start its economy.

Hotel guards have stopped anyone who looks Cuban, limiting guests’ exposure to hustlers and black-market peddlers, and police have turned away Cubans trying to enter the glittering, white-sand tourist resort of Varadero.

On Monday, tourism officials at Varadero said Cubans would now be allowed to walk the beach without restrictions, though none would divulge their names, citing government rules.

In Havana, doormen still guarded hotel entrances, and receptionists reported no immediate run on reservations in the luxurious but slightly shabby lobby of the Nacional.

Despite the restrictions, Cubans have been able to clearly see what they’ve been missing. The tourism industry now generates $2 billion a year, and while the U.S. travel and economic embargo limits contact with Americans, Cubans mix freely with other foreigners.