HAVANA Lines stretched for blocks outside phone centers Monday as the government allowed ordinary Cubans to sign up for cellular phone service for the first time.
The contracts cost about $120 to activate half a year's wages on the average state salary. And that doesn't include a phone or credit to make and receive calls.
But most Cubans have at least some access to dollars or euros thanks to jobs in tourism or with foreign firms, or money sent by relatives abroad. Lines formed before the stores opened, and waits grew to more than an hour.
"Everyone wants to be first to sign up," said Usan Astorga, a 19-year-old medical student who stood for about 20 minutes before her line moved at all.
Getting through the day without a cell phone is unthinkable now in most developed countries, but Cuba's government limited access to mobile phones and other so-called luxuries in an attempt to preserve the relative economic equality that is a hallmark of life on the communist-run island.
President Raul Castro has done away with several other small but infuriating restrictions, and his popularity has surged as a result defusing questions about his relative lack of charisma after his ailing older brother Fidel formally stepped down in February.
An article Friday in the Communist Party newspaper Granma said it was Fidel Castro's idea all along to lift bans on mobile phones and that he was behind recent government orders easing restrictions that had prevented most Cubans from staying in hotels, renting cars, enjoying beaches reserved for tourists and buying DVD players and other consumer goods.
"They are part of a process initiated and called for by Fidel," the paper said of the recent changes.
Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006, but he has continued to pen essays every few days and recently criticized DVDs, cell phones, the Internet, e-mail and Facebook, asking: "Does the kind of existence promised by imperialism make any sense?"
He wrote Saturday that the island may be going too far in easing some restrictions: "As in Cuba, there are those with theories about easy access to consumer goods," he wrote, dismissing those people as "imperial ears and eyes hungry for these dreams."
Cell phones on the island can make and receive calls from overseas, a key feature because the overwhelming majority of Cubans have relatives and friends in the United States.
Cuba's state-controlled telecommunications monopoly, a joint venture with Telecom Italia, charges US$2.70 (euro1.70) per minute to call the U.S. and US$5.85 (euro3.70) per minute to Europe and most of the rest of the world. Making or receiving local calls costs US$0.30 (euro0.19) a minute.
Astorga said she planned to buy about US$65 (euro41) in credit enough, she hopes, for three months of very brief conversations.
"You can't talk all day because it's too expensive," she said. "It's only, 'hello, I'm here. Goodbye.' Or 'where are you?' and hang up."
Teenagers and college students with expensive sunglasses and fashionable clothes dominated the lines, alongside the occasional elderly housewife or construction worker with dusty boots and threadbare T-shirt.
Inside stores, Cubans showed ID cards to sign contracts and crowded around glass cases where cell phones rotated under bright lights. A basic Nokia Corp. model offering little more than calling and text-messaging cost about US$75 (euro47), while a snazzier camera-phone retailed for US$280 (euro175) more than twice than in the U.S.
Lines outside stores are common in Cuba since security personnel limit how many people are allowed in at a time. Telecommunications offices are often especially crowded with people waiting to pay their phone bills.
But Monday's waits were longer than normal and everyone who turned up wanted a cell phone contract.
"I am in need, I need to have one," said retiree Juana Verdez, who said a cell phone would help her stay in touch with family members.
Shorter queues also formed in Santiago, the island's second-largest city, and in smaller towns.
Only foreigners and Cubans holding key government posts had been allowed to have cell phones since they first appeared here in 1991. Thousands of ordinary Cubans already had mobile phones through the black market, but could activate them only if foreigners agreed to lend their names to the contracts.
One woman waiting to legalize a cell phone previously registered under someone else's name said the recent changes have made Cubans happy.
"It's something. Something small, but positive," said Norma, who asked that her full name not be printed because of the unauthorized telephone.