HAVANA (Reuters) - For the first time since the 1959 revolution, Cuba has given its citizens the green light to buy and sell cars in one of most eagerly awaited economic reforms under President Raul Castro.
An official decree published on Wednesday said Cubans and foreign residents would now be able to do with their cars what they wanted "without any prior authorization from any entity."
But the regulations, which take effect immediately, will only allow Cubans with government permission and foreign residents to import cars, while all others will be limited to autos already on the island.
The liberalizing of car sales was one of more than 300 reforms approved in April at a congress of the Communist Party, Cuba's only legal political party.
They allow for Cubans migrating from the island to sell their cars or to give them to family members, neither of which they could do before.
Foreign residents temporarily living on the island will be limited to buying two cars, imported or not, during their stay.
Previously, only automobiles that were in Cuba before the 1959 revolution could be freely bought and sold, which is why there are so many 1950s or earlier cars, most of them American-made, rumbling through Cuban streets.
There are also many Soviet-made cars, dating from the era when the Soviet Union was the island's biggest ally and benefactor.
They have been available for those with government permission, including assorted officials, athletes, artists and doctors returning from service overseas.
The regulations have been long promised by the government and much looked forward to by Cubans.
The changes are part of Castro's wide-ranging economic reform program which has been slow in developing, but he says is necessary to ensure the survival of Cuban communism.
"It's great because it was something forbidden and prices were really high, and if you had a car you weren't able to do anything with it," said office worker Silvia Santos.
"It's a way of freeing something," she said.
One difficulty facing many Cubans, who make an average monthly salary equivalent to about $20, will be rounding up the money to buy a car.
"Maybe if I can save money one day in my life I will be able to buy as car," Santos said. "It's going to be hard, but at least now it's a possibility."
(Editing by Jeff Franks and Cynthia Osterman)