By Dave Sherwood
HAVANA (Reuters) -Cuba put off an unpopular five-fold increase in gasoline prices planned for Feb. 1 due to a cyberattack, Economy Vice Minister Mildrey Granadillo said on Wednesday, a sudden about-face hours before the hike was to take effect.
"This decision is influenced by the occurrence of a cybersecurity incident in the computer systems for the marketing of fuels, the origin of which has been identified as a virus from abroad," Granadillo said in the final minutes of the midday newscast on state-run TV.
Cuba in late December announced a series of measures, including hikes in fuel and public transport prices, which the government says are necessary to narrow a ballooning fiscal deficit. Critics have attacked the policies as inflationary, ill-timed and lacking incentives for domestic production.
Vice Minister Granadillo reiterated the government's support for the new measures, calling the price hikes and a simultaneous decision to begin selling fuel in dollars a "necessity" to help reverse a festering economic crisis.
Fuel shortages in recent days have led to widespread, hours-long power outages on the island, but Cuban state-run media reported Wednesday that the cyber-attack was not at fault and would not affect the supply of fuel for power generation.
Cuba`s Banco Metropolitano earlier today said it was having difficulties with electronic payments and services, but later said those problems had been resolved.
It was not immediately clear whether the two issues were related.
For weeks, Cubans have fretted about the proposed fuel price hike that would put a 40-liter tank of gasoline out of reach for those living on an average state salary.
The frenzy for dollars to pay for gas and hedge against uncertainty pushed the peso to an historic low of 290 on Wednesday, further whittling away at buying power of those Cubans without access to greenbacks.
Havana taxi driver Carlos Perez celebrated the decision to hit pause on the measure, calling the price hike too steep.
"I think (the postponement) is very good ... if gasoline increases, everything will go up," he told Reuters.
Vice minister Granadillo said fuel will remain at current prices until further notice.
"There will not be a stoppage in the services we provide for the sale of fuel to our population."
(Reporting by Dave Sherwood; additional reporting by Anett Rios, Alien Fernandez and Carlos Carrillo, Editing by Richard Chang and David Gregorio)