As noted previously here at Reason, Cubans recently "celebrated" (or privately lamented) the fiftieth year of Castroite totalitarianism, an ideology that has forced millions into poverty and, for those brave and lucky enough to escape, exile in America and Europe. But, it's defenders argue, most of those undernourished compañeros can read (it's just that no good books are allowed!) and they have free health care (good luck filling that perscription!).
When Raul Castro took over from his big brother Fidel, now just a desiccated corpse squeezed into a track suit, he convinced the easily-conviced that his would be a more liberal, more open regime. As the AP reported last year: "First microwaves, now cell phones. Is this the new Cuba? Raul Castro is revolutionizing his brother's island in small but significant ways—the latest in a decree Friday allowing ordinary Cubans to have cell phone service, a luxury previously reserved for the select few."
Previously? Such luxuries were still out of reach for the noble peasant, of course, because the average Cuban salary is $19 a month. When the AP filed that story, it was $130 just to activate the telephone on the state-run network. So a year later, The Washington Post looks at how cell phones have transformed Cuba and discovers that…well, they haven't.
Tatiana González stood transfixed before the glass display case watching a single cellphone spin around and around on a carousel at the government-run store. It was a Nokia 1112, a simple, boxy gray workhorse of mobile telecommunications technology–and González was in love.
She coveted that phone. She confessed she had dreamed of that phone. But she would have to wait just a little longer before she could cradle it to her ear. How much longer? "I hope a year, no more," said González, who toils as a manager of medical records in a hospital, earning $21.44 a month.
The United States entered and exited the Age of the Beeper in the 1980s, but Cuba has just arrived at it. All over Havana, a visitor sees people looking at the cellphones, not speaking into them.
When Pérez and other Cubans get a call, they rarely answer. Instead, they look at the number, find a land-line telephone, which is ubiquitous and dirt cheap to use, and return the call. If they're feeling flush, they might type a message. "We just type," explained Pérez, wagging his finger. "No talk."
The Cuban government has not released official tallies of cellphone users, though a person who works in the technology field in Havana estimated that there were no more than 250,000 users in a nation of 11.2 million.
To open a mobile phone account with the state telephone monopoly, ETECSA, a user must go, with a cellphone in hand, to one of the few offices in Havana, stand in line for an hour and then pay $65 to activate the service—a bargain compared with the $130 the government used to charge. This money is not paid in Cuban pesos but in the parallel currency used by foreigners, Cuban "convertible pesos," known as CUCs and pronounced "kooks." These are huge sums for Cubans, whose average monthly salary is around $20.
Standing in a two-hour line at the ETECSA shop at the Miramar Trade Center, a young woman said the Samsung cellphone she has had for more than a year was a gift from an aunt who lives in Spain. "I used it as an alarm clock," she explained, "while I saved my money to activate the line."
As every cellphone owner learns, the price of minutes in Cuba is cruel. Local calls between cellphones cost 65 cents a minute. Cellphone calls to a land line are slightly more. Calls abroad? Ordinary Cubans interviewed for this article laughed. No one calls abroad. Dialing the United States costs $2.70 a minute. Europe will set a caller back $5.85.