Do You Know the Importance of a Cuban Skypager?

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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.

Full article here. Headline reference here.

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  1. Well at least the Cubans don’t talk on their cell phones while they drive.

  2. I wonder what it says about the United States when most bums can afford a cellphone with a $0.25 pay-as-you-go plan and can easily make enough money to go to bed with a belly full of Olde English HG.

    Sure it’s not free health care…

  3. I imagine those cars from the 1950’s without power steering require both hands anyways.

  4. michael, nice tribe called quest pull for the title…

  5. SIV,

    I think you mean while they ride their bike.

  6. “I think you mean while they ride their bike.”

    I thought they were all going blind from some vitamin deficiency. Seriously I read this somewhere.

    That would make the cellphone use while biking seem like nothing.

  7. Come on Moynihan, we know that you are a trouble making gringo with an irrational antipathy to latino socialism!

    Who could complain about a life with year round sunshine, warm tempatures, trade winds, baseball everywhere and 57 Chevies?

  8. Hey libertymike, the blindness I mentioned kind of takes the joy out of several of those things 😉

  9. I would expect that those who can afford to drive can also afford to own cell phones. On the other hand, who would they be talking to?

  10. MNG-

    I have not read or heard of the vitamin deficiency of which you write, but I wanted to present a balanced, nuanced p.o.v. of “la vida entre la revolcion.”

  11. Joe-

    Haverhill or Havana? If the latter, at least you could look forward to seeing the Spaceman’s travelling baseball circus.

  12. MNG,

    I don’t remember the details, but the problem was a more general nutritional deficiency in the during a rough patch in the early 90’s and was reversed by state distributed multivitamins given to the whole population.

    iirc, that is.

  13. MNG,

    NY Times: THE DOCTOR’S WORLD; Experts Ponder Cuban Epidemic

    By LAWRENCE K. ALTMAN, M.D.
    Published: May 25, 1993

    It seems the initial theory was a combination of vitamin b deficiency and exposure to toxins in home brewed rum…

    It’s a metabolic problem and you could probably fix the disease in one of three ways,” Dr. Sadun said. These are by raising the folic acid, stopping exposure to cyanide or stopping the exposure to methanol.

    At one point Mr. Castro asked the group what he should do about rum. Dr. Sadun said he suggested dropping the law and giving away rum at no cost to avoid home brewing. “That could be done,” Mr. Castro replied. Dr. Sadun said he was joking. But Mr. Castro said, “It’s not such a bad idea.”

  14. OT:

    There is some awful “reality” show on about Homeland Security making small drug seizures and keeping hot Belgian chicks out of the country.
    No terrorism yet…….

  15. Who could complain about a life with year round sunshine, warm tempatures, trade winds, baseball everywhere and 57 Chevies?

    Maybe the 130 thousand everyday people who’ve fled there in the last 4 years. or, uhm… political prisoners, who can’t leave?

    Maybe you’re joking, but you do inadvertantly sound a bit like Rumsfeld’s advocating beautiful, sunny Guantanamo Bay as a virtual vacation spot for those ungrateful sand niggers

  16. Gilmore-

    “maybe” I’m joking? Hint: read my post at 8:15, addressed to Joe.

  17. So where the hell is lefiti – castigating us for not understanding and appreciating the workers’ paradise?

  18. GILMORE – I promise you that LM’s post was in sarcasm.

  19. What I wouldn’t give to live in a country where people aren’t cybernetically dependent on their cell phones for nearly every manifestation of social intercourse.

  20. What I wouldn’t give to live in a country where people aren’t cybernetically dependent on their cell phones for nearly every manifestation of social intercourse.

    What’s keeping you?

  21. Yes, poke fun at a superior society just because you have more stuff. More stuff does not make you more free.

  22. Next, they’ll all have laptops on which they can roll cigars.

  23. [quote]”Cuba connects to the digital world via Italian satellite. Because of the U.S. trade embargo, there is no undersea fiber-optic cable connecting the island to Florida.”[/quote]
    What? That is a terrible explanation. Cuba is not substantially further from Mexico than it is from Florida. As such, if cuba as a nation could afford a fiber-optic cable to Florida, it should be able to afford one to Mexico. As such, the U.S. embargo cannot be blamed for not having a fiber-optic internet connection. Or are the Mexicans also too poor for fiber-optic cables?

  24. Yes, poke fun at a superior society just because you have more stuff. More stuff does not make you more free.

    Mine eyes have been opened. Here I was thinking that my cell phone made me free when it was actually the ability to talk about politics or listen to certain music without fear of being imprisoned and the fact that the government doesn’t control my food and medicine that makes me (comparatively) free. Gosh, the way we’ve been going on you would think we hadn’t though a lick about this at all…

  25. i have seen a stunning collection of luxury mobile phones at http://www.continentalmobiles.com

  26. In before joe whining about MCM not being fair to the poor Castros’ wonderful workers’ paradise.

  27. Dr. Sadun said he suggested dropping the law and giving away rum at no cost to avoid home brewing. “That could be done,” Mr. Castro replied. Dr. Sadun said he was joking. But Mr. Castro said, “It’s not such a bad idea.”

    Okay, maybe Fidel isn’t all that bad.

  28. loansark,

    that was a pretty lame attempt to blame mexico for the problems america made.

  29. HENCEFORTH WE SHALL PRONOUNCE “NOOGE” WITH THE SAME DOUBLE O AS IN “FOOT” OR “ROOF”.

    AND WE SHALL SUBSTITUTE SANKA FOR HIS USUAL COFFEE.

  30. The double Os in foot and roof are pronounced differently. Pick one, lower minion: fo?ot ?r?f.

  31. I have read that health care is indeed free there – especially if it involves the latest in crackpot healing techniques involving magnets.

  32. I work in social services in WA state and I have literally seen homeless people playing with their new cell phones.

  33. I work in social services in WA state and I have literally seen homeless people playing with their new cell phones.

    Well, it’s kind of unfair to expect them to have landlines, isn’t it?

  34. Hey, Cuba: that democracy thing is over-rated in any event. Have you been watching this Burris thing? Oh, those gringos! No, you don’t want that.

  35. “I wonder what it says about the United States when most bums can afford a cellphone with a $0.25 pay-as-you-go plan”

    I have one of those bum-phones that you speak of. I broke the original rugged bum-phone I had after years of abuse, and I’m currently on bum-phone 2.0. It’s not 25 cents a minute, it’s only $0.10! It’s actually cheaper than a contract plan, which allows me a greater degree of freedom as well as having a lower impact on my wallet. It also is my watch, alarm clock, and calendar. God I love the free market.

    “the average Cuban salary is $19 a month”

    Well, at least they whipped inflation now!

  36. that was a pretty lame attempt to blame mexico for the problems america made

    I’m always amused how defenders of Cuba blame their economic problems on the US. Have you forgotten your Marxist theory? If the US traded with Cuba, that would be capitalist exploitation! Cuba would be poorer.

    Or you could agree that free trade with the US would make Cuba better off, but then that destroys the whole rationale for communism.

  37. Note that Cuba’s spiffy new mobile phone system is GSM, a system which dates from the late 80’s and saw widespread adoption in the 90’s. Even the dreadfully backward State-run telecomms monopoly here in Costa Rica is introducing 3G W-CDMA real soon now.

  38. “More stuff does not make you more free.”

    Arguable. But more FREEDOM certainly makes you more free. Like the freedom to speak your mind, read what you want, choose your government and oppose it when you wish to, choose where you live, travel abroad, and leave your country for good.

    Will the learned leftist poster tell us his “superior society” is superior because it has less freedom than we and much of the world do?

    We eagerly await his Orwellian arguments.

  39. LoneSnark: you write: “Cuba is not substantially further from Mexico than it is from Florida.” It’s even closer to the Cayman Islands which are a landing point for the MAYA Caribbean 20 GBits/s cable.

  40. Papaya – that’s an argument I always brought up, along with the fact that most totalitarian states (fascist and communist, not that there’s much difference) had autarky as an explicitly stated goal.

  41. Tu put this in perspective, Iraq went from roughly zero cell phones in 2002 to over 10 million today, in a country of 25 million.

  42. “that was a pretty lame attempt to blame mexico for the problems america made”

    I don’t think he was blaming Mexico. I think he was blaming Cuba’s crappy communist regime that can’t afford fiber optic cable.

  43. Just a note, that the poor Cubans including the one named Fidel Castro can truly afford fiber optic cable from anywhere to Cuba.

    Fidel is worth $700 million dollars personally and his brother Raul is not far behind, their average pay of $19.00 a month has gone a long way to making them wealthy as it has all Communist Cubans. (See Forbes wealthiest country leaders list.)

    Therefore Cubans with such an egalitarian society as Communism must all be able to afford their own fiber cables. They are equally rich under Communism, right? But Fidel or Raul could alone pay for such a cable and monopolize it. Ooops monopoly is not a Communist problem but one of capitalism.

    Oh, what to do? What to do? Can’t have capitalism but can’t pay to make Cubans wealthier. Must keep Fidel and Raul personally rich. What to do?

    Keep the Communism and blame America. There, that should do it.

  44. If it were not for all of the sworn enemies of Cuba surrounding the island they could have more freedom.

  45. I had a friend who came to US via Mexico, he had some good stories. One he told me was that a neighbor of his had a donkey or mule or something like that, he decided to kill the thing and eat it. He was later arrested for killing the animal because it was not considered his property but the State’s property. He was sent to prison for 5 years. I would suggest that anyone who thinks the average Cuban is happy talk to someone who lived there–not visited or parents lived there–but actually lived there(and not a journalist who hates the US and really only did hookers while he was investgating in Cuba) The actual life of the average Cuban is very meager and full of constant fear.

  46. I love the defenders of these so-called “workers paradises”. (nobody u no, I may be talking to you) They have never been to these places to live with the people and experience life as the normal people do. (Of course, if you tried, the State would arrest you, they don’t want people there to know how bad they have it.)

    Why do I say this? Is there something in my past that I can use to back this up? Well, dear reader, yes there is. I lived in East Germany before the Wall came down. I remember standing in line for gas for hours, and this in a country where many folks could not get a car, and those who did waited upwards of 7 years to get a two-stroke, pressed cardboard, three-speed piece of crap. I remember standing in line for hours for things like Cuban oranges, or bananas.

    Phones? Yes, also standing in line for phones. Why would I stand in line for a phone? Because it took upwards of 10 years to get a phone in your residence, and then only if you were a good member of the Party (the SED). Of course, once you got that phone, you knew everything you said was recorded. What about mail? Opened. That was before you got to read it yourself. What about something as simple as a photocopier? Illegal, because if you recall, spreading differing ideas are a crime against the workers. If you said anything wrong in your mail or on the phone, get ready to relax for a long time in a “psychiatric” hospital. That’s why the list of dissident prisoners seemed so small.

    Where could I live there? In a small commune of apartments made of giant concrete legos while enjoying things like communal hot water. (This was the best – whole towns would be without hot water for two weeks in the summer while the main hot water plant was cleaned). Of course, you would not complain, as this was sacrifice for the workers. Which workers, I do not know, as everyone was a “worker”.

    Getting the picture? Life sucked. Now, let’s say you figured this out and wanted to move somewhere where life didn’t suck. What options did you have? East Germany actually did the communism thing better than any of the other countries – Cuba, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, so you wouldn’t want to go there. Of course, that was your only option. They did not want you going to the West. You would learn that your years of indoctrination in school (received in socialist tomes like “Vom Sinn Unseres Lebens” or “The Reason of Our Lives”), that the workers’ paradise was a sham. So if you tried to go to the West, they killed you. If you made it, good-bye to any family you left behind. Did you know that even in the run-up to the opening of the Wall, people were still trying to escape and being killed? They just couldn’t take it anymore.

    So I’m sorry for the long post, but I can’t just sit by and let a couple of punk-ass trust-fund liberal college kids “enlighten” me on how the USA is the source of all the evil in the world. Look to your masters in Cuba, who would jail you as quick as you like when you saw the real Cuba.

  47. “First microwaves, now cell phones. Is this the new Cuba?”

    I wonder what they will get next? Perhaps the internal combustion engine.

  48. “Yes, poke fun at a superior society just because you have more stuff. More stuff does not make you more free.”

    I think somebody has watched “Fight Club” one too many times.

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