By William Booth | Washington Post Foreign Service (original title: In Cuba, Cellphone Calls Go Unanswered)
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.
That Nokia 1112? The government is offering the phone, charger included, for $58.
This is the hard math of the Cuban revolution, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary and a rickety state-run socialist economy struggles not only to feed, house and care for its people but also to offer them a nibble of global consumer culture.
In his first year as president, Raúl Castro has added a few items to the menu of island life. Since taking over from his ailing older brother Fidel, who has not been seen in public since July 2006 when he underwent what is believed to have been intestinal surgery, Raúl has decided that Cubans can now, legally, purchase once-forbidden fruit, such as DVD players, microwave ovens, desktop computers and mobile phones. It is an experiment that Havana residents have embraced—especially the cellphones. They’re crazy for them.
Everyone agrees a microwave is a useful tool, but a cellphone is the icon of modernity. Since Castro began allowing the purchases in April, and then slashed prices in half in December, mobile phones have become the new status symbol in proletarian Havana, but with a Cuban twist. Cubans don’t actually talk on their cellphones. They use them as pagers.
“I never talk on mine. Never, never. If I talk, I talk because it’s almost like an emergency, and even then, I talk for a minute, that’s it,” said Vladimiro Pérez, who stirs mojitos at a swank hotel bar in Old Havana and earns a pittance in salary but hundreds of dollars more in tips from the Canadian and European tourists keeping the island afloat in hard currencies.
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.
Even so, the obstacles to entering the cellular world are almost impossibly high for most Cubans. First, there is getting the phone. Most Cubans appear not to have purchased that Nokia 1112 so beloved by Tatiana González but to have worked a deal for a used phone on the gray market—or more likely, were given one by a relative living abroad. Those old, outdated Ericksons gathering dust in a drawer in Miami or Madrid? They’re headed to Cuba.
Now the hard part. 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.
“It is a very expensive habit for a Cuban,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., who writes a blog called the Cuban Triangle. Peters said he doubted the Castro government feared that texting and paging Cubans would use the phones to organize against the state.
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.
A couple of younger Cubans waiting in line to open an account said they have friends who have never spoken on their cellphones. But texting, at 17 cents a message, is popular.
To use their cells, Cubans purchase prepaid cards; the most common denomination is 10 convertible pesos. Several Cubans said they learned to limit their calls by buying only one prepaid card a month. There is no credit in Cuba.
And although some plugged-in sophisticates in Havana have BlackBerrys, there is no Web surfing, no YouTube watching, no e-mailing on cellphones. The bandwidth is not available for them. 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.
Until the changes announced by Raúl Castro last year, ordinary Cubans were not permitted to open cellphone accounts. But foreigners could—so many of the first Cubans to have and use the devices were top government officials, special workers for foreign companies, and the hotel hustlers and street prostitutes, girlfriends and boyfriends of foreign visitors, who were given or sometimes sold a phone and an account number.
Cubans speak some of the highest-speed Spanish in Latin America, but even that cannot save them from the ticking clock and cost of cell minutes. Many Cubans don’t like to give out their cellphone numbers, for fear they will be called—and have to answer a number they don’t recognize. They never use voice mail.
A Cuban with a BlackBerry explained that like the United States and Europe, Cuban society will be changed by the cellphone. “We will be reachable,” said the man, who was sharing a glass of homemade wine with friends on New Year’s Eve. “But we don’t want to answer.”
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