Getting cell phones into Cuban hands

HAVANA, Cuba — A cell phone is a handy device on this under-wired island. Just not for making phone calls.

Cuba’s state-run wireless monopoly, Cubacel, has some of the steepest rates in the world, charging the equivalent of 50 cents per minute for outgoing and incoming calls. In a country where the average salary is less than $20 a month, half a day’s wages can disappear with the first “Hola.”

And yet, with internet access on the island so limited, Cubans are increasingly connecting to the world through their cell phones, instead of the web. When friends or family members dial from abroad, the calls are free to receive. Ditto for international text messages.

Opponents of the Castro government sense an opportunity in this trend. The U.S. government, Cuban exile groups and dissidents on the island say cell phones can be a conduit of unfiltered information to ordinary Cubans. And the role of cell phone communication via Twitter in organizing protests in Iran and elsewhere has not gone unnoticed.

Only the Cuban government is not clamping down its network, but opening it up. Since Raul Castro lifted a ban on Cubans owning cell phones in 2008, the number of wireless accounts in the country has soared by 600,000 to more than 838,000 today, according to Cuban telecom officials.

Activation fees have been slashed from $150 two years ago to roughly $25. International calling rates are also being cut, and the number of wireless users in the country (pop. 11 million) is expected to grow to 2.4 million by 2015. The island’s GSM network already covers 70 percent of Cuba’s territory and further expansions are planned.

“We’re going to keep working to provide the benefits of telecommunications to a greater number of Cubans,” said Cuban telecom official Maximo Lafuente at a recent press conference in Havana. “There’s no doubt that cell phones are an important foundation to the country’s development.”

The U.S. government wouldn’t disagree, even if it has a differing type of “development” in mind. It views cell phones as direct channels of information to an island where the media is almost entirely state-controlled and less than 2 percent of Cuban households have an internet connection. Popular voice-over-internet-protocol services like Skype are also blocked by the Cuban government.

Last year, the Obama administration exempted U.S. wireless providers from longstanding trade sanctions against Cuba, calling increased communications with Cuba “our best tool for helping to foster the beginnings of grassroots democracy on the island.”

"This will increase the means through which Cubans on the island can communicate with each other and with persons outside of Cuba," the administration said.

U.S. companies and the Cuban government haven’t signed any deals, though, and the chances of such agreements seem remote. The biggest obstacle is some $160 million in Cuban telecom assets that U.S. courts have seized to award Cuban American litigants who’ve sued the Castro government in absentia.

For the meantime, then, U.S. activists and organizations are simply aiming to get more cell phones into the hands of ordinary Cubans.

Roots of Hope, a Cuban American group in Miami, has started a campaign called “Cell Phones for Cuba (C4C),” urging supporters to donate phones that can be delivered for use on the island or recycled and used to purchase new devices.

The group says the phones will “provide Cubans with mobile news and information, help them make sense of the information, and enable coordination to act upon the information.”

United Nations statistics show Cuba has only 9.8 fixed phone lines per 100 inhabitants, among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. That’s even fewer lines than Cuba had in 1958, the year before Fidel Castro came to power, when the rate was 15 per 100 inhabitants. So expanding wireless access enables Cubans who don’t have landlines to possess at least some form of communication device, even if few can afford to talk on the phones.

DIALING IN THE AMERICAS (Landlines per 100 inhabitants):

  • 1. Canada: 55
  • 2. United States: 51.3
  • 31. Cuba: 9.8
  • 35. (lowest) Haiti: 1.1
  • Entire region: 30.6
  • Source: 2009 U.N. International Telecommunications Union

Instead, Cubans primarily use the phones as text-messaging machines and glorified pagers. Users screen incoming numbers, then call back later from a public phone or the house of a friend or neighbor. Text messages are roughly 15 cents apiece — still a bit pricey — but also increasingly popular.

Even capitalist-style SPAM is beginning to contaminate the socialist island’s networks. Some Cubacel subscribers have been receiving text messages from entertainment promoters about upcoming parties or concerts, while others say they’ve gotten anonymous political messages with an anti-Castro bent sent to their phones.

Blogger and internet activist Claudia Cadelo said she welcomes the growth of cell phone use, but she said she thinks the government’s decision to grow its wireless customer base is sheerly economic. “I think it’s being done out of necessity,” she said. “But economic decisions also create openings in society.”

When Cadelo was briefly detained by Cuban security forces last November along with fellow blogger Yoani Sanchez, she used her cell phone to update her Twitter account from the back seat of the police car, alerting more than a thousand followers. The incident quickly became international news, drawing condemnation from the White House and European governments.

“Cell phones are an invaluable tool,” Cadelo said. “But they’re not a substitute for the internet.”

Editor's note: The subheadline on this story has been updated.