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Getting cell phones into Cuban hands

On an island with little internet, more Cubans are turning to cell phones — using them not to talk but to text and page.

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.