hola, this is cuba calling

Posted on March 28, 2008

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The cellphone, a ubiquitous consumer product that the modern person takes for granted, even in third world countries, has broken another barrier and opened up a new frontier — Cuba.

The socialist nation, led by its recently-elected president Raul Castro, just announced that it is doing away with its restriction on cellphone use, allowing normal citizens access to buying and using cellphones for the first time. Previously, cellphone use was confined to government officials and foreigners. Cubans who tried to circumvent the rule had their phones either registered in their foreign friends’ names, or through the companies in which they worked.

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It is a calculated move to open up bit-by-bit the highly government-regulated and controlled island, and comes on the heels of Cubans being able to buy previously-monitored electronic equipment such as computers.

On paper, this loosening of rules sounds great. It demonstrates the change in mindset of the Cuban government and a response to the wishes of its people for more personal freedom.

But in reality, these latest moves will benefit only the wealthier Cubans or those with access to hard currency through foreign remittances, as the cellphones and other electronic equipment have to be purchased in hard currency, Cuba’s convertible pesos, which is linked to the US dollar.

Consider this — the average Cuban makes about $20 a month in their mostly government-linked jobs, while it is estimated to cost $140 for a handset and credits for using it. That puts cellphone use out of the reach of a large number of Cubans, and will further deepen the divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” in the country, making the claim that equality is a part of Cuban life a lie. Already, resentment is high among those who see the better quality of life Cubans with hard currency have. This could build up more frustration in the citizenry.

With the lowest rate of cellphone use in Latin America, Cuba also suffers from an under-developed telecommunications infrastructure, which means that costs of use would be high for at least a while, before more investments are made.

So while this new step by Castro will make headlines around the world, it is a Pyrrhic victory for ordinary Cubans.

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