Reports from Cuba: ETESCA, the beggar phone company
HAVANA, Cuba Just months after Graham Bell patented the telephone, an invention of the Italian Antonio Meucci, Havana hosted the first telephone conversation in Spanish, an event that took place in October 1877.
137 years after the event that would favor the island with the use of a device that definitively contributed to global development, and 132 years after the inauguration of the first telephone service in Havana, the monopoly of the totalitarian system of more half a century over communications and control of the telephonic infrastructure – besides being insufficient — has taken the Island to a brutal technological underdevelopment in this area.
On the other hand, cellular phone service, which has been implemented globally with all the features offered by the development of new information and communication technologies, remains a primitive and embryonic service on the Island, and despite that, extremely costly for most people.
Such a technological gap is not due entirely to the objective lack of capital on the part of the owner/State for investing in the necessary infrastructure to develop communications, but also to a policy bent on keeping Cubans outside sources of information and rights which in today’s world technology enhances.
Despite this, there are those who think they see signs of change in official policy. I recently got a phone call from a radio station in a Latin American country.
The friendly colleague wanted to know my views on “the new provision of the Cuban state telephone ETECSA allowing payment from abroad for Cubans’ home phones”. Apparently, he considered this a very significant measure.
I offered some brief opinions, without much fanfare. The tendency to magnify the “reforms” or “flexibilities” of the Cuban government by some foreign journalists always amazes me, as if any of them really meant a remarkable achievement, an attempt to improve the living conditions of the population or major progress towards human rights.
The dictatorship’s privileges are: half a century of strict control over Cubans and the country, turning any crevice into an illusion of an opening. I would like to know if most of this reporter’s fellow countrymen have the ability or inability to pay their own phone bills, or if they require an authorization from their government so that they can be paid from abroad.
From my personal perception, every little step that the government takes towards what it has nicknamed “updating the model” — although no one knows exactly what model it is referring to — evidences, first, the accumulation of limits and boundaries that weigh over the Cuban people, asphyxiating their liberties and, second, their inability to afford their full practice.
In principle, any opening, however small, undermines the wall of totalitarianism to some extent, so it is positive, in that sense. However, pondering matters at their true value avoids the temptation to overvalue the facts and their scope.
Previously, Cuban wireless Telephone service (CUBACEL) introduced the option for recharging Cuban accounts from abroad — with regular “promotions” that double the phone’s call balance from a 20 CUC recharge — and we Cubans have benefited since then from the solid generosity of friends or relatives who have increased our ability to communicate in the midst of the Castro plateau, so that the current measure of allowing payment of land-line phones is an extension of the former, rather than a novelty.
Recently, an article published in the official organ Tribuna de La Habana stated, with a lot of fanfare, the coming implementation of internet and e-mail service through cellular phones, which is “mainly due to the inflow of fresh foreign funds into the country”, and also as the result of recharges from abroad.
Furthermore, they will make “adjustments in costs for voice, international messaging and local voice service…” We will have to pay attention to this announcement that will possibly imply an improvement on the technological possibility of Cubans, beyond whatever controls will be associated with it.
But it is actually the deep economic crisis and the urgent need for foreign exchange earnings which forced the government, first to “liberate” communications services previously available only to foreigners – such as cellular phone service contracts, up to then available only in “convertible” currency — and later to introduce these allowances with the misnomer of “reforms” that are only explained from the viewpoint of the expense they represent to the pockets of Cubans for sustaining a service that has no relation to the income or the purchasing power of the people.
Which is to say that the regime has literally scrounged profits out of Cubans’ misery, disguising as flexibility what is really shameful, and — even worse – it has found a certain audience to give it a round of applause. Cosas veredes, Sancho…* Apparently, in the midst of such shambles, not everyone realizes that the true secret of Raúl’s economic strategy is begging.
*”Something is surprising.” Though attributed to Cervante’s Quijote, ”cosas veredes, amigo Sancho, que farán fablar las piedras” (you see such things, Sancho, that will make stones speak) the phrase never appeared in the famous novel. Most likely, a minstrel voiced it in Cantar del Mio Cid quoting Alphonse VI “Cosas tenedes, Cid, que farán fablar las piedras”. (you come up with such things… etc.)
Miriam Celaya, Cubanet, 28 January 2014
Translated by Norma Whiting