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Calling for Change in Cuba

By Zach Kussin

May 13, 2008

A public phone in Cuba.
Photo by Paul Joyce (CC).

Cuba's political succession from Fidel Castro to his younger brother Raul "has been characterized by a remarkable degree of stability," according to the U.S. State Department. Judging by the legislation passed in March allowing all Cubans to purchase prepaid cell phone plans, the transition of power has been more than stable. In fact, there are hints of more progressive policies.

Since Raul Castro's announcement of cell phone use for ordinary Cubans was published in Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, staff members of Cuba's state telecommunications company (ETECSA) have witnessed the impact of this new freedom. ETECSA reports that the nearly 8,000 Cubans whose cell phone accounts have been activated in the past several weeks have quickly become cell phone savvy. Enthralled customers have learned to use SIM cards, activate PIN numbers, and download ring tones by calling customer service, going online, and visiting ETECSA offices.

The cell phones are relatively expensive because the explicit goal is to generate income for Cuba's telecommunications infrastructure. Prepaid contracts can only be purchased in Cuban convertible pesos, which are normally used by tourists and are pegged to the U.S. dollar. Wired magazine calculates that, in U.S. dollars, the cost is roughly equal to $120—half a year's wages on the average Cuban state salary.

ETECSA assures Cubans that, though expensive, the current program in convertible pesos will allow for cell phone purchases in regular Cuban pesos in the near future. For many Cubans, however, the high price is worth paying for the most important feature ETECSA's cell phone plan offers: the ability to place and to receive international calls.

This new liberty to call abroad comes as a surprise to many Cubans who were told by Fidel Castro that the penetration of Cuba's information blockade was the most effective way to destabilize the communist regime. As Freedom House affirms in its 2007 "Freedom in the World" report, Fidel strengthened legislation against sedition in February 1999 and increased prison sentences for people who had unauthorized contact with the United States, access to "subversive" information on democracy, and documents from foreign news agencies and journalists.

Thanks to Raul Castro's recent legislation, Cuba's rigid information barrier has partially collapsed, perhaps allowing unadulterated foreign information to flow into the country.

Michael Moran, a media expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, is less optimistic. He believes Castro's motivation to allow cell phone use is purely economic—to help further develop Cuba's fiber-optic network. "It may be easy for Raul Castro to permit cell phone use in Cuba, but it's also easy for him to tap individual cell phone accounts," said Moran in an interview. The fact that ETECSA offers cell phone plans for international calls, even cell phones with picture and video message features, gives Castro's state security forces an incentive to observe ordinary Cubans' use of this new freedom, Moran contends.

But, as promised in his inaugural address, "big decisions" are set to bring "structural changes" during Raul Castro's presidency. In order to improve Cuba's national economy, Raul Castro announced, it is necessary to ease some restrictions on daily life.

By giving Cubans the ability to purchase prepaid mobile contracts and, most recently, personal computers, consumers will not only bolster Cuba's technology sector but also gain political freedom through access to foreign contacts with broader information. Though cell phone use has only just begun, and despite the possibility of state monitoring, the transparency of state-citizen relations may benefit.

Depending on the economic success of allowing cell phone use, Cubans may make greater demands for political reforms to further improve their lives. On Freedom House's 2007 "Map of Freedom," a "Not Free" Cuba floats alone in the Caribbean Sea surrounded by the "Free" and "Partly Free" countries of North, Central, and South America. With this new policy in Cuba, the country's neighbors will have an opportunity to introduce new ideas into a previously isolated island.

Kussin is a student at Bard College in New York City.

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Read More: Communication, Democracy, Governance, Human Rights, Technology, Cuba, Americas

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