In Cuba, Cellphone Calls Go Unanswered

A woman speaks on her cellphone, a luxury for most Cubans, who use the devices to page and text, but not to talk.
A woman speaks on her cellphone, a luxury for most Cubans, who use the devices to page and text, but not to talk. (By Ramon Espinosa -- Associated Press)

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By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 3, 2009

HAVANA, Jan. 2 -- Tatiana González stood transfixed before the glass display case watching a single cellphone spin around and around on a carousel at the government-run store. It was a Nokia 1112, a simple, boxy gray workhorse of mobile telecommunications technology -- and González was in love.

She coveted that phone. She confessed she had dreamed of that phone. But she would have to wait just a little longer before she could cradle it to her ear. How much longer? "I hope a year, no more," said González, who toils as a manager of medical records in a hospital, earning $21.44 a month.

That Nokia 1112? The government is offering the phone, charger included, for $58.

This is the hard math of the Cuban revolution, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary and a rickety state-run socialist economy struggles not only to feed, house and care for its people but also to offer them a nibble of global consumer culture.

In his first year as president, Raúl Castro has added a few items to the menu of island life. Since taking over from his ailing older brother Fidel, who has not been seen in public since July 2006 when he underwent what is believed to have been intestinal surgery, Raúl has decided that Cubans can now, legally, purchase once-forbidden fruit, such as DVD players, microwave ovens, desktop computers and mobile phones. It is an experiment that Havana residents have embraced -- especially the cellphones. They're crazy for them.

Everyone agrees a microwave is a useful tool, but a cellphone is the icon of modernity. Since Castro began allowing the purchases in April, and then slashed prices in half in December, mobile phones have become the new status symbol in proletarian Havana, but with a Cuban twist. Cubans don't actually talk on their cellphones. They use them as pagers.

"I never talk on mine. Never, never. If I talk, I talk because it's almost like an emergency, and even then, I talk for a minute, that's it," said Vladimiro Pérez, who stirs mojitos at a swank hotel bar in Old Havana and earns a pittance in salary but hundreds of dollars more in tips from the Canadian and European tourists keeping the island afloat in hard currencies.

The United States entered and exited the Age of the Beeper in the 1980s, but Cuba has just arrived at it. All over Havana, a visitor sees people looking at the cellphones, not speaking into them.

When Pérez and other Cubans get a call, they rarely answer. Instead, they look at the number, find a land-line telephone, which is ubiquitous and dirt cheap to use, and return the call. If they're feeling flush, they might type a message. "We just type," explained Pérez, wagging his finger. "No talk."

The Cuban government has not released official tallies of cellphone users, though a person who works in the technology field in Havana estimated that there were no more than 250,000 users in a nation of 11.2 million.

Even so, the obstacles to entering the cellular world are almost impossibly high for most Cubans. First, there is getting the phone. Most Cubans appear not to have purchased that Nokia 1112 so beloved by Tatiana González but to have worked a deal for a used phone on the gray market -- or more likely, were given one by a relative living abroad. Those old, outdated Ericksons gathering dust in a drawer in Miami or Madrid? They're headed to Cuba.

Now the hard part. To open a mobile phone account with the state telephone monopoly, ETECSA, a user must go, with a cellphone in hand, to one of the few offices in Havana, stand in line for an hour and then pay $65 to activate the service -- a bargain compared with the $130 the government used to charge. This money is not paid in Cuban pesos but in the parallel currency used by foreigners, Cuban "convertible pesos," known as CUCs and pronounced "kooks." These are huge sums for Cubans, whose average monthly salary is around $20.


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