Cuba’s Phone Monopoly: Between Capitalism And Paternalism / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Users in the current wireless area of Holguin. (Fernando Donate Ochoa)
Users in the current wireless area of Holguin. (Fernando Donate Ochoa)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 8 February 2016 — Applying the toughest rules of the market on the one hand and presenting itself as paternalistic on the other, is a game well played by the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (ETECSA). While the benefits to its customers arrive drop by drop, the rates are applied strictly to the letter, without the least compassion and with no relationship to Cuban wages.

The new Wifi zones that will be opened this year, along with the timid beginning of installing internet in private homes, barely silences customer complaints over the high costs of cellphones and the deficiencies in the service. The news that five Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) recharges will get a bonus of 10 extra minutes and 20 domestic text messages, does not appease the company’s critics. [Ed. note: 5 CUC is more than $5, while wages for state workers generally don’t exceed $20 a month.]

During a press conference, Tania Valezquez, ETECSA’s direction of sales and marketing, repeated that they are doing nothing “to arbitrarily lower prices… (without) the infrastructure to support and respond to the increase in demand that would occur.” An affirmation that raises the question, “And what have you done with all the money you’ve earned over the last decades?”

The confessions of this functionary make it clear that the “principles” that the government appeals to when they ask private sellers to lower the prices of farm products, do not apply in the case of phone service. If the state company does not have the real capacity to improve the levels of traffic, it regulates consumption through high prices.

What the functionary did not say, or was not allowed to say, is that this service is not intended to benefit workers who earn 500 Cuban pesos (CUP) a month, because they would have to spend a quarter of their monthly salary — a full week’s wages — to buy the cheapest recharge card.

Nevertheless, the number of cellphone customers in Cuba is increasing, with more than three million mobile lines in service at the end of 2015, tangible proof that the amount of money in the hands of the citizenry is not directly tied to the system of wages. But ETECSA just can’t understand that these are customers, not beneficiaries of a giveaway, who complain that they do not receive a quality of service that corresponds to the high rates they are paying for it.

It is time for the country’s only telephone company to set aside the contradictory discourse of presenting itself as a company that is doing a great favor to Cubans by installing a dozen Wifi zones across the whole country. Its extortionate prices and its status as a monopoly place it squarely  the worst of savage capitalists that the Cuban authorities claim to abominate.