14ymedio, Natalia López Moya, Havana, 17 October 2022 — With its blue logo, air-conditioned offices and no competition in the national market, the Cuban Telecommunications Company (Etecsa) is experiencing a paradoxical situation: it is one of the few national entities that generates a large income, and, even so, it is in a difficult financial situation.
“We’re tying pieces of cables together in order to solve the breaks,” complains José Ángel, a worker of the state monopoly, a company that is experiencing “the worst crisis since its creation,” an employee of the Plaza de la Revolución municipality tells 14ymedio. “The bosses still have privileges, but we are without the resources to serve customers.”
José Ángel lists everything they lack. “There are no landlines to replace the old ones; we lack the boxes to install inside homes; the supply of cables is also having many problems, and even mobility is affected by the shortage of fuel.” The rosary of hardships stimulates the desertion of employees who once saw in Etecsa a “comfortable and privileged” place to work.
“This has changed a lot in recent years. They used to sell us products at a preferential price, but that happens less and less,” says a worker at the customer service office located in the Trade Market. “Here we are a little better because this place is very central and works like a display window, but in the other municipalities they can practically not even turn on the air conditioning.”
Every 15 days, Etecsa launches a cell-phone recharge promotion with extra bonuses to be paid from abroad. In 2019, computer science graduate Luilver Garcés Briñas estimated that on each of those occasions the state monopoly could be earning more than 7 million dollars from abroad.
But most of that hard currency isn’t invested in the telecommunications infrastructure. “About 90% of what Etecsa collects leaves the company in a large item marked “undefined,” clarifies another employee linked to the accounting area, who prefers to remain anonymous. “With what remains, it’s very difficult to maintain a quality service because we can’t make large investments.”
The lack of liquidity is also beginning to take its toll on Etecsa with its foreign investors. “In 2022, for the first time in 15 years, we haven’t been able to fulfill our financial commitment to Nokia,” the Finnish company that has worked on the Island to implement part of the data service for cell phones. “Investors are pressing us like crazy, but there’s no money,” says the accountant.
“A point has been reached where a large investment has to be made to improve connectivity, because the submarine cable with Venezuela is not enough now,” adds the source, who assures that alternatives are being sought with the Government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. At the same time, he says: “Although negotiations are in the works with Mexico for the possible laying of another cable, such a project will need investments, and the company is not able to make them right now.”
“The problem is that cell-phone usage has grown very fast, and we went from almost zero to approaching the 8 million cell phones we have right now. Customers are increasingly making use of data, downloading and uploading videos, making video calls and watching movies on the Internet, and all that is overtaxing the infrastructure we have, which is not expanding and improving at the speed needed,” he explains.
Bad news will continue to accumulate for the monopoly. Etecsa has not updated the exchange rate between hard currencies and the Cuban peso, as state exchange offices have done since last August. The delay in assuming the new exchange rates brings many distortions, including for immigrants, who find it better to send euros or dollars in cash to their family in Cuba to pay for a recharge, instead of paying for the service from abroad.
“A recharge from the United States costs between 20 and 23 dollars, and my relatives in Cuba receive 500 pesos of fixed amount, plus the bonuses that Etecsa promotes,” explains Indira, an immigrant from the Island who has been in Miami for a few months. “That same amount of money in Cuba is equivalent to about 4,200 or 4,500 pesos, enough to put eight packages of 500 pesos and still leave money for a smaller package.”
“Every day that passes without Etecsa correcting this great difference, more people here realize it and prefer to send the money for the recharge directly to the relatives,” says the young woman.
In the customer service center, the phone rings and the operator says: “Good morning, Marilú is taking care of you, how can I help you?” On the other side of the line, a subscriber complains with an annoying tone that his landline has not been working for three months and that he has reported this five times. “I’m going to put it on the list, but right now we don’t have supplies for repairs,” the employee says.
Calls with similar claims will continue for the whole day. In his daily report, José Ángel receives calls to attend to breakdowns in his municipality. “I’m going to see what happens, but if you need cables or boxes I can’t do anything. I’m only going to fulfil the formality that we review the problem,” he says while driving a van with a half-deleted Etecsa logo.
Translated by Regina Anavy
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