Mobile Phone Recharges in Cuba Are a Headache for Relatives in Miami

The video is not subtitled.  The woman is repeating over and over “don’t ask me for a recharge.”

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Pentón, Miami | Junio 15, 2018 — “My little brother, toss me a refill.” “Asere, I need a little help.” “Compadre, they are only twenty pesitos.” These are some of the most common phrases repeated every month on the social networks of people living in Cuba. They are addressed to friends, relatives and even strangers abroad, the only ones who can take advantage of the promotions offered by the state communications monopoly Etecsa.

As if it were a hunting season, the gun is that of the telecommunications company itself. “Etecsa informs that a recharge with a bonus will be valid from June 11 to 15. If you recharge 20 you get 60,” says a text message that the company sends to its users’ mobiles on the Island. From then on, the desperate search for benefactors abroad begins.

“The refills have no name. Every month I have to get strong because if I don’t they bleed me dry,” says Yuralay Batista, a Cuban who has lived in Miami for three years. “Imagine this, the other day a woman who says she was in daycare with me, sent me a friend request, asking if I could help her with a recharge,” she said.

Another Cuban who recently exploded in response to requests for reloads was Nairovis Brooks López, a woman from Santiago who went on Facebook Live to protest against the massive number of requests she received. The video went viral and currently exceeds 360,000 views.

Cubans have had cell phone access only relatively recently. After years of its being a privilege of diplomats, tourists and top leaders of the Communist Party, in 2008 Raúl Castro allowed the use of these telephones to be extended to the population.

In just a decade the country already has more than five million cell phone lines and Etecsa has announced that in the near future it will allow users to surf the internet via smartphones, although it has not revealed the prices.

The costs of mobile phone serve are very high relative to the average monthly salary of the Island, which is just 29.5 CUC, according to official figures. Contracting for a mobile line costs about 40 CUC and a minute of conversation is 0.40 cents CUC, almost half the average wage of a full working day in state companies.

“Etecsa is growing at the expense of the work of people abroad,” said Batista.

Alain González, who resides in Hialeah, told this newspaper that he considers it “an abuse” that Cubans living on the island can not have the right to recharge their mobile phone in national currency and qualify for the Etecsa promotions.

González, who has been working in a factory for five years, travels frequently to the island and admits that he frequently recharges the cell phones of family and friends because that allows them to “keep in touch.”

“My mother lives in Centro Habana. With the recharge she calls me once a week. It’s cheaper than me calling her from the United States,” he says. “Having a landline in Cuba is a luxury. That’s my way of helping,” he adds.

Another important element with regards to the recharges to the Island is that the balances on people’s cellphone accounts have started to be used as a virtual currency. In a country where most transactions have to be made with notes or coins, the use of this tool, for which Etecsa charges 0.30 cents of CUC has grown exponentially.

Some economists have estimated that the state monopoly has realized profits exceeding 2 billion dollars from prepaid cellphone service. More than half of the country’s telephone lines are maintained by recharges from abroad, the sources add.

Etecsa does not provide data on the number of top-ups or the profits obtained through them, but Tania Velázquez, vice president of Business Strategy and Technologies for the company, told the national media that the company prioritizes services with payments from abroad to capture foreign exchange.

The official figures in just 20% of the top-ups made from abroad despite the avalanche of petitions protested by Cubans living abroad.


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