Our Poverty In Material Things… and in Phone Service 

/ Yoani Sánchez
, Voices Magazine N. 15

Photo from PenultimosDias.com

Only since March of 2008 have Cuban citizens living on the island been able to contract for cellphone service. Before that it was the exclusive privilege of trusted officials and foreigners living on or passing through the island. With the ingenuity that characterizes us, we managed to skirt such difficult obstacles.

It was not uncommon to see Cubans station themselves at the country’s tourist centers “on the hunt” for a tourist who would do them the favor of contracting for cellphone service. The fact that the service was offered only in the form of prepaid cards made the trick that much easier. The foreigner “showed his face” to the Cubacel official who demanded a passport from another country, and then left his Cuban “friend” with the greatly desired SIM card.

Fortunately, one of Raul Castro’s first reforms was to eliminate what was known as “tourist apartheid,” although he substituted something worst… not written in the fine print of the contract. That is the prohibitive prices that make cellphones in Cuba a service available only to the wealthy—or politically reliable—sectors of the population.

To translate the expression “prohibitive prices” into figures comprehensible to any earthling, let’s look at some examples. To do that, it is first necessary to understand that Cuba has two currencies. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC)—which is not actually convertible into any other world currency—is pegged to the U.S. dollar, but after the exchange fees is only worth about 90 cents. Many products in Cuba are available only in CUCs. The second currency is the Cuban peso (CUP), also called “national money” and this is the currency in which we are paid our wages; twenty-four Cuban pesos equal one CUC. The average monthly salary on the island is 350.00 Cuban pesos, or 14.50 CUC, about $13 U.S. The highest monthly salaries are the equivalent of about $20.

To send a text message from Cuba to a phone abroad costs one CUC. So a simple message of greeting to a family member in Madrid or Buenos Aires would cost the average Cuban almost seven percent of his or her salary. Translated to the average national wage in the United States (about $3,500 a month), this would be the equivalent of $240 to send one text message, meaning the average American worker could spend his or her entire salary to send 14 or 15 text messages a month.

As absurd and exploitative as this seems, it is possible in today’s Cuba because we live with a monopoly of a single, State-owned telephone company called ETECSA. Our “socialism with opportunities for all,” is actually a system that defrauds its clients who have no rights to demand redress. Many Cubans joke that the initials ETECSA stand for “We are Trying to Communicate Without Trouble,” rather than their real meaning: Public Telephone Company of Cuba.

Who on the Island can afford these prices? The answer is complex, but worth taking the time to explore: those who work in corporations where they receive a part of their salary in CUCs; those who receive remittances from a relative in exile; those who have shady black market businesses; those who demonstrate such ideological affinity with the government that they ascend to jobs “with subsidized cellphone included”; those who travel abroad as musicians, as superior athletes or as Cuban technicians on official missions; those who work for themselves in some profession that produces more income than state employment; and also those who can count on the support of a friend living elsewhere on the globe.

If none of these paths existed—some illegal and others ethically reprehensible—Cuba would be a mute island with regards to cellphones, a black hole of communication. Fortunately, we are not.

The high costs of cellphone service are intended to raise the greatest possible amount of that desirable currency that the Cuban government needs to survive. So every text message a Cuban sends overseas helps to finance not only the infrastructure—inefficient and unstable—of phone antennas, ETECSA offices and the tie-wearing functionaries and their secretaries, but also part of the official propaganda on TV, weapons that are bought for a war that never comes, and even snacks for the political police who keep an eye on the non-conformists.

In short, without realizing it, we are subsidizing our own chains, we send a text message and with it we feed the censor who reads it on the other end of the line and the bureaucrat who is ready to cut off our service if he thinks the words sent “threaten national security.”

What would you do in such a case? Would you let it go? Renounce it? Protest? Would you vegetate in the morass of non-communication, aware of living under a State that owns all the businesses and all possible words? Would you demonstrate your outrage in some public place? There is not shortage of us who would like to do the same!

But it turns out that you—in the case “we”—are trapped in material deprivation, in a system that condemns us to a cycle of survival and guilt any time we manage to fly a little higher. Many even claim that the high cellphone prices in Cuba aren’t just to bring money into the State coffers, but also to prevent the wider use of this tool.

With just 1.8 million cellphone users on an Island of 11 million people, it’s clear that we are bringing up the rear of the communication train in Latin America. What’s more, landline phones are also less common here, and many Cubans have never had a home phone—that heavy contraption with a rotating dial, instead of a gadget with a screen and keys. Can you imagine that scary technology?  If so, you can understand the awe of Cubans who have a Nokia or Motorola or some other model that rings in their pockets.

Those who finally manage to carry that ringing with them everywhere feel themselves members of a “brotherhood” of cellphone customers, chosen by economic chance often unrelated to how hard-working or socially important a person is. So the next step after contracting for service in one of the offices with the long lines and half-asleep employees, is to take care—however you can—that the ETECSA monopoly doesn’t cut your service.

How can you manage that? Shut up, fake it, don’t talk about any difficult issues on the phone, definitely don’t talk about that “dirty” thing called politics. Every Cubacel user senses that their phone could be like the waiting room at the train station, where every ear is listening. And these are not the paranoid delusions of Cubans, it’s common sense in a country where official television plays the recordings of people’s phone calls—recorded without any authorization from a judge or a court—where one dissident is talking with another, a citizen sharing critical opinions, through the ether of cellular service.

Paternalism, the constant observance and presence of the State, gives citizens the impression that any step over the line is illegal. The cellphone—most of our compatriots believe—is a gift to us, not a service that we ourselves pay for. While using it we must observe the same ideological guidelines that we follow at our school desks, at our jobs in some official institution, on the bus owned by the only legally permitted bus company. This gadget that connects us to another, for the ordinary Cuban, is linked to the fear that one day the service will be cut off for stating a critical phrase or an opposing view.

And so you ask us why there isn’t a North African style revolution in Cuba? How will we call ourselves together if the barely 11% of the population that owns cell phones treats them like precious jewels, like luscious fruit obtained after much difficulty that could be in danger if used for civic activities. Can you imagine for one minute a Spanish 15M activist paying 69 euros for a single text message? Think about the Occupy Wall Streeters with no ability to send chain messages to others who share their ideas, because the telephone monopoly cut off their service. Think about the Chilean student activists without the ability to communicate their dissatisfaction through social networks. Comparing realities is a risky thing, but it also helps to understand the limitations, we face.

It all became more complicated after 2008 when numerous Twitter accounts began to be opened outside the bounds of the official institutions. First awkwardly, and then in fascination, several citizens began to discover the potential of 140 characters. It seemed something unattainable for us ordinary disconnected Internauts. Keep in mind that throughout the 42,000 square miles of the Island, there is not one office where a citizen can go to contract for home Internet. This is a privilege enjoyed only by foreigners living in the country (how symptomatic!), or by the most trusted local artists and functionaries.

Fortunately, many of do not agree with the ideological kilobyte divide and dare to buy access on the great World Wide Web on the black market, or at least to knock on the doors of some embassy that provides access to the web, knowing that the official propaganda will make us pay a high political price. Others dare to use even more creative ways to reach cyberspace.

But this little blue bird, this social network used by so many all over the world, flitters here in another way. While the great majority of Twitterers do it from a computer (with TweetDeck and other applications), here only a few enjoy this possibility. You can choose to access this service from an institutional connection, which inevitably involves ideological concessions, or to declare yourself a fugitive-Twitterer and do it however you can. On the latter path is the possibility of posting to Twitter from text messages, a service that brings this social network to those dispossessed of access to the web—meaning any individual located anywhere in the world has access to it.

From Lisbon to Sidney, anyone who has a Twitter account and a cellphone can update their status through text messages, although with the limitation of not knowing what others are writing or what themes are trending on the network. But it is an option.

If you choose to Tweet from the physical comfort of official institutions, on the other hand, the content will in many ways be conditioned on the ideological directives of those places.

Let me be clear that I am not trying to characterize all those who use a State connection as “official bloggers or Twitterers”… Not at all! Because that would be to fall into the same definitional scheme maintained by government propaganda. Among those people, some escape from this straitjacket—maintaining Twitter accounts completely detached from social or political reality—with texts in the style of, “Hi, friends… how beautiful is the sun this morning… and have you ever seen such a gorgeous sea?”

Others are sitting in front of their official computers, salary included, precisely to crack down—on the Internet—on voices that criticize of the system. You don’t believe me? Why then, as soon as the workday comes to an end, do the “official voices” disappear? Why do so many of those who attack government critics not dare to show their faces and hide behind the protection of a pseudonym? Why is it that sometimes they publish information that could only have come from the political police? Haven’t you wondered why so many show up with the same nickname at the same time every day, as if they were directed, commanded “from above?” On Twitter the soldier leaves traces of his position. In the midst of this spontaneity of the social web, partisan positions are easily detected.

So to express yourself on the web, to be a Twitterer in Cuba, is inextricably intertwined with your pocketbook and your ethics… because we live in a country where not only are differences of opinion penalized, but prosperity is as well. Let’s suppose for a minute that you are a successful entrepreneur—a difficult thing to be in the midst of high taxes and the lack of a wholesale market, but still, let’s consider this utopian example—and we read the hypothetical stream of tweets that you generate. Most likely it’s limited to talking about the recipes you prepare in your restaurant, the lovely rooms you rent, or the incredible car repair service you provide. You will say little, very little or nothing, in the way of social critique. Because you know that by doing so you’d be risking your license for self-employment, for which you’ve already paid so much.

Since childhood, you were taught in school that every opinion running around in your head should stay right there, where no one will hear it or, perhaps, you will whisper it to a friend, or to your partner when your heads touch on the pillow. Why would you jeopardize your small daily survival and throw yourself under the enormous microscope of power? For a few simple tweets launched like a bottle on the sea into cyberspace?

I understand it, but I do not applaud this attitude… I’m sorry, I’ve already found my voice and I cannot go back to silencing it.

Let’s continue taking you as an example—don’t think you can get out of it—and conjecture that, despite your salary of $13 USD, or your meager earnings at your private snack bar, you won’t want to give up expressing yourself on the social networks. A friend undertakes the steps to connect your cellphone to Twitter, your brother lives in Costa Rica and promises to recharge it for you over the Internet so you can use it to publish text messages… and having been silenced for so long, you have a lot to say…

Once you start in on the exorcism in 140 characters, Cubacel follows up with some short disconnects of your service, and new faces start showing up in your neighborhood—lurking behind columns and under the stairs. Your friends no longer call your house because you have become a “cyber-warrior,” one of those they see on national television typing on a laptop while elsewhere on the screen a helicopter gunship hovers.

Take a deep breath. Clutch the cellphone in your hand and ask yourself if the same thing will happen to Twitterers who spend their days typing slogans. Will they also update their status from a cellphone supported by a family member in exile? Or, on the contrary, will they be able to enjoy one of those computers permanently connected to an Internet that never disrupts the kilobytes sent in convertible pesos?

You will then begin to understand—or you’ve already sensed—that the whole system is designed to make you feel guilty for having a cellphone, for maintaining a Twitter account and, especially, to make you decide not to use it to raise your small voice—singular and different—to be heard in the global village.

Meanwhile, your brother in Costa Rica is painted by official propaganda as an employee of the CIA, and the various readers who recharge your phone from time to time are practically Satan himself.

You’re in the middle of the room about to toss your cellphone off the balcony and call ETECSA to tell them to put their service where the sun don’t shine, but you stop yourself.

You’re not going to let yourself get sucked into the mentality of the oppressor, you’re not going to let the hand that offers you bits of damp birdseed make you believe that the cage is preferable to the risk of flying free.

From Voces 15 / June 2012