Out of Service / Yoani Sánchez

Commemorative plaque in Havana for the first telephone conversation in Spanish, which occurred in that city on 31 October 1877

It weighs more than a “bad marriage,” my grandmother used to say about that enormous black telephone in the neighbor’s house. It had a very short cord and after making a call my index finger was covered with the dust from under the dial. Still, I waited anxiously for the shout that announced my mother was calling from her work or from some province. We went running up the stairs to glue our ears to the receiver and listen to what the almost metallic voice said on the other end. Among the more than ten families living in that tenement, only two had telephones. So any quarrel with the owners of this important gadget would leave you helpless, incommunicado.

If, in March of 2008, Raul Castro had imagined the role cell phones would play in Cuba’s incipient civil society, he probably never would have authorized their use. Before that date, Cubans had to ask a foreigner to take out a cell phone contract and then allow them the use of the service. The desired SIM card could only be acquired by the same people who could enjoy the hotel rooms and car rentals, in short, by people who had not been born on this Island. Fortunately, this apartheid ended almost four years ago, and since that date more than 1.2 million users have contracted with Cubacel for prepaid service. This figure shouldn’t please us, because we are still far behind the rest of the Latin American nations.

Despite the limitations of its high cost, low coverage area in many places in the country, and the temporary suspensions of service to “inconvenient” users, cell phones have changed our lives. At this time, the ability to send and receive text messages has strengthened contact between citizens, fostered the exchange of news, and given us the invaluable ability to post Twitter messages without Internet access. A few days ago the price of internal text messages was reduced by 44%, though we are still light years above the prices in effect in the rest of the world. If the objective of the country’s only telephone company is to attract more customers and raise profits, they will also have to accept the collateral affect of the freeing up of information and communications that this will bring. Cubacel calculates the economic benefits, but it is incapable of realizing — in its true potential — the powerful social tool that we now carry in our pockets.

7 February 2011