A long line of people waits in the sun outside the telephone office on Obispo Street in Old Havana. Some passersby ask about the latest news for those hoping to open a cellphone contract.
Many of them carry some old device with a monochrome screen, bought in the black market or sent by relatives abroad. But there are others with a sophisticated iPhone, Blackberry, or the latest model Motorola. Such modern phones and all their features can barely be used on the island, because of the technical limitations of the country’s only telecommunications company, ETECSA. But this doesn’t paralyze us, as we Cubans have a marked predilection for circuits and little flashing lights even if we can’t use their full capabilities.
The appetite for electronic gadgets feeds off precisely material shortages and the control maintained by the State over their distribution. What’s remarkable is that even with rudimentary technology we have been able to do so much. Imagine what we could do if Cuba’s isolated citizens had access to the technology and innovation that spawned the Internet revolution across the Florida Straits.
We have always been able to turn to illegal market networks, which offer everything from computers and all their accessories to electronic messaging. It is in this underground market — persecuted but essential — where every type and model of cellphone is offered today. Phones are the most common product on the censored webpage Revolico.com, a sort of Cuban Craigslist where the ads are free.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Havana, it is rare to walk a hundred yards and not see someone texting. According to official statistics, the number of mobile phone users nationwide is exceeds one million. Considering the growth in cellphone use in other Latin American countries, it is a low figure, only about one Cuban in twelve. Nevertheless, one could say that no element of our economy has grown as fast, in recent months, as mobile phone use. Moreover, despite the technical limitations and the difficulties in purchasing modern and inexpensive phones, the symbol of modernity represented by this little gadget has begun to change our lives.
When, Raul Castro allowed us to contract for prepaid mobile phone service in 2008, no one would have imagined that two years later these devices would be used to broadcast news censored by the official press. Through text-only messages we inform ourselves and send news out to the world. Since August 2009, some in Cuba have begun to use Twitter for small alerts, or S.O.S. calls sent from cellphones.
And independent journalism and the alternative blogosphere have realized an old dream, long deferred: immediacy. Once the Cuban networks were ready to transmit multimedia messages, the vast World Wide Web welcomed the first videos, audio and photos able to travel from the “Island of the Disconnected” to the world at large. This, despite the fact that none of the people sending these dispatches had a cellphone connected to the Internet, not to mention that the cost of sending a text message abroad exceeds the salary a professional earns for four days work.
An added difficulty is that this explosion in cellphone use is not matched by a corresponding development in ETECSA’s infrastructure. The number of clients grows, but the number of antennas and the satellite capacity does not keep up. Thus, we get frequent messages telling us “there is congestion on the lines,” and on holidays it becomes impossible to send or receive messages. Trapped between excessive costs and poor services, users cannot choose to switch to a more efficient company, because the state monopoly does not allow other companies to compete.
Thus, the request to President Obama from the firms Nokia, AT&T and Verizon, asking for an easing of the embargo and trade with Cuba, is a ray of hope for us. If we have managed to do so much with so little, what will happen when having a cellphone, sending a text, connecting to the Internet, all become as easy as talking, walking, shouting a slogan?
Note: This article originally appeared as an op-ed in the The Miami Herald on Sept. 21, 2010.