The Recharge of Discord

Phone recharges now represent a very valuable source of income in foreign currency for the Cuban government. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 30 May 2019 — A new reproach has come to join the list of complaints that some Cubans living abroad make to their compatriots on the island. This time it is about requests from abroad to recharge phone balances: “You voted Yes on the constitutional referendum, you participate in the May Day march, you do nothing to overthrow the dictatorship and on top of that you ask me for a recharge,” respond some angry relatives.

The actors in this drama are three: the Cuban who wants connectivity; the State that keeps the money; and the emigrant who pays to recharge a mobile phone or a Nauta navigation account for a relative or friend still in Cuba.

For the resident in Cuba, connectivity can be considered as either a luxury or as an urgent need; everything depends on their occupational profile, their desire to be informed, their plans to emigrate or simply their vocation to behave like earthlings of the 21st century. They appeal to relatives abroad to recharge their phones because their wages do not allow them to pay the unjustifiable price imposed by the state telephone monopoly.

For the Cuban State, connectivity, whether to talk on the phone or to link to the network, has become the most profitable merchandise it can offer. The cost to the State is minimal, the price is disproportionate, the demand is increasing and a large part of the payment is made in real money — dollars, euros, pounds sterling or whatever currency is used by the generous relatives who buy the balance on the numerous digital sites that offer the service.

For the relative or friend who pays for the recharge, let’s say 20 dollars a month, this is a way to guarantee fluid communication with one’s family, while at the time supporting the possibility that the recipient in Cuba will find out what is happening in the world independently and may also, if they dare, participate as an activist by uploading their opinions or a video denouncing any abuse on the part of the authorities. Since most of the emigrants have to work very hard to earn a living, these recharges are usually a sacrifice, especially when they have more than one possible beneficiary on the Island.

As mobile telephony expands in Cuba, the demand for recharges from abroad grows. The possibility of connecting to the Internet from cell phones has triggered a consumption of gigabytes that, due to the high prices, is not within reach of the average purchasing power of the population.

It is for this reason that the state telecommunications monopoly Etecsa encourages, with tempting promotions, the purchase of balances from abroad. Pay $20 and get a bonus of $30 is one of the most repeated promotions, and the one that produces the most excitement among the possible beneficiaries.

It is well known that almost all of the remittances sent to Cuba by relatives living outside the country end up being spent at the counters of State markets. It has been estimated that for any merchandise sold in the “Hard Currency Collection Stores*” (TRDs) the State imposes a price that can exceed by 200% its costs to acquire or produce it.

Many people, especially retirees, survive thanks to these transactions. The ties of blood and affection towards a mother or a grandfather more than outweigh any political scruples.

But when the frequency with which Cubans on the island ask for a recharge reaches certain limits, “as if here money grows on trees,” many emigrants ask themselves two questions: What does the Government do with my dollars? Why do these “servile eunuchs, obedient rams, supporters of the dictatorship” want to connect to the internet?

The above-mentioned epithets abound in the networks. Perhaps they come from patriots who were deprived of their property, who endured long years of political imprisonment or who had to escape to avoid certain death. Or not. Sometimes those who have paid a high price for courage understand the cowards better.

In their idealistic desire to hasten changes in Cuba, especially when they have been in exile for many years, some emigrants would like to see a more immediate and substantial result from the help they provide. But gigabytes are not projectiles with an explosive charge, rather they are slow and subtle pushes against the wall of disinformation, windows from which to look out at freedom, tears to the veil that does not let one see the reality.

The photos and videos that showed the stampede of shouting protestors chasing Diaz-Canel’s presidential caravan in the town of Regla, the images of an angry protest in Guantánamo, the repression to which a march against homophobia on Havana’s Prado was subjected, the arbitrary detentions and beatings and other events of recent history, never disseminated by official media, are now accessible on YouTube. The recharges of discord are behind all that as well.

*Translator’s note: This is literally the name the State chose to give its network of stores that sell products in hard currency.


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