Our Poverty In Material Things… and in Phone Service
Our Poverty In Material Things… and in Phone Service ??/ Yoani Sánchez?,
Voices Magazine N. 15
Translator: Unstated, Voices Magazine, Yoani Sánchez
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
From Voces 15 / June 2012