Sunday, March 30, 2008

Cuba's new access to gizmos could deflect calls for deeper change

Cuba's new access to gizmos could deflect calls for deeper change
Saturday, March 29, 2008
The Associated Press

HAVANA — First microwaves, now cell phones. Is this the new Cuba?

Raul Castro is revolutionizing his brother's island in small but
significant ways — the latest in a decree Friday allowing ordinary
Cubans to have cell phone service, a luxury previously reserved for the
select few. The new president could be betting greater access to such
modern gadgets will quell demand for deeper change.

Many Cubans hope cell phones and new appliances are only the beginning
for a post-Fidel Castro government that will improve their lives.
Communist bureaucracy limits everything from Internet access to home

Could cellular phones in dissidents' hands give state security forces an
edge in monitoring their conversations or tracking their movements by
satellite? Perhaps, but government opponents already assume someone's
always listening.

Until now, the only people legally allowed to have a cell plan were
foreigners, Cubans working for foreign companies and top government
officials. Thousands more illegally use phones registered to foreign
friends or relatives.

The new program could put phones in the hands of hundreds of thousands
of Cubans, especially those with relatives abroad who send them hard
currency. But they will remain out of reach for most on the island
because minutes are billed in convertible pesos — which cost Cubans 24
times the regular pesos they are paid in.

The government controls more than 90 percent of the economy, and while
the communist system ensures most Cubans have free housing, education
and health care and receive ration cards that cover basic food needs,
the average monthly state salary is less than $20.

Nobody should expect to see iPhones for sale in Havana anytime soon.
Although visitors who bring their Internet-equipped phones to Cuba can
use them through Cuba's network, Cuba's cellular phone company offers
such phones to only a limited number of corporate clients.

And despite cell-phone images from Tibet and Myanmar that gave the world
a glimpse of repression in those closed societies, Cuba has made no
attempt to ban phones with photo or video technology. In fact, some
models are sold in government-run stores, and Cubans with illegally
registered phones already use them to send snapshots off the island.

Of course, if unrest were to develop, Cuba's phone monopoly could close
down such transmissions with the flick of a switch.

Friday's announcement came in a small black box on page 2 of the
Communist Party newspaper Granma, which said details would be announced
in the coming days. It was signed by the state-controlled
telecommunications monopoly, a joint venture of Cuba's government and
Italy's Telecom Italia.

Limited cell phone service has been available in Cuba since 1991.
Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A., or ETECSA, has invested
heavily in Cuba's fiber optic network in recent years and clearly
believes it is ready to handle heavier traffic.

It also expects a nice profit — enough to let it offer cellular lines in
regular Cuban pesos at some point in the future.

It's unclear which manufacturers will be tapped to provide cell phones
to an expanded Cuban market. For now, very basic phones bought in bulk
from Nokia Corp. or Motorola Inc. are sold. A few phones on sale Friday
offered basic camera functions, but those retailed for as much as $280.

The decree came a week after a resolution promising consumer goods
including PCs, DVD players, car alarms and televisions of all sizes will
go on sale in state-run stores Tuesday. Those goods previously could be
purchased only by foreigners and companies.

And in December, the government distributed about 3,000 microwaves made
by South Korea's Daewoo Electronics. Local authorities say the pilot
program, in a town outside Havana, could lead to a nationwide offering
of microwaves on long-term credit.

"We are progressing with the world," said Havana resident Jorge Chavez.
"Progress had to reach us, too."

The small steps could help push back demands for greater change that
many Cubans have made since an ailing, 81-year-old Fidel Castro stepped
down from the presidency last month.

His 76-year-old brother has repeatedly said there will be no major
changes in the island's economic and political systems, but has also
made clear he understands that Cubans' salaries barely cover their most
basic needs.

Some of the measures he has promoted appear designed to make life more
pleasant without requiring any major systemic reforms. The younger
Castro has pushed for an overhaul of the dilapidated public
transportation system with thousands of new buses, and for increased
agricultural production to ensure everyone has plenty to eat.

But some said the latest measure was less than revolutionary.

"Suddenly, there will be a lot more people talking on the phone," said
Quiala, the retiree. "But not much else will change."

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