Ban on Consumer Cell Phones Lifted in Cuba Raul Castro has enacted a number of changes since he took over the Cuban presidency for his brother in February. Unused land is now open to private farmers, and consumer goods are more widely available. Now, citizens can purchase cell phones and people are lined up to buy them — despite extremely high prices.
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Ban on Consumer Cell Phones Lifted in Cuba

Ban on Consumer Cell Phones Lifted in Cuba

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Raul Castro has enacted a number of changes since he took over the Cuban presidency for his brother in February. Unused land is now open to private farmers, and consumer goods are more widely available. Now, citizens can purchase cell phones and people are lined up to buy them — despite extremely high prices.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Raul Castro has enacted a number of changes since he took over for his brother in Cuba a couple of months ago. Unused land is now open to private farmers and cooperatives. Consumer goods like pressure cookers and DVD players are now more widely available. Cubans with enough money are now permitted to stay at luxury hotels and to rent cars.

And now, for the first time Cubans can buy cell phones. They're not cheap. It costs about 120 dollars to activate a cell phone. That's about a half a year's salary for many people in Cuba. But people still lined up to buy them. If you have a question about the changes going on in Cuba, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And of course, we'll take questions from members of the studio audience here at the Newseum. We being with Julia Sweig, senior fellow and director of Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century." She joins us here at the Newseum. Thank you very much for coming in.

Dr. JULIA SWEIG (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, "Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century"): Neal, thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: And the changes - why is Raul Castro doing this, after so long, when all of this seemed to be frozen?

Dr. SWEIG: Well, Fidel Castro formally resigned, and Raul Castro became head of state about six weeks ago. And at that time, really, the clock started ticking. There is an awareness at the top levels of the Raul Castro government that the demands from the Cuban people for more freedom and for a better material life both are real and palpable, and he's starring to deliver.

CONAN: And is this - do we know how his brother - what his brother thinks of all of this?

Dr. SWEIG: Well, no, we don't. But we assume - there are lots of reasons to assume that his brother has given his blessing, and that his brother understands that really these changes have to be made and his brother is incapable of governing because of his physical incapacity, but nothing Raul is doing, my guess is, he's doing against Fidel's objection.

CONAN: Mm hm. Nevertheless, a lot of people are going to say, well, first of all, this is incremental and nowhere near enough.

Dr. SWEIG: Well, of course not. Look, if anybody thinks that the narrative is going to unfold as Jimmy Carter going down and monitoring a multi-party election, and the IMF going down and restructuring the economy, that's wrong. But incrementalism is about all that that regime in order to stay in power will allow.

And the Cuban people are quite cautious, but they are desiring change, and this step-by-step little process over time. And there are more measures, that we can talk about that you didn't enumerate, are going to deliver, I believe, real change within the framework of socialism. And that's what's really important to understand.

CONAN: Within this framework of socialism, yet our experience of socialist states, once they start introducing seemingly minor reforms, is that it's sometimes the top of a very slippery and steep slope.

Dr. SWEIG: I think that's right and this socialist state also observed, over the last 20 years, and 20 years ago as the Berlin Wall fell, and observed that incrementalism, carefully controlled, is critical. And I think that's why the pace of change will continue to be deliberate and slow, and some of it will have a psychological effect, such as allowing the cell phone purchases. Now, not everybody can buy those, but knowing now, as a Cuban, that I have a right to buy them changes by frame of mind and my relationship to the state, in my view.

CONAN: In your view. And these other changes, tell us, which do you think is the most important?

Dr. SWEIG: Well, you left out, also, that people can now buy computers. Now, this leaves the question open about the Internet access.

CONAN: Yes, it does.

Dr. SWEIG: And I was just reading today, before coming over here and coming over, appropriately, to this Newseum, a debate in the Union of Writers and Artists Congress that took place last week. And specifically put on the table is the issue of the access to Internet. This is a moment, now, where Cubans are talking more freely about dissent, about freedom of speech, about the meaning of democracy than they really have in 50 years.

So, I'm not sure they know where this is going, but the computer issue, the Internet issue, the move to a single currency. They lifted the cap on wages. They're also going to, I believe, privatize. They don't use that word, but they're going to begin to allow Cubans to get out from under the weight of the state by opening their own businesses.

All slowly over time, but again, the idea is preserve - make sure not too much inequality grows as a result of this, because that's a firm piece of this revolutionary ethos, but also, get the state out of the way so that the state can worry about paying for the social welfare system that all Cubans believe that they're still entitled to. But get out of their way so that they can have more freedoms. And those words are on the table, as well.

CONAN: Joining us now is Juan Jacomino. He's the Global Radio News correspondent and he's based in Havana, where he works. And Juan, nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. JUAN JACOMINO (Correspondent, Global Radio News): My pleasure, really. I was listening to the previous speaker and I couldn't agree more. Perhaps she may - she failed to mention a major change, which has to do with agriculture. That's mainland people who work in and produce food because production of food is key for Cuba.

So, that will be a major part of the reform, but of course, like she said, all the changes are seen by Cuba with a positive eye because they constituted sensitive prohibitions that are now being removed. So, Cubans in general (unintelligible) welfare. I am a Cuban (unintelligible) to start with and I welcome them.

CONAN: It's - curiously, the cell phones in the new system in Cuba seem to work about as well as our cell phones here, a lot of the time. So we're having a little difficulty hearing you. Nevertheless, is this reform being greeted with open arms by a lot of people? The convenience of carrying around a little piece of metal in your pocket, glued to your ear all day long?

Mr. JACOMINO: Well, yes, like I said, because it's part of prohibitions that are being removed and people welcome that. We have (unintelligible) many prohibitions. But yes, it's good to have access to cell phones. It's good to be able to buy computers, and it's good to (unintelligible) fly, and we will get that.

We will be able to travel abroad without - with less of a hurdle on the part of immigration authorities and all that. So, people are welcoming them, in general. Although, I should say, that the rate at which they are going, the prices that we're paying for things, from a cell phone to a computer is (unintelligible) for a majority of Cubans, and something will have to be done.

But there is awareness that salaries in Cuba are not enough, that they need to do something about salaries and incomes, that people need to earn more money so that they can lead decent lives based on what they make at their jobs.

CONAN: Where are people getting the money? These cell phones, for a bureaucrat in Havana, half a year's salary. Where are you getting - where are people finding the money to buy cell phones?

Mr. JACOMINO: Well, people make ends meet like anywhere else. People have jobs. People who work in tourism get tips. There are people who get a bonus in hard currency, and there are people with relatives in the United States and in other parts of the world who send them money. So, all this is in the scenario and allows Cubans to, somehow, survive...

CONAN: Our guest here in the studio, Julia Sweig, was mouthing the words "black market." Is there a black market?

Mr. JACOMINO: There is still a black market, but probably it measurably (unintelligible) lessens what the black markets (unintelligible) because what was prohibited before is now legal. Why (unintelligible) someone who sells it to you without any guarantees when you can buy it directly from a shop?

CONAN: We're going to let you go because the quality of the transmission is so poor, but one final question before we do. Is this, what you're calling on, one of the new cell phones?

Mr. JACOMINO: Yes. I'm actually coming to you through a cell phone that the - Nokia, that was actually bought for me by a foreign friend of mine. So it's under his name. I still have to legalize it. The phone company recently sent me a little message saying we will call you into the name of the - the phone to your own if you are interested. So, I'm waiting for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Good luck with that. Juan Jacomino, thanks very much for being with us today. Juan Jacomino.

Mr. JACOMINO: My pleasure, really.

CONAN: Juan Jacomino is Global Radio News correspondent and he called us from Havana on his cell phone and that's a change. Julia?

Dr. SWEIG: It's an international call on a cell phone from Havana. It is a big change and there is an enormous black market still in Cuba. The state is going to have to figure out how to capture some of the revenue in the black market, and it's going to have to figure out how to bring in investment in order to create more jobs.

That's how people are going to be able to pay, eventually, for those cell phones and for the computers. He mentioned a very important additional measure, which is getting rid of the requirements that Cuban's ask permission before they leave the country.

They haven't announced that yet but everyone thinks it's imminent, and that again, is an increase of freedoms for Cubans that will be very significant and goes to your question, Neal, about when is the line going to be crossed and what will trip it?

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. This is EJ, EJ with us from Lansing in Michigan.

EJ (Caller): Hi. How are you today?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

EJ: I'm just asking, kind of, an odd question about - with Raul Castro coming to power with tourism in Cuba, will that increase with the - is the possibility of that increasing? Because I'm a scuba diver and I've been told some of the best diving in the world is off the coast of Cuba and in Cuban waters.

And I'm really looking forward to, eventually, some time in my - I'm young and I'm hoping, eventually, in my lifetime, I'll be able to visit Cuba to go do some scuba diving. I mean, I'd want to know if there's any information coming about that in the near future.

Dr. SWEIG: Well, without...

EJ: And I'd be glad to take my call off the air.

CONAN: OK, thanks for the call, EJ.

Dr. SWEIG: Remittances from family members living abroad, nickel prices in the international commodities market, and tourism provide Cuba with its top three sources of foreign revenue. And tourism is an industry that is still nascent there, but Canadians, Mexicans, Europeans travel there, probably scuba dive.

Americans can't because American law bans tourist travel to Cuba for reasons that have to do with domestic politics, but that may change, because Raul Castro's changes are prompting a discussion here in Washington, I think, among both political parties, especially after this election, about exactly how useful our sanctions, including against travel, are in this new environment.

CONAN: Julia Sweig is senior fellow and director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. We're talking about innovations and reforms in Cuba. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

And here's an email we have from David in San Antonio. "From what I've seen on the Univision News, cell phones in Cuba seem to be analog antiques from the mid-1990s. Is this true or is the video I saw file footage of old Motorola style flip phones? They certainly don't look like modern day GSM or CDMA phones." And boy, I'm lost in this technology.

Dr. SWEIG: I don't know. I have a Motorola flip phone, or whoever makes it. So maybe the footage he's seeing is old stock but the stores - the images I thought of - saw on news stores were all kinds, but I don't understand the technology and I'm pretty sure they're going to introduce the new phones.

CONAN: If Cubans don't have to ask for permission to leave the country, we've seen Cubans, given the opportunity to leave the country, leave in large numbers.

Dr. SWEIG: Yes, we have. 1994 was the last time, and of course, improving people's lives on the island is a - will make it less likely that they'll leave, or if they leave, that they might want to come back. So, I think that the balance that the Raul Castro regime is walking is exactly how much to open up, precisely to stabilize that pent-up demand to get out and to get stuff.

CONAN: Let's go to Dominic, Dominic with us from Sacramento in California.

DOMINIC (Caller): I was wondering, with cell phones, I read that the contracts alone cost about half a year's salary, and so a lot of people are relying on foreign relatives to pay for these contracts and cell phones, because on a state salary in Cuba it's so expensive.

Are people going to not feel equal like they want them to feel anymore? And if they're going to be, kind of, moved towards more freedom because maybe people don't want to feel more equal? And that's my question. I can take it off the air.

CONAN: OK.

Dr. SWEIG: It's a very tough question. I can't answer if people don't want to feel equal, but I think, as I said, preventing too much inequality is a pretty big part of the Cuban ethos of this population that's still on the island, and yet freedom also brings inequality. We saw it in the transitions in the socialist bloc.

We've seen it in the transitions in other developing countries away from, sort of, state-run monopolies on economic activities. So I think this a choice and there is - willing to tolerate a bit more inequality in order, in Raul Castro's language, to create wealth.

You don't hear Cuban revolutionaries talk about productivity, efficiency, and the creation of wealth, but that's the kind of language that's getting thrown around right now because there's a realization that you can distribute impoverishment equally, but also, perhaps, commit suicide politically. And that's something that Fidel was talking about, well, before he got sick.

CONAN: Let's get a question from the audience here at the Newseum.

Mr. MATTHEW HUSEMAN (Audience Member): Hi. My name is Matthew Huseman(ph). I'm from Driftwood, Texas, and I wanted to ask you, with the increased liberties and availability of information, do you think that the Cuban government is worried about dissent among the people?

Dr. SWEIG: Well, yes, I do. But I think the Cuban government is absolutely expert in managing the dissent and in challenging - and in channeling the dissent. And we see, not only, for example, with that Writers and Artists Congress, the findings of which in proceedings with were broadcast nationally and printed nationally.

But we're also seeing the newspapers having a lot more space to do investigative reporting, to report on powers, depredations, and on corruption and on bad and nasty bureaucracy. That is - the press is becoming a bit more of the tool that it ought to become and that's a way to manage dissent.

It doesn't get to the issue of the political prisoners that Cuba still has, or the fact that it's a one party state and will probably remain so for some time, and that, within the revolution, a lot of talk and small-D democratic discussion is possible, but counterrevolutionary stuff isn't. That's still the same but they're opening channels to manage this, kind of, need for self-expression more so than in many years.

CONAN: Julia Sweig, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate the time.

Dr. SWEIG: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Julia Sweig, senior fellow and director of Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century." She joined us here at the Newseum.

Our broadcast today was produced by David Gura and Susan Lund. Drew Reynolds is our technical director. He got help today from Kevin Wait, Nathan Bark(ph), and Gerry Tennent. We'd also like to thank the team here at the Newseum for their hospitality. Charles Overby, CEO, Jack Hurley and Susan Bennett, deputy directors, and Shelby Coffey, senior fellow at the Newseum.

Also, Jim Updike, Dennis Dunbar(ph), and Walt Hassett(ph) on the technical side. Thanks to you all. Tomorrow, Misha Glenny on globalization and organized crime. We'll be back here at the Newseum one week from today. We hope you'll join us then. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

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