Cuban Telecommunications and its Problems

Janis Hernandez

An ETECSA telephone company office. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — Communications have always been a problem in Cuba, and telephone services have been the biggest of the lot. There aren’t enough land and cell phone lines and existing services are inadequate. I won’t go into the causes or name those responsible (we all know who is to blame).

ETECSA is the only telecommunications company on the island. According to the government, it was created in response to the need to unify all communications companies in the country.

Previously, there were 14 communications firms responsible for telephone, radio, postal and press services, as well as other domestic entities specializing in related services. The latter included the Empresa de Proyectos, Construccion y Montaje (“Projects, Construction and Assembly Company”), Cable Coaxial (“Coaxial Cable”), EMTELCUBA and Larga Distancia (“Long Distance”).

The organizational and financial problems that all economic sectors were facing in the 1990s were also being felt in the telephone services industry. The sector was one of the first to open up to foreign investment, as part of the new market-oriented economic strategies traced by the government in response to the Special Period crisis.

The decision was to create a company that would offer all of the country’s telecommunication services and reinvigorate the industry. The establishment of ETECSA was approved in 1993 and, in 1994, the company was officially authorized to offer and market public telecommunications services.

While it is true the company never managed to satisfy all of the needs of the population, it is undeniable that this vital service saw much improvement following this.

In December of 2003, on the basis of Agreement 4,996 of the Executive Committee of Cuba’s Council of Ministers and of Decree Law 275, ETECSA was expanded as telecommunications operator through the merger of Cubacel and C_COM. This was done with a view to bringing all landline, mobile phone and other telecommunication services under the management of a single joint venture company.

When they announced the introduction of mobile phones in Cuba, many naive souls thought we were starting to walk in step with the world.

Nothing was further from the truth. For the longest time, the cost of mobile services were prohibitive for the vast majority. Though rates have gone down over the years and other services have improved, as the saying goes, “when it’s not one thing, it’s the other.”

On February 4, 2011, Cuba’s Official Gazette announced the island had secured 100 percent of the company’s shares and had become ETECSA’s sole owner for the first time since 1993. Needless to say, nothing has improved much since.

We don’t know – and no one is explaining – what kind of problems cell phone lines are experiencing here in Santiago de Cuba. The fact is that, for more than a week now, it’s been impossible to contact anyone over one’s cell phone. “We’re sorry. The phone you are dialing is turned off or outside the coverage area” – this is the recording we all hear when we try to call our relatives, colleagues or friends.

To be sure, we’ve done some tests, calling people who are standing a few steps away from us – and we always get the same recording.
I believe ETECSA must go back to being what it was: a company in the hands of foreign capital or foreign capitalists. Or we must again have more than one communications company, to see if things improve some.

6 thoughts on “Cuban Telecommunications and its Problems

  • Given all the problems I have with Rogers cell phone “service” here in Canada – and the apparently negative view many of my friends and neighbours here have of Rogers and Bell (and the other cheaper companies that offer even worse service) I am not sure we would have much to offer Cuba. Perhaps the problems lie with complicated and unreliable technologies that will still take many years to sort out.

  • A friend that lives in Palma Soriano which is about an hour north of Santiago, told me they are changing or working on the main tower in Santiago?! Can anyone confirm that?

  • Excellent summary of the economic reality behind ETECSA. The regime controls the whole company though holdings and banks owned by Raul And Fidel Castro.
    A Cuban economist once stated that the concentration of all shares in the hands of the Castro brothers had been the plan all along. Foreign investors were used to provide the starting capital to finance the investment in the systems and were then “nudged” out.

  • I’m not sure a Canadian company like Rogers or Bell would want to get involved with the Cuban MININT agents who eavesdrop in the Cuban phone system.

    The first mobile telephone system was Cubacel. The company was a joint venture with the Canadian firm, Sherritt International. Later, a second system, C-com, was set up using GSM.

    In 2005, the Cuban government bought Sherritt out and merged Cubacel and C-com into a division of ETECSA. The two names continue as brands.

    27% of the ETECSA was owned by Telecom Italia, until they sold their interest to Rafin SA in January 2011 for $706 million. The remainder is owned by the Ministry of Information and Communication. Rafin SA has been described as a financial arm of the Cuban military. The curious name of the firm actually stands for “Raul-Fidel Investments”. Seriously.

    The remaining 73% of ETECSA is also owned by front-companies of the Castro brothers. They are:

    Telefónica Antillana S.A with 51%, Universal Trade & Management Corporation S,A (Utisa) with 11%, Banco Financiero Internacional with 6.15%, Negocios en Telecomunicaciones with 3.8% and Banco Internacional de Comercio with 0.9%

    The Cuban government want to maintain strict control over all forms of telecommunication. That is why there is one company and like everything the Cuban state does, it is inefficient and mired in bureaucracy.

  • This is of course a method of the government to keep the lid on the people. I love Cuba and the people, but hate this communistic system. It’s bad and Cubans don´t like it. Get real and join the 21st century you Castros before Cuba is devoid of people under 70 years old.

  • Sounds like you need to partner with a foreign company like Canada’s public companies where you would get better service and more television shows

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