Cuba’s Telephone Co. Cons its Users

Luis Rondon Paz

The ETECSA services center on Obispo St. in Old Havana.

HAVANA TIMES — Cuba’s telephone company monopoly has admitted it is experiencing problems with its systems and that it is stealing money from users.

Some time ago, I wrote an article for Havana Times that revealed that Cuba’s telecommunications company (ETECSA-CUBACEL) was unable to respond to the concerns of unsatisfied users and that I was hoping to get some good news regarding an improvement of its services. Since September 3, the date in which changes to the company’s platform began, these services, rather than improve, have actually gotten worse.

I was able to confirm this when Igori Moya, a CUBACEL user, alerted me to the fact that the voice-box service was using up people’s credit without them even using the service. When we did a test using my phone, it turned out to be true. For every call from a landline in which a user leaves a message in one’s voice-box, the system automatically deducts sixteen CUC cents from one’s balance. This is somewhat contradictory, as the system is allegedly programmed to deduct credit only when one listens to one’s messages and the connection costs twenty cents the minute.

Faced with this situation, I asked Igori to give me more information about this. He gave me a detailed description of everything he had done so far.

He told me that, some days before, he had gone to CUBACEL’s customer services office, located at the intersection of Obispo and Habana, Old Havana, to register a complaint. On that occasion, they were unable to see him in the office because he arrived after working hours. While he waited outside, however, one of the employees did confirm that his cell phone balance showed irregularities and she suggested he return on Thursday, September 11, so that their supervisor could see to the matter directly and process his complaint through the proper channels.

Inside the multi-services office at the Focsa building in Vedado.

When he returned to the office, the supervisor sent his complaint, with a detailed description of the problem, to three email accounts set up to address any incidents arising as a result of the changes that began to made on September 3.

Two days after presenting his complaint at ETECSA’s customer services office, Igori was getting restless: his balance continued to decrease. On Saturday, September 13, he called the office again to find out whether the complaint he had made had received any response. They informed him that none of the three email addresses had yet replied.

Igori then asked if there was any other office that could process his complaint. They suggested he approach the multi-services center located in the Focsa building, in Vedado, and to contact the head of communications for the locality.

When he went there, he was informed that the manager in question was not at his office. He was seen by the supervisor on duty at the time, who had no knowledge as to how the voice-box system worked. This was clear to me when Igori told me that she and the “experts” there claimed that the system automatically deducts from one’s credit when a voice message is left. Igori then explained to them the service didn’t work that way and used solid arguments to describe what the service was all about. The reply was that he should address his concerns to the customer services office located on the intersection of 7th and 28th Streets, Miramar.

A supervisor at the company Vice-President’s office heard Igori’s story. She told him he had been given the runaround and informed him that the customer services office located in Vedado’s Focsa building offers the same services in terms of customer complaints. When she finished explaining this, she proceeded to do the same thing the employees in the Obispo office had done. When Igori saw that he had hit the same wall, he again asked to see a superior. The supervisor replied that their superiors didn’t work on weekends.

On Sunday, September 14, I called Igori again and suggested the two of us approach the customer services office on 7 and 28, Miramar, to register a complaint anew, as we (and who knows how many more people) continued to have problems with the voice-box service. I told him that higher-ups were almost always at work Monday mornings. He agreed, as his balance had almost run out because of the problems with the voice-box.

The Etecsa office at the Focsa building.

On Monday, September 15, Igori again went to the office in Miramar. I went with him this time, because the problem affected us both.

At the reception, we were told that customer complaints and suggestions were received a different day of the week. We replied by demanding to see an employee who would address our complaints, explaining to them that our balance continued to be depleted as time passed.

Shortly after this, an employee showed up and took Igori to his office, in the company of the employee who had received him on Saturday. Once inside, the employee explained to her superior everything that had happened and what had been done with the complaint so far – that they had proceeded as is established for these cases. They tried to calm Igori down using nonsensical arguments that made him feel even more mistreated and unsatisfied.

He then asked them to check his call history, so that they too would become convinced that his cell phone balance showed irregularities.

At that moment, the only registered call was one made on the 13th. He asked them to look for a more up-to-date balance so they could see the charges for calls received and the fact they did not match his cell phone balance. He told them again that the service had been disconnected without him having made a single call as a result of the malfunctioning voice-box service.

In response, the employee told him that, to receive a call history report, he had to put 3 CUC (3.30 USD) into his phone balance, something he felt was a strategy to wriggle out of the situation and a show of indifference towards the unjust treatment he had received on behalf of the company.

Igori was not willing to budge and the higher-up noticed this. She then opted to lay the blame on the employees who had seen him at the customer services office in Old Havana, saying they should have introduced his complaint into the computer’s complaint registry. The employee who had seen Igori there the previous day said that she hadn’t done that either because that slows down the process. Her superior then instructed her to introduce the complaint into the system immediately. Then, she asked my friend when credit had been deducted from his balance the last time in order to consult with other experts over the phone.

Entrace to the Miramar Business Center.

When she was done consulting, she had no choice but to concede that the system wasn’t working properly and she assured my friend that the credit that had incorrectly been charged him would be reimbursed within 24 hours.

Regrettably, nothing happened within that time.

Two days went by and Igori had not gotten his credit back. Mine also continued to go down. We decided to take our complaint to an even higher level. This time around, we presented our complaint at the customer protection office located on the third floor of the Miramar Trade Center.

There, we were received by David Ramirez, who works for the Customer Protection Office. We submitted a formal letter of complaint explaining the seriousness of the matter. At first, Mr. Ramirez questioned us for having taking the matter to that level. After reading the letter and finding out what had happened, however, he placed himself entirely at our disposal.

Immediately, he picked up the phone and called Vivian Falcon Perez, the supervisor who had received Igor on Monday, September 15. Ramirez informed us of the problems they’d been having since September 3 and again acknowledged that the voice-box service was not working properly.

In a little over two hours, our complaint was finally introduced into the nationwide system that registers customer complaints (something which hadn’t yet been done) and we were assured we would be contacted over the phone as soon as the voice-box service was working properly and that all of the balance deducted would be reimbursed.

They committed to reimbursing us the money they had charged us by mistake as soon as the problems were fixed. They took Igori’s letter of complaint and again asked us to be patient, telling us that the service would be back to normal within 15 days.

On Monday, September 22, we were reimbursed the balance deduced, but the voice mail system continues to have problems. During a telephone conversation with company executive Rubidalia Perez, we were told that all people affected had received their balance back. We were again told to be patient; that they were working to fix the problem.

15 thoughts on “Cuba’s Telephone Co. Cons its Users

  • What garbled nonsense!
    I for one don’t ever visit Starbucks or Tim Hortons or Second Cup. I like good coffee brewed at home. It would be impossible to impose Starbucks on Cubans as no coffee is obtainable in any of the Cuban Government shops for months on end. The problem with State monopolies is nowhere more evident than in Cuba, which has suffered them for far too many years.
    You say:
    “Already Cuba is a mixed economy of state, private, cooperative and foreign owned ventures.”
    That Dani is yet another statement to make the cat laugh! You ought to know by now that the Castro family regime controls everything. For example, the 26,000 hotel bedrooms controlled by Gaviota SA have various “foreign owned ventures” names, but Gaviota has 51% and controls the payment of the employees.
    That is the nature of the beast called “Socialismo”.

  • Yes, the poor in the 3rd world often lose out. But that is usually the fault of the local rulers, not foreign countries. Occasionally, a 3rd world country manages to have honest competent democratic government and the economy of the country grows for all of their citizens. South Korea is an example. Since they pushed out the dictatorship, Korea has grown into an economic powerhouse of East Asia.

    I believe the same could happen for Cuba. Get rid of the dictatorship, free up the creative energy of the people and watch them grown and build their country into regional leader. Young Cubans will stop leaving the country and many Cuban exiles and ex-pats will return to help.

    But so long as the Castro regime is in power, Cuba will remain a basket case.

  • As for your second paragraph, I’m not for unlimited immigration. I was just pointing out how rigged the market really is. Mostly to the detriment of the third world.

  • Sorry I posted before addressing your second paragraph. No I don’t believe in unlimited immigration, I was just showing how rigged the market really is. And the third world nearly always loses out.

  • It isn’t an occasional problem. Look at the case of Starbucks of which you all are such big fans. The costs of the coffee, cups, electricity, wages etc. only come to 65p whereas they charge £2.55 or more. They con the farmers, they con their workforce and they con the customers. One big con. Yet Moses and Carlyle can’t wait to impose them on the Cuba.
    There is nothing wrong with state owned monopolies as long as they are regulated and run properly. In the UK, British Telecom worked fine for years and though private now still has a monopoly ownership of all the telephone lines. If there was something inherently unworkable about state owned monopolies, it would be strange that every country depends for its defence and security on an army which is set up on that basis.
    But my views are pretty mainstream. No size fits all and different models can coexist and whatever works best should be applied. Already Cuba is a mixed economy of state, private, cooperative and foreign owned ventures.

  • Well last night i receibed a SMS from CUBACEL saying that the voicemail was suspended to all the clients until further notice. however in the contract they must notify customers 30 days before they do that. but now they just suspended the service and notified the users. The positive in there was that, somehow, this report get in to the eyes of someone with power who demanded explanations about the voicemail service.

  • Is the solution to the occasional problems of overcharging to have a revolution leading to a single party dictatorship which controls all business through state run monopolies? is that closer to free markets?

    Do you believe there should be unlimited immigration between all countries? Does a country not have the right to control who enters and who does not? What do you think such a world would such world look like?

  • I wonder what the Regulators would think of the charges made by the ETECSA State monopoly in Cuba (27% owned by RAFIN SA)?
    i wonder how you explain why there is no competition for salaries in Cuba?
    Presumably you are thinking of Cuba when you speak of import duties?
    Have you considered that the gross overcharging in Cuba, the lack of salary competition and the import duties are a consequence of socialist incompetence?
    It is a myth to talk of free market in Cuba. Nothing is free in Cuba!
    There is no freedom of speech, no freedom of the media, no freedom of place of residence and no competition for the market which is controlled by the Socialismo policy of the Castro family socialist regime. So you are correct in saying that the free market there is a myth. At least you got that right.

  • You wrote, “If it were truly free market, there would be no contract at all. You would simply buy the phone and start the service, Indeed, there are providers in the US who allow customers to do just that.”

    Do you not contradict yourself there? You say people should be able to buy a phone & start the service, as if that were not possible. And then in the next sentence you point out that it is possible. What’s missing?

    People are free to buy the phone at full price & pay-as-you-go for service, or they can chose to buy a contract for a phone at a cheaper up-front cost, lower rates, and a fixed term cost. Customers are free to chose from a wide variety of such contracts or full price phones. The penalty for breaking the contract is not a surprise, it is known upfront to the buyer before they enter into the contract. They freely agree to the terms and conditions of the contract, including the penalty. Ergo: it’s a free market.

    Legal contracts are a fundamental component of a free market. Every transaction in the marketplace is a contract, whether one is buying a phone, a loaf of bread, a haircut or a house. They all involve an implicit contract between buyer and seller.

    When you sit down in a restaurant and order dinner, you enter into a contract to pay for the whole meal. You can’t eat half of the steak and then get up and walk out expecting to pay for only half of the meal. Any restaurant that allowed customers to do that would be soon out of business.

    Likewise, if you sign a 3 year contract for a discounted price phone, then decide 18 months into the contract that you want to break the deal and take your phone elsewhere, you are still obligated to pay for the phone. Otherwise, the mobile provider is out cost of the phone he provided at a discount price. If they allowed that, the mobile provider would soon be out of business, just like the restaurant that let customers pay for only half the meal.

  • It is a myth – there is no free market. Companies usually work as a cartel and fix the prices. Mobile phone companies in the UK got slated recently for overcharging for foreign services. Countries also block competition from outside through import duties and trade embargoes and stop competition in salaries by limiting immigration. Like everything conservative it is a sham.

  • A service contract that imposes a penalty for early termination is indeed an obstacle to “free market” activity. As it is designed to be. Telecoms in the US provide free cell phones to seduce customers up front and calculate a one or two-year amortization of the cost of that phone through the service contract. If it were truly free market, there would be no contract at all. You would simply buy the phone and start the service, Indeed, there are providers in the US who allow customers to do just that. Nonetheless, I agree, this conversation is ‘Greek’ to a Cuban who only knows one service provider and can only choose to pay for the service as offered or, as you note, do without.

  • ‘At the reception, we were told that customer complaints and suggestions were received a different day of the week.’ Speaks for itself, does it not?

  • Contracts are not an obstacle to a free market. I have a contract with a mobile provider which I freely chose to enter into. I had several other competitive options to chose from, including going without a contract on a pay-as-you-go phone.

    I can also drop the contract at any time, if I pay the penalty fee which was part of the contract I freely agreed to.

    The Cuban people have no such options or choices. If they want to use a cell phone, they must pay sky high prices to “Raul & Fidel Telco”, or they can do without. No free market exists in Cuba.

  • Good point. Even in capitalism, incompetence and bureaucracy can flourish within large service-related companies where customers are bound, at least for a time, by contracts and others obstacles to a free market. Imagine the increase in incompetency and bureaucracy possible under socialism? Add to that the outright contempt that the Castro regime has for technology and communications amongst Cubans. It’s a wonder they even have cellphones at all. Cuba’s former Minister of Information decried the internet as evil. Another sad example of the failings of Castro socialism.

  • As a consequnce of the socialist system, no one wants to take a decision. To say “yes” is to assume some degree of responsibility, so it is safer to pass the problem to others. In Cuba there is a multitude of layers of staff in all government offices. This is possible because human labour is the cheapest factor in the economy. If there was competition for telephone serevice in Cuba, ETECSA would value its customers. But it is a State monopoly with RAFIN SA (Raul & Fidel) holding 27% of the shares.
    In the capitalist world, competition ensures service and reasonable charges and those failing to provide them go bankrupt. Under Socialismo it doesn’t matter if ETECSA is incompetent, the customers have no alternative.

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