HAVANA TIMES — At the dawn of the industrial age, some workers destroyed machines in an attempt to halt the growing unemployment of the times. They were moved by the mad hope that they could put a stop to technological development and return to the past.
I remembered this story when I read a public announcement made by ETECSA, Cuba’s only telephone company, complaining about the allegedly “fraudulent” competition it is subjected to by new Internet communications technologies and platforms, such as Skype.
There are of course enormous differences between the two situations: the workers were looking after their children’s food, while the Cuban company seeks to protect its monopolistic privileges, the same one that allow it to set extremely high prices in exchange for deficient services.
Cuba is an island but its people aren’t so isolated so as to be ignorant of the fact that international phone call rates are among the world’s highest. We could even say they are the highest everywhere, if we set them against the average wage in the country.
A 10-minute call to Europe costs a Cuban their entire monthly salary and 1 hour of Internet use is equivalent to what they earn in a week. With these prices, it comes as no surprise that the phone company isn’t exactly cherished in Cuba.
Cubans, however, are practical folk. Instead of wasting their time registering official complaints, they have found an alternative they can afford. Today, there are houses in many neighborhoods where people can call abroad at reasonable rates.
My acquaintances asked me not to reveal any details, but the fact of the matter is that it is done over the Internet and it is quite efficient. A call to anywhere around the world costs US 20 cents, that is to say, many times cheaper than what ETECSA offers.
Everyone in the neighborhood knows who runs these private phone locales but no one reports them to the authorities because even members of the Communist Party and the Chair of the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) have relatives living far from home who they call every so often.
In its communiqué, ETECSA claims it is a foreign conspiracy aimed at undermining the company’s income, but the truth is that these private service providers would not survive a day without the complicity of the general population.
Perhaps they’ll proceed to clamp down on 3 or 4 of these private phone locales, but they will inevitably resurface, just as the machines destroyed by workers were replaced with ones that were even more modern.
Any war against development and the spread of technology is doomed to failure. To seek and halt its advance with secret plans, repressive measures and prohibitive prices is like trying to put out a fire by spraying it with gasoline.
It shouldn’t be too hard to do things a different way. In other countries, there are many telephone companies that have survived the challenges posed by the Internet and they have done this by charging infinitely lower prices. It is merely a question of efficiency.
If ETECSA is a “socialist State company”, it belongs to all Cubans and, as such, citizens have a right to know its finances and where the enormous profits it must secure through its extremely high service prices go.
It would positive for the company to tell people how much money it makes, what percentages are destined to financing the expansion of its Internet and telephone services or trips abroad, and how much of a “deficit” it has because of misappropriation and corruption.
Greater transparency could help improve the company’s image. It would allow people to know what obstacles it faces and what development plans it has, and to have a sense of where the money coming from customer pockets is ending up.
The fact is that, till now, the company’s communiqués and the declarations made by its managers are fairly cryptic: they do not establish any schedules, do not specify the amounts invested or outline the company’s plans or future objectives.
It is as though they do not realize they are merely employees and that, when they approach citizens, they are addressing the true owners of the company, those they must answer to in full, particularly as regards how their money is being spent.