Monday, April 30, 2012
FOR CUBAN DISSIDENTS, AN OPEN PHONE LINE
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL / LATIN AMERICA NEWS / Updated April 9, 2012, 7:40 p.m. ET
For Cuban Dissidents, an Open Phone Line
Prepaid Cellphones Let Bloggers Post and Tweet in Privacy, as Foreign Supporters Add Minutes to Their Accounts
HAVANA—Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez became famous for sneaking into state-run Internet cafes to upload posts to her blog, which the Cuban government says is subversive. Part of that process is now a lot simpler: She uploads tweets from an iPhone at home.
Mobile phones, once banned from Cubans' hands, are changing the face and pace of the Cuban dissident movement. They were made legal by President Raúl Castro in 2008, though at first, high costs made it difficult for most Cubans to make calls on the island, let alone send data internationally.
But in the past year, Cuba's government has signed deals with several companies that allow foreigners to add minutes to prepaid Cuban cellphone accounts from abroad.
The measure was aimed at making it easier for outsiders to send money to the cash-strapped island. But contributions from foreign supporters also have been helping dissidents ramp up their flow of messages to the outside world, mostly through Twitter feeds updated via text messages.
"If Raúl had known what a Pandora's box he was opening with this, he would have never allowed a Cuban to own a cellphone to begin with," Ms. Sánchez said on a recent day from her apartment in the capital. As she spoke, she posted a message with news about Jeovany Vega, a dissident doctor she had received a tip about: "#cuba They've just admitted into Artemisa Hospital the medic who was on hunger strike @DrJVega." (Dr. Vega ended his hunger strike on April 1.)
Cuban dissidents are some of the few independent political voices in a state where the Communist Party remains the sole legal political group. They span the spectrum from underground journalists like Ms. Sánchez to lawyers running secret libraries.
One recent day before Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba last month, dissident José Daniel Ferrer was glued to his cellphone, taking calls and messages to tally detentions of activists ahead of the papal visit. He posted the tally on his Twitter account, which has around 2,000 followers. His estimates were soon picked up by foreign news organizations and human-rights groups covering the crackdown.
Mr. Ferrer says he doesn't usually know who is adding minutes to his phone because the donations are made online, by unidentified supporters. "Without them, the cost would be prohibitive for me to tweet," he says.
Mr. Ferrer can send out posts by text message—but still has no regular access to the Internet to read them. But his posts circulate abroad, mainly among Cuban exile groups in Miami.
There are consequences for being outspoken. Mr. Ferrer's cellphone was shut down during the pope's visit and he was arrested by government authorities on April 2, according to a woman who answered his cellphone last week, and who identified herself as a friend of Mr. Ferrer. Since then, the line appears to have been disconnected.
Internet access in Cuba is controlled by the government, which decides who can plug in. Only about 450,000 Cubans, or 4% of the population, go online, according to official statistics. The cost also is prohibitive for most Cubans—$6 for 30 minutes of Internet access in a country where the average person makes about $20 a month.
However, the number of cellphone users passed more than a million last year and is growing fast. Like Internet access, the cost of sending mobile messages remains high—about $1 for text messages sent internationally and $2.30 for short videos or pictures.
Several foreign companies have partnered with Cubacel, Cuba's state-owned mobile phone monopoly, to allow minutes to be added from abroad to Cuban cellphone accounts.
Ezetop Ltd., a Dublin-based company that works with around 200 cellphone operators in emerging markets, says Cuba became its biggest business last year. Chief Executive Mark Roden says $20 million was sent to Cuban cellphones from abroad last year via Ezetop, about 10% of its total business.
Ezetop operates with a U.S. Treasury Department license and isn't subject to the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba. "We're interested in remittances from the developed world to emerging markets and cellphones are a big part of that," says Mr. Roden.
Others see a different opportunity. Diani Barreto, a Cuban-American human-rights activist based in Germany, recently partnered with Web activist group Telecomix to channel money to Cuban dissident cellphones using Ezetop and other services. A website posts dissidents' names and phone numbers and invites visitors to add minutes anonymously to cellphone accounts. The system "allows dissidents to get out information in real time," Ms. Barreto says.
Mobile phones also have caught the attention of the U.S. government as it tries to pressure Raúl Castro and his brother and predecessor Fidel by supporting Cuban opposition groups. Drew Bailey, a spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the agency had "supported similar efforts in the past" to add minutes to political activists' cellphone accounts. The agency declined to comment on its continuing activities, citing concerns about dissidents' safety.
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