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A Phone and Twitter War Rages in Cuba

Mobile phones have been globally ubiquitous for years, but were illegal in Cuba until 2008. Over the past year or so, the Castro government has also made it legal for foreigners to add minutes to Cuban cell phone accounts from abroad. The regime thought this would help foreigners and Cuban émigrés to send money to Cuba, but it unwittingly opened Pandora’s box: Foreigners are now facilitating the work of Cuban dissidents by paying their phone bills, allowing them to tweet and blog from the repressive island.

We could see the results of this during the Pope’s recent visit to Cuba. As the WSJ reports:

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.

Cell phone use and internet access are still severely restricted by the Cuban government. Outspoken dissidents are watched carefully, often arrested, and, thanks both to specific government policies aimed at keeping Cubans off line and at the generalized poverty and development failure on the island,  both cell phones and internet access remain prohibitively expensive for most Cubans. Yet despite these obstacles, cell phone use is starting to take off:

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.

Here’s a thought: What are the costs to Cuba’s economic growth as the government tries to restrict access to the world’s most dynamic communications engine? Fortunately for Cuba, the internet is a nimble adversary. Raúl opened the door just a crack, not realizing what forces might be unleashed. Now he is trying hard to keep that door from swinging wide open.

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  • Your article is incomplete, Professor. How do we buy cell phone time for these activists? I’m good for $100, and I bet a large number of your other readers would also be interested.

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