Cuba entering the 21st Century: Recent Economic Reforms can be seen from the Street

A small business offering cell phone repair and other services
A small business in Havana offering cell phone repair and other services

This summer I came to Cuba to research the emergence of non-institutional art spaces in the city of Havana.  As I began to make contact with local artists to discuss where they create, show and sell their art, I quickly discovered that modes of communication had drastically changed since the last time I had studied abroad in Cuba in 2008.

Although cell phones continue to be expensive for the average Cuban, most independent artists that I have interviewed thus far use cell phones as their primary form of communication. And they are astonished when they find out that I do not have a working cell phone while I am in Cuba (My cell phone carrier does not use SIM cards, and American cell phone service does not work in Cuba). Over these last two weeks, even amidst research focused on art spaces, I have witnessed how the recent economic reforms have made significant strides to bring the informal market, including cell phones, back into the fold of the formal sector, in an effort to address the modern-day demands of the Cuban people.

Just after I left Cuba the first time in 2008, for example, the Cuban government allowed Cuban citizens to sign up for cell phone plans for the first time. Before then, the service was limited to foreigners or government officials. The phone lines were still very expensive for the average Cuban, and the cost of the cellphone was excessive given the quality, but those who had the means were finally legally allowed to have their cellphones. What’s more, due to the more recent legalization of private small businesses over the past two years, accessibility of cellphones and accessories has reached an even larger portion of the Cuban population. Walking down the streets in Havana, for example, you can’t help but notice the signs along the streets for small businesses offering cell phone repair, unblocking, and cell phone accessories. Many Cubans receive second-hand cellphones from abroad, and the small cell phone repair shops make the necessary adjustment to make them work in Cuba.

Although all Cuban cell phones still use the centralized Cuban phone service provided by ETECSA—which remains out of reach for many state-wage workers—there exists a surprisingly wide selection of cell phones available in both the formal and informal markets. I have encountered during my interviews an array of phone styles, ranging from the original standard Nokia phones all the way to the iPhone 5 smartphone. For anyone living outside Cuba, it would seem as though they stepped back into the 1990s; the technology is still relatively limited—nearly all plans are pre-paid, you have to maintain a minimum balance of 5 CUC each month or your line is disconnected, and you cannot receive calls or texts if you have low saldo—but compared to the level of cell phone usage in 2008, I have been shocked to see so many Cubans using cell phones on this trip.

Posted by Kailie Middleton, CLACS MA Candidate at New York University

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