Less phones per capita in Cuba now than in 1958

Juan O. Tamayo | ICCAS

Cuba’s cellular telephone service mushroomed in 2008, but the remainder of its telecommunications and information technology sectors were stagnant or even shrank, according to the most recent report from the Havana government.

The data released by the Office of National Statistics (ONE) (1) in fact put Cuba at or near the hemisphere’s bottom in terms of fixed telephone lines, personal computers and access to the Internet. ONE’s data, especially on the economy, is sometimes regarded as suspect. But its June report is so grim that it’s difficult to believe the figures could be worse.

The sole positive news was a significant jump in the number of cellular lines from 2007 to 2008, apparently the result of Raul Castro’s decision to allow all Cubans to contract for cell service—though at sky-high prices, about $35 a month for the service in a country where the average monthly income officially stands at about $17. Cell service during that period grew by about 136,000 lines, from about 330,000 to about 466,000, according to ONE.

Yet fixed telephone lines barely grew in the same period, from 999,490 to 1,033,565. With a total of 1.42 million fixed, cell and other telephone lines in a country of 11.2 million people, the island’s telephone density per 100 inhabitants at the end of 2008 stood at 12.6, the lowest in Latin America and even lower than Haiti’s, the poorest country in the hemisphere.

In its information technology sections, ONE reported that 1,314,000 Cubans had graduated as of the end of 2007 from computer literacy courses at the 611 Youth Computer Clubs (Joven Club de Computacion), government-run centers spread around the island that claimed to have 6,300 computers. Yet the rest of ONE’s numbers left many puzzling how those Cubans would use that knowledge, given the limited number of computers and internet connections.

Cuba has some 630,000 personal computers—56 per 1000 people, compared to the 191.5 per 1000 reported by the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis—of which 400,000 are “connected in network,” according to the statistics office. Its 1,450,000 reported “users” equal about 13 percent of the population, although Havana residents say most of those computers are at work places, such as ministries, factories and hospitals, and that most of those “users” are likely only on the island’s “intranet”—a system that limits their access to mostly government web pages and domestic e-mails.

Even at 13 percent, Cuba lags far behind other Latin American countries in Internet access. It’s ahead of El Salvador, with 9.9 percent, but behind Costa Rica’s 35.7 per cent and Jamaica’s 53 percent, according to Internet World Stats, an independent web site that tracks the industry. The average for all of Latin America and the Caribbean is 29.9 percent.

ONE also reported computer equipment imports worth $6.1 million in 2008, compared to $3.6 million in 2007 and a mere $120,640 in 2006, as well as 2,168 domain names registered under the “.CU” extension. Under a sector titled “Investments in information technologies and communications” it reported 317 million Cuban pesos invested in 2008, far less than the 423 million it reported for 2007 and about the same as the 312 million it reported for 2003.

Celular phone in Cuba

Celular phone in Cuba

Despite Cuba’s clear lag behind the rest of the region on the communications and information technology sectors, Raul Castro has given no hint that he might take advantage of President Barack Obama’s decision in April to ease some of the telecommunications sections of the U.S. embargo. U.S. companies can now provide cellular service and roaming in Cuba, satellite TV and fiber optic cable facilities, and accept payments for those services from U.S. residents—for example, someone in Miami paying for a relative in Havana to receive satellite TV.

Castro’s stance is not going to help Cuba improve its service—or its world rankings—in those sectors. While the 12.6 phone lines per 100 inhabitants reported for 2008 was about double the 6.4 lines per 100 reported for 2003, it’s still way below the 15 per 100 that Cuba reported in 1958—at the time the second highest rate in Latin America.

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