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Reg reader in Cuban cellular red tape madness

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European and North American mobile users irked by high tariffs and spotty coverage on mobile phones should spare a thought for the citizens of Cuba. For the land of sun, salsa and socialism is so afflicted with bureaucracy that the only way ordinary people can get a pre-paid mobile phone is to have a foreigner sign up for them.

Cuba's tightly regulated state-run mobile providers (Cubacel and one other) only offer services to foreigners or authorised Cubans. The only way around the restrictions for ordinary Cubans is to persuade a tourist to sign up on their behalf. Even then coverage is limited to the major cities (Havana, Santiago, Trinidad, Pinar del Rio etc). And expensive by local standards: sign-up fees are 50 Cuban pesos convertibles (pegged to the US$ so $50) which comes with $15-worth of prepaid calls or texts. The situation has existed for two years or more but an eyewitness account from reader Chris still makes for an interesting read.

In the city of Trinidad where I was staying with a local family, I was given a lift in a dangerous old Chevrolet to Cubacel’s offices to help the landlady’s son to open his account. Here I was sat for 40 minutes filling in four separate forms, submitting a photocopy of my passport and providing my signature, along with the son AND the Cubacel official as 'witness'. The form read something along the lines of I consent for (insert name) to open a pre-paid mobile account on my behalf. Effectively, it’s my account. Cubans just shrugged when I showed my complete and utter dumbfoundedness at this unnecessary barrier to development and said "este pais" (this country), very Alan Partridge.

After two and a half hours in immigration and baggage reclaim at Havana's Jose Marti airport where I had to declare bottles of mineral water that I had in my rucksack, I thought none of the country's bureaucracy would surprise me. But this incident was astounding. While I respect Fidel for making Cuba self-sufficient under the most unjust embargo, he really needs to open up the country to new technology.

There was no broadband either, it was like the South Park episode with the man from 1996 [Prehistoric Ice Man] when they find a man frozen in ice for three years and to make him feel at home they play him Ace of Base and give him inadequate internet connection.

According to latest figures from the CIA world fact book there were only 17,900 mobiles in Cuba in 2002. "Wireless service is expensive and remains restricted to foreigners and regime elites," it notes. ®

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