The LATimes reports that Cubans will finally be allowed to own cellphones.

Of course, they will have to  pay for the service with foreign currency, but they will now be allowed to own their own cellphones, and in another month or two, they may even be able to own DVD players and computers.

People in the USA don’t realize the revolution that cellphones have brought to Asia.

In the US,  cellphones were expensive, and I had to pay a second telephone bill every month to get service, but since I frequently traveled on rural roads, I needed the phone for emergencies, so I paid. By the time I moved here, the cost was down, but we still considered it a luxury.

Here in Asia, especially in rural areas, however, cellphones are universal. You see, our house has long had a “land line” because we live in the town, but up to 1990, our farm house had no electricity or phone lines.

Then suddenly, in 1991, electricity was wired to the farm village, TV antennas sprouted on houses, and signs appeared in windows: Cellphone here…long distance calls to Saudi (Arabia). The reason: Wire is costly, but put up a tower, and voila, instant calling. And the poor farmers who bought their land with the land reform program, and so they had enough money to educate their children, now had children who went overseas or to Manila for better paying jobs, and bought mom a cellphone.

Fast forward to 2008. One of our farmers came here to ask for money for medicine (his kid had a bad infection). He took out his cellphone, and voila, his wife texted the medicine he needed. I wrote out a prescription for the pharmacy and we bought it for them (we usually supply medicine and doctors bills for our employees). No problem. The kid did well…but notice his father had access to a cellphone?

Everyone here has a cellphone. They cost a week’s salary, but even the poorest person can pool with his extended family for one. But people don’t talk on the phones: They text. Constantly. Texting takes a second of airtime, and is cheap and easy. The more upscale teenagers have camera phones to send photos too.

Need to text someone? You look for a sign “Load available here”. Every little village has a shop that sells “loads” along with snacks and ice. You can buy a load for as little as 50 pesos (one dollar).

Cellphones here are used to communicate. But in Africa, cellphones have been used to send small amounts of money back and forth so people can buy things without carrying cash around. (we have Western Union and money changers that does this).

Notice that the USA TODAY article mentions that Africa has 80 million cellphones.

Now, here is another note, from Strategy Page. It seems that one of the western ideas welcomed by even the Taliban types in Afghanistan are cellphones. So far, 2000 cellphone towers serve 250,000 people, and when the Taliban blew up a few cellphone towers, the people started turning against the Taliban in those areas.

But cellphones not only allow personal freedom, they allow people to organize anything from a party to a demonstration. They allow activists to text information and news to others, and allow people to report what is going on.

When the Glorietta Mall exploded (sewergas, not terrorism), those with cellphones had photos place on their webpages within minutes.

And cellphones can be used as a means of quiet protest: when the “helloGarci” scandal was big here, students downloaded “helloGarci” ringtones.

Of course, things can work the other way: we got one asking us to “text” a government whistle blower to ask how much he himself had diverted from his own job, and cellphones allow government officials to coordinate their own demonstrations. But if cellphones become common,  governments no longer have a monopoly on information, and that will work against closed societies like Cuba.

For example, cellphones can allow individuals to get information around about problems that can embarrass a government that likes to hide it’s problems, which is why in places like Zimbabwe, the military calls cellphones a security risk.

The problem with totalitarian regimes like Cuba is that, unlike Zimbabwe or other simple tyrannies, there is a “grassroots” busybody who monitors your every move. Santa may know if you’re naughty or nice, but Mrs Neighborhood committeewoman in defense of the Revolution knows if you pap smear is due or if you are attending that subversive Pentecostal church down the street.

But will Mrs. Snoopy know what you are texting? Maybe at first, but these things tend to snowball, and overwhelm the system.

So my advice to Miami Cubans: Send cellphones. Lots of them. Including phone with cameras.

Potemkin villages tend to be believable when no one questions the fakery.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket. 

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