Cellphones may do a number on Cuba

Wireless calling might not change the island for the better.

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The Cuban government made headlines worldwide when it announced the other day that its citizens would finally have unrestricted access to cellphones, ushering in a new era in telecommunications for the economically challenged island.

I say: The people of Cuba don't know how good they've had it.

Cellphones are one of those revolutionary technologies that make people wonder how we ever got along without them. They're incredibly convenient, increasingly versatile and generally reliable.

Cellphones are also amazingly obnoxious, unrelentingly intrusive and downright dangerous when used while driving, which is how most people seem to prefer using the suckers (at least while navigating Southern California streets and freeways).

Only this week, a prominent Australian neurosurgeon issued a report not just renewing the old claim about cellphones causing brain tumors but arguing that cellphones are in fact even more dangerous to consumers than cigarettes.

Welcome to the party, Cuba.

Actually, it'll be quite some time before ordinary Cubans can scrape together enough pesos to afford a cellphone. In lifting its restriction on cellphone use, the Cuban government said people would have to pay in foreign currency for handsets and service that would cost well beyond the $20 or so that the average Cuban pulls down each month.

In other words, this will be a privilege limited primarily to the better-off. At the Guantanamera Cuban restaurant in Burbank, waiter Pedro Gonzalez, a Havana native, put it succinctly:

"Nobody has money to eat in Cuba," he told me. "How can you buy a cellphone if you don't have enough money to eat?"

But this will change.

Thanks to its Communist government, Cuba has the lowest cellphone use in Latin America. Regional and European telecom companies will be pushing aggressively to fix that, and to be first on the scene with cheap phones and affordable service packages.

It's only a matter of time before the Cuban government bows to the inevitable and permits its citizens to pay in local currency, and thus follow the example of people throughout the developing world in flushing their hard-earned money down a rathole of text messages and idle chatter.

Cubans will be able to enjoy the capitalistic thrill of paying not just the advertised price for cellphone service but also hidden taxes, fees and surcharges that can boost monthly costs by as much as 20%.

My favorite: so-called regulatory recovery fees imposed by U.S. phone companies that aren't "regulatory" at all. They're in fact discretionary charges added to pass along certain business expenses, such as property taxes, to customers.

I don't know what moviegoing is like in Havana, but you haven't lived until some knucklehead's cellphone goes off in the middle of a film. Better still, Mr. Knucklehead actually takes the call.

And I'm sure Cubans will appreciate the following anecdote: I was walking down the street a couple of weeks ago and I passed a homeless guy sitting with his back to a wall while having an animated debate with some imaginary antagonist.

A few minutes later I passed a nicely dressed fellow who was walking by himself and having what seemed to be the same exact argument. Upon closer inspection, I saw he was wearing one of those dweeby Bluetooth things in his ear.

Cellphones are the great equalizer. Now we can all look deranged.

Cubans can look forward to hearing, whether they want to or not, total strangers discussing all aspects of their lives while standing in line at the supermarket or the bank, or while seated at a restaurant.

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