Cubans on the island want to talk to you about refilling their phone minutes

Cubans looking for discounts to refill minutes for their cellphones frequently turn to friends and relatives in the United States to help get discounts, but the requests are causing some friction.
Cubans looking for discounts to refill minutes for their cellphones frequently turn to friends and relatives in the United States to help get discounts, but the requests are causing some friction. AP File

“Little bro, hook me up with a refill. It's only 20 little pesos.”

That and other similar phrases are regularly posted on the social networks of Cubans who are asking friends, relatives and anyone else living abroad to pay money to refill minutes on their cellphone accounts.

Etecsa, the government's telecommunications monopoly, offers discounts only to people who pay from abroad. Users on the island can rarely access the discounts, sparking complaints of “discrimination.”

But Cuban ingenuity has found a way to take advantage of the discount offers, by using intermediaries abroad.

“From the 11th to the 15th, add 20 and get 40,” said one text message sent by Etecsa to Cuban cellphones. It meant that paying $20 worth of minutes into a cellphone account would be credited as $40.

Cubans on the island then start looking for someone abroad to make the payment. But that's causing friction between those in Cuba who have to ask for help and those abroad who receive the frequent requests for a handout.

“I have to get tough every month, because otherwise they bleed me dry,” said Yuralay Batista, a Cuban woman who came to Miami three years ago. “Just the other day I got a … request from a woman who said she was in my same nursery, and could I help her with a refill.”

Another Cuban who identified herself on Facebook as Nairovis Brooks López recently posted a video complaining about the huge number of requests for refills she was receiving. The video went viral and has been shared more than 360,000 times.

Not all Cubans complain about paying for cellphone refills for those on the island, where Etecsa offers only pre-paid accounts for the average consumer.

Alain González, 30, who lives in Hialeah, said that it's “an abuse” that Cubans on the island cannot take advantage of Etecsa discounts. González, who has worked in a factory for five years and travels frequently to the island, said he often puts money into the accounts of relatives and friends because that allows them to keep in touch.

“My mother lives in Central Havana. With the refills, she calls me once a week. That's cheaper than me calling her,” he said. “Home land lines in Cuba are rare. That's my way of helping.”

Cubans obtained access to mobile telephones relatively recently. Only diplomats, tourists and top Communist Party leaders had the privilege of using cellphones until 2008, when ruler Raúl Castro opened the doors to mass use. The country of 11 million people now has five million cell accounts and the government has announced it will soon permit surfing of foreign internet pages.

But the costs of cellphone service are impossibly high when compared to the average monthly salary of about $30. Opening an account costs about $40 and one minute of talk costs about 40 cents.

“Etecsa is expanding on the backs of working people abroad,” Batista said.

Money in cellphone accounts is also increasingly being used as currency, transferred from buyer to seller, and Etecsa charges about 30 cents per transfer. Some economists estimate that Etecsa earned more than $2 billion in profits from its pre-paid cellular service, and that more than half the cellphone accounts are kept open through refills of minutes paid for from abroad.

Etecsa does not make public its profits or the number of refills drawn by its offers of discounts.

But Tania Velázquez, vice president for Etecsa's Business and Technology Strategies, has said the company gives priority to payments from abroad to obtain hard currencies. She added that barely 20 percent of the refills come from abroad, despite the avalanche of requests sparking protests by Cubans abroad.

Follow Mario J. Pentón en Facebook and Twitter: @mariojose_cuba.