Call While You Can

Much to AT&T's dismay, foreign companies have found a way around the restrictions on calling Cu ba from the U.S. -- for now, at least

It's your mother, her careworn Iberian face framed in graying hair, smiling delightedly and holding a telephone receiver to her ear. The past few weeks, the posters and ads have been cropping up all over town: "No se olvide de su madre, ella esta esperando su llamada," they urge. "Don't forget your mother, she's waiting for your call."

It's not that the thousands of Miamians with family members in Cuba have forgotten to call; it's that they can't get through. In this age of satellite linkups and fiber-optic cables, the technology of U.S.-Cuba phone connections is stuck in the Sixties; specifically 1963, the year the U.S. imposed its Cuban trade embargo.

AT&T provided service to the island then, and it still does, but the embargo prohibits the communications conglomerate from upgrading its circuits, which number fewer than 100. The circuits that do exist can't begin to handle the steadily rising demand. There's no such thing as direct-dial A all calls go through operators A otherwise the lines would be jammed 24 hours a day. Even worse, Hurricane Andrew downed two antiquated transmitting towers in Goulds and Florida City, the only telephone links between the U.S. and the island. Now calls from the U.S. must be routed through Italy, an arrangement Castro demanded after the towers were destroyed. At one time, less than one percent of the 60 million annual attempts to call Cuba via AT&T actually got through, according to the company's director of corporate affairs in South Florida, Barry Johnson. Since the hurricane, the success rate has been virtually nil.

But there are alternatives. Your mother knows. A caller can link up via any third country that maintains modern communications with Cuba. Say you have a friend in Mexico whose phone is equipped for conference calls. You call her; she calls your uncle in Havana and then connects the two of you. Not surprisingly, the fact that this simple maneuver has large-scale applications has not been lost on several technology-minded entrepreneurs. In the past few years, Canada, one of Cuba's major trading partners, has proven especially hospitable to an increasing number of businesses founded exclusively to broker telephone calls between the U.S. and Cuba.

At least four Canadian companies handle a total of more than 500 calls per day, according to estimates by two of those business owners. A few similar operations are said to be based in Spain, Italy, and New York. Although no one is sure exactly how many brokers there are, they unquestionably provide a service people are willing to pay for. (The cost of a ten-minute call through a Canadian broker ranges from $30 to $60, depending on time of day and subscriber plans, while AT&T charges less than $20.)

Companies set up in the U.S. to provide similar services have so far met a quick end. TeleCaribe, a Miami storefront operation opened in January 1991, was out of business by September, after two federal agencies determined the company was violating the trade embargo and hadn't obtained the necessary U.S. permits. To date, the enterprising Canadian capitalists have avoided getting caught up in the ideological and economic conflicts between the U.S. and its defiant neighbor. But as the services proliferate, they're beginning to rile AT&T, and they also are likely to attract scrutiny from the U.S. government.

Hola Cuba Ltd., the company that admonishes Cuban Miamians not to forget their mothers, is merely the newest A and possibly the most aggressively marketed A Cuba-calling service. A Toronto-based subsidiary of International Telecommunications Corporation in Saudi Arabia and less than a month old, Hola Cuba already has spent almost $20,000 on advertising, according to Matthew Taylor, one of the company's owners. Hola Cuba currently puts through about 50 calls per day, most of them from South Florida, says co-owner Corrine Griffiths, and that number is steadily increasing.

To make a Cuban connection, the U.S. caller simply dials Hola Cuba's toll-free 800 number; the Toronto operators in turn call Cuba via Canadian regulated carriers Bell Canada and Teleglobe, and connect the two parties via conference call. Callers pay a $15 initial fee per call, plus $2.50 per minute. For customers who pay $250 for an annual subscription, the set-up fee is dropped and the per-minute charge is reduced by ten percent. Subscribers also receive a white plastic membership card. "We're trying to enhance customer loyalty," Taylor says.

At least so far, Hola Cuba doesn't handle anywhere near the volume that its main competitor does. Toronto Communications, two years old in June, puts through between 375 and 420 calls per day, according to manager Stella Oyarzun, for a service that is essentially Hola Cuba in reverse: The person in Cuba places a collect call to Toronto Communications, whereupon the Canadian company connects the call to its U.S. destination and bills the U.S. number.

An optimistic Matthew Taylor says Hola Cuba's year-end goal is to handle 500 calls per day, and the company will increase its monthly advertising budget in coming months to accomplish that. "We intend," he asserts, "to make every Cuban in the United States aware of who we are."

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