Reach Out and Really Touch Someone

Late last year thousands of people learned that the "free" calls they'd been making to Cuba weren't really free. Now the bills are arriving.

After decades of precarious voyages across the Florida Straits, madcap raids against Cuba, and relentless lobbying in Washington, D.C., Cuban exiles have gradually become known as a people that puts its money where its mouth is. The depth of el exilio's passion for freedom and a liberated Cuba has cowed opponents, won over lawmakers, and gained the respect of other immigrant groups.

Yet the politics of passion can create a bizarre lack of predictability -- and a profound level of vulnerability -- as normally accepted concepts and behavior spontaneously mutate in response to rumor and imagined events. So it was that early last November, when word spread that a "secret code" would allow users to make telephone calls to Cuba for free, a paroxysm of dialing ensued.

Gossip about the secret code couldn't have buzzed through the exile community at a more propitious time: Six long distance companies had just been granted permission by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to provide state-of-the-art phone service between Cuba and the U.S., an infinite improvement over the situation that had persisted since 1963, when the U.S. imposed its embargo on Cuba. (The only legal way to call the island from the U.S. was via AT&T's hopelessly congested, antiquated circuitry, which, owing to the embargo, could not be modified or improved. The alternative was to route one's call -- in possible violation of the embargo -- through Canadian companies that charged up to $2.99 per minute.)

Even more felicitous was the fact that weeks before the six companies (AT&T, MCI, Wiltel International, LDDS Communications, IDB WorldCom, and Sprint Communications) went on-line with their new-and-improved service, callers who punched up the code 10457 were able to get through without a hitch.

Actually, there was one hitch: The calls weren't free.
The "secret code" turned out to be nothing more than the access number of Dial & Save. While Miami exiles were yammering away, the Virginia-based long distance company was busily ticking up a $1.85 per-minute charge. By mid-November many Miami exiles learned that they'd racked up charges in the hundreds -- or thousands -- of dollars. (Once a customer's long-distance bill exceeds a certain amount, which ranges from $200 to $1000 depending on that patron's calling habits, Southern Bell sends out a computer-generated warning advising that the charges be paid off immediately or long-distance service will be terminated.) Southern Bell spokesman Gustavo Alfonso estimates that about 5000 patrons contacted his company's representatives to complain about their bills; so far about two million dollars in Dial & Save calls to Cuba are in dispute.

A good chunk of that money was charged to Jose Garcia, a recent recipient of political asylum and the struggling head of a household of five. His wife allegedly rang up $1482.43 in long-distance tolls. "I told her not to call," Garcia says with disgust. "I said, 'No seas comemierda [Don't be a dipshit]. It's very strange that these calls would be free.'"

But Graciela Garcia believed the explanation given by friends who'd passed on the secret code. "They told us they were checking a new cable and that's why we didn't have to pay," she sighs, recounting a story that seemed all the more plausible given the long interval between the FCC's October approval and the November 25 initiation of service by major carriers. "It almost caused a divorce in this house."

In a community where even the most outlandish conspiracy theories tend to be carefully considered, such a discrepancy is of no small consequence. "Who is responsible?" Graciela Garcia wonders. "Cuba or the United States?" Along with her questions about the source of the rumor, she wants to know why calls she made to Havana appeared on her phone bill as having gone to Guantanamo. Other disgruntled callers wonder why Dial & Save never advertised its service to Cuba -- or its cost.

Don Burns, president of Dial & Save, insists there's a simple explanation. Dial & Save is a "reseller," Burns says. In other words, the company purchases excess capacity from major carriers, then resells phone service to its own customers at competitive rates. The "Guantanamo" destination, he says, was a holdover from the embargo days, when the U.S. military base was the only area on the island reachable by direct-dial calls from the U.S. (Other industry officials dispute that statement, maintaining that operators have always been needed to complete calls to Guantanamo.) In mid-November the company reprogrammed its billing computers to print "Cuba" where "Guantanamo" had previously appeared.

Asked why Dial & Save never publicly touted its potentially lucrative service in South Florida, Burns gave conflicting responses. "We did not immediately commence advertising because we were already embroiled in the difficulty created by the rumor that was circulating in southeastern Florida," he said at first. Later, however, he asserted that his company only learned about the rumor after a November 23 article published in El Nuevo Herald.

Anyone who suspects the company might have planted the rumor as a form of free advertising (or benignly ignored its spread) is utterly mistaken, says JoAnne Waldrop, a spokeswoman for Dial & Save. "We're a growing company with a viable service," she declares indignantly. "Why would we want to damage our good name just to take advantage of a small little market?" According to Waldrop, Dial & Save realized its service to Cuba was wildly popular when the company received massive bills from its own primary carrier. "Quite honestly, can you imagine? We're a small telephone company in Virginia; we never expected this kind of traffic."

According to Waldrop, when Dial & Save began fielding calls from confused customers in late November, news of the rumor already had appeared on the Telemundo network as well as in El Nuevo Herald. Waldrop says the company felt satisfied the misunderstanding had been addressed and saw no need to take out further advertising in Miami's Spanish-language media.

Instead, Dial & Save hired 23 new Spanish-speaking representatives to handle billing questions from Miami. Waldrop says the company is willing to issue "inconvenience credits" to everyone who agrees to pay their bill. Rather than $1.85 per minute, bills would be adjusted to reflect charges of $1.49 per minute. (By comparison, other American companies bill anywhere from 84 cents to $1.48 per minute, depending on time of day and week. Toronto Communications, a Canadian company that advertises in El Nuevo Herald, charges a flat rate of 75 cents per minute.) As of last week, Waldrop reports, Dial & Save had issued 3000 credits. "There's no reason that we would remotely be interested in trying to cause harm to anyone in any way, shape, or form," Waldrop concludes. "If what we were doing was fraudulent, the FCC would be down on us in a heartbeat."

A spokesman at the FCC's Washington, D.C., headquarters confirms that he is aware of the situation but won't specify what, if any, steps the agency intends to take. One issue the FCC might look into is how Dial & Save was able to complete calls several weeks before any of the primary carriers formally initiated service. Company president Don Burns refuses to reveal which firm or firms carried the Cuba calls. Out of the six that were authorized by the FCC, only LDDS admits having had technical capacity prior to November 25. Mark Welton, vice president of marketing for the Mississippi-based company, confirms that Dial & Save is a customer, but says LDDS doesn't carry Dial & Save's Cuba calls. "They told us they were going through Toronto," he observes.

If so, Troy Tanner, an FCC attorney, says Dial & Save may have broken U.S. law. "We have not authorized them to do that, so if they did, it would be illegal."

Florida Public Service Commissioner Joe Garcia, himself a Cuban American living in Miami, requested that his staff investigate Dial & Save but was told international calls originating in Florida fall outside his commission's jurisdiction.

Southern Bell, meanwhile, has advised its customers to be sure to pay local charges while they wait to negotiate payment arrangements on the Dial & Save calls. This week the company also set up a special hotline (780-2155) for information pertaining to the source of the rumor. "What really pains us is that we're in the middle of this," says Bell spokesman Gustavo Alfonso. "We have been trying to figure out a basis for what happened in November and we have not gotten anywhere.

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