Raices de Esperanza Aims to Change Cuba One Free Cell Phone At A Time

From anti-Castro bromides beamed for decades into Cuban airspace to Everglades training camps for squads of never-used, would-be invaders, Miami has a long, mostly futile history of trying to spark change in Cuba from afar.

That's why it's so refreshing when someone comes up with a common-sense idea that could actually improve life for young Cubans -- and maybe even spark a tiny revolution or two.

Here's one from locally based group Raices de Esperanza: Why not send donated old cell phones into the island, which has the lowest percentage of mobile phone ownership in the Western Hemisphere?

Put cell phones in the hands of young Cubans and suddenly they're linked to the world. They're connected to a network their government can't effectively control. And their lives are a little bit better.

Genius, right? It's already working, says Raices' Cell Phones for Cuba project manager, Miguel Cruz.

"There's no question that technology is having an impact in Cuba," says Cruz, who will be manning a booth collecting old cell phones at this weekend's Cuban Nostalgia show. "People can look at Yoanni Sanchez's blog, independent twitter and facebook, and it just gives them a more objective view of the world."

As we wrote last October, more and more Cubans -- at least in urban Havana -- also have access to the mostly unfettered free market of the Web though sites like Revolico, a Craigslist-type site for Cuba.

Cruz took over the Raices project in September and says that the group has managed to get more than 100 working cell phones to young Cubans so far. 

Cuban cell phones operate on a different bandwidth than American models, so Raices gives donated phones to EcoPhones, which recycles them and then resells the valuable parts; Raices gets a cut of the profits, and uses the cash to buy Cuba-ready phones and prepaid minutes on the Cuban mobile network.

How do they get the phones into Castro's island? Cruz won't say.

"The Cuban government knows who we are and they don't approve," Cruz says, "so I don't want to get any of our contacts there in trouble. But I will say this: Many people from Miami travel to Cuba to visit family. If you ever want to take a cell phone down with you for someone who could use it, just send us an email."

Want to donate a phone to Raices? Just stop by Cuban Nostalgia at the Fair Expo Center from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. today and tomorrow and from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. on Sunday and look for Raices' booth.

You can read more about the project at Cell Phones for Cuba's home page here.

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