Cellphones may do a number on Cuba

Wireless calling might not change the island for the better.

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.

They can revel in having to endure taxi drivers speaking nonstop into cellphones while driving.

And then there's the sheer lunacy of people who insist on using cellphones to turn their cars into extensions of their living rooms and offices.

Recent studies have concluded that it's not the cellphone per se that's the danger; it's the conversation, which distracts drivers from the task at hand.

Nonsense. It's totally the cellphone, as anyone who's ever been behind some bozo with a handset clamped to his or her ear will attest. People yakking on a cellphone typically have only one hand on the wheel and thus are driving more cautiously.

That typically means slower. And because they've got only one hand free, you can kiss away what little chance they might have had of using their turn signal before changing lanes (not that this seems to be a required activity in SoCal).

Hey, Cubans, want a laugh? Get yourself behind some nimrod in a '57 Chevy with a manual transmission and watch as he or she struggles to shift gears while simultaneously steering and holding a cellphone to one ear. It'd be funny if it weren't so terrifying.

Don't even get me started on people who send e-mails and text messages while driving. Are they kidding? (Note to editor: I don't mean you, of course.)

Cellphones also mean you're never out of reach. Sure, you can turn the darn things off, but that runs contrary to the whole idea of getting one in the first place.

Friends, family, colleagues, employers can find you any time, day or night.

That's a good thing, obviously. And not.

Modern Cuba is no stranger to revolution. Things will clearly be different when you can reach out and touch anyone you please. In a sense, the looming ubiquity of cellphones marks the island's coming of age, and could accomplish more change than a succession of U.S. presidents was able to pull off.

That is, if the things actually catch on.

I've never been to Cuba. But I'm told that the cities are colorfully alive with the noise of the streets -- car engines, people shouting, music -- while the beaches and countryside can be blissfully quiet.

Coming soon: the ceaseless joy of other people's ring tones in timba, the latest Cuban sound.

Yeah, welcome aboard, Cuba. You'll love having cellphones.

Just wait until your government decides that everyone should also have a credit card.

Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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