US and Cuba re-establish direct telephone calls

An ETECSA (Cuban Telecommunications Company Inc.) employee talks on a mobile phone on April 14, 2008, in Havana, Cuba. AFP
The United States and Cuba have re-established a direct telephone link, the Cuban state telecommunications company said Wednesday, in the latest step toward normalizing ties between the one-time Cold War foes.
For the first time since 1999, calls can now be made directly from the United States to Cuba and vice versa, without passing through a third country, the company, Etecsa, said in a statement.
"The reestablishment of direct communications between the United States and Cuba contributes to providing better infrastructure and better communications quality between the people of both nations," Etecsa said.
The connection was set up through a February deal signed with New Jersey-based firm IDT Domestic Telecom.
It was the first agreement signed between Cuban and American companies since the announcement on December 17 that the two countries would renew diplomatic ties after more than 50 years of hostility.
The telephone link between the two countries has been interrupted and restored numerous times since Fidel Castro came to power in the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and began nationalizing American-owned companies in the 1960s.
But this is the first time the connection has been restored since February 25, 1999, according to Cuban authorities.
Previously phone calls between the United States and Cuba had to pass through a third country, making them expensive and poor in quality.
Etecsa did not immediately announce new rates.
Around two million Cuban-Americans live in the United States, and many families rely on phone calls to stay in touch across the Florida Straits.
Postal service between the two countries was cut off in the 1960s and has still not been restored.
The new connection will "initially" be used only for international voice calls, but could eventually transmit other kids of communications as well, Etecsa said.
The White House had announced in December that the rapprochement with Havana would include "new efforts to increase Cubans\’ access to communications and their ability to communicate freely."
That included easing restrictions on exports of telecommunications and Internet equipment, services and infrastructure.
The historic announcement by Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro raised Cubans\’ hopes that they could soon have regular Internet access via the United States.
Cuba has one of the lowest rates of Internet access in the world — just 3.4 percent of households are connected — and Internet cafes charge around $4.50 an hour, in a country where the average monthly salary is around $20.
US companies have been positioning themselves to enter the Cuban market since the rapprochement was announced.
Video streaming service Netflix launched in Cuba last month.
This month, MasterCard is due to allow clients with US-issued cards to use them on the island. And American Express has announced it is ready to do the same.
While Washington and Havana have held two rounds of talks on reopening embassies, among other subjects, thorny issues remain untouched, such as compensation for nationalized American property and Cuba\’s removal from the US blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism.
To lift the crippling trade and financial embargo the US slapped on Cuba in 1962, Obama needs the approval of Congress — a difficult political battle with both houses currently under Republican control.
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