Tech Support

The Havana Genius Bar


In the same way Cubans keep pre-embargo cars on the road, they've figured out how to repair smartphones

Illustration by Jon Vermilyea

In the same way Cubans keep pre-embargo cars on the road, they've figured out how to repair smartphones

When my iPhone slipped from the back of the tank and into the toilet, I snatched it out immediately. Though at first all seemed fine, it soon switched off and remained unresponsive.

“It’s toast,” was the verdict from Grant, an Apple (AAPL) store Genius. “We don’t deem it really, like, worth it to replace the inner components of the shell of a broken phone. I’ll throw that guy away and get you a brand new one.” Grant said I’d have to buy a new phone for $649 (or a refurbished one for $150). I was about to leave on a trip to Cuba, where my phone wasn’t going to work anyway. So I thanked him and left.

On my second day in Havana I pass a small electronics store in the once-upscale Vedado neighborhood and stop in. Fishing the useless slab from my bag, I ask, “Is there anyone who might know how to fix this?” The woman at the counter heads to the back and returns with a thin slip of paper bearing an address in the Miramar neighborhood.

A kid wearing white-framed Ray-Bans nods when I knock on the green plywood door at the destination. His name is Andy, and he’s confident he can fix my problem. Removing the tiny screws that hold the glass cover in place, he begins a rapid disassembly. I have to admit Andy seems less impressed with my fancy phone than I might have expected. “How often do you fix an iPhone?” I ask. “Daily,” he replies.

“In the last two or three years I’ve noticed [iPhones] popping up,” says Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute. Raúl Castro’s reforms have jolted the mobile market. “In 2008, when he lifted the prohibition on Cubans’ having cell phones in their own name, that led to an explosion in the number of subscribers.” Like many products in Cuba, iPhones are often brought in by tourists or citizens allowed to travel abroad.

Andy extracts the motherboard with a dental pick, puts it in a green tank, adds alcohol from a Fanta bottle, and presses power. The contraption shakes vigorously. Abelito, his partner, says they learned most of what they know via an illegal Web connection. After 20 minutes of careful prodding and scrubbing, Andy has miraculously resuscitated my phone, but the battery holds little charge. I try to pay. He refuses. “We usually only accept payment when we’ve fixed the problem.” “But you did!” I argue. He won’t be swayed.

A day later, at Hotel Saratoga in Old Havana, I notice the porter swiping at his iPhone 3. I tell him about my battery, and he points to a thin, carefully dressed young man hanging around the bar. Ten minutes later, Roberto and I are making our way down a muddy street behind the impressive, decaying Capitol Building modeled exactly after the rather better-kept one in Washington.

We stop in front of a dark entryway. Roberto asks me to wait and bounds up a set of concrete stairs. Minutes later he returns with a new iPhone battery in its black plastic wrapper. As payment, he accepts an 8-gigabyte flash drive I’ve been carrying. Flash drives are valuable here, where Internet use is restricted and monitored. Roberto, an architecture student, explains that while “tuition here is free, you have to buy lesson books, paper, pens, your food, your transportation.” All that costs money.

Just as their fathers learned to fix obsolete Detroit cars, Andy and Roberto have learned to make a living with Palo Alto technology to which they have no official access. The healthy cell-phone repair market here is the latest example of Cuban ingenuity that locals call sobreviviendo. It’s small-scale capitalism working around a 50-year embargo and an anemic, centrally planned economy.

Two months later my phone works perfectly. The next time an Apple Genius tells you there’s no hope, consider it an excuse to visit Havana.

Becque is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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