Flar Earth: Hello? Operator? Fraternal greetings

COMRADES in the dwindling band of impoverished communist nations have to stick together as the international capitalist noose tightens around them. What sort of gift would demonstrate the appropriate degree of fraternal solidarity? How about used telephone switchboards, made in the former East Germany?

Instead of donating the antiquated equipment to a museum, Vietnam sent six second- hand switchboards to Cuba to mark the 35th anniversary of Fidel Castro's revolution. This will give the Cubans another 9,600 much-needed telephone lines. Vietnam may still be one of the poorest countries in the world but, unlike Cuba, it is enthusiastically embracing market economics, and has just finished revamping its entire phone system. You can pick up your receiver now and dial Hanoi, but forget about trying to reach Havana unless you have nothing else on this week.

The Vietnamese promise they will send more second- hand plugs, cables and headsets to Cuba as soon as they are replaced by its new optical fibre and digital microwave systems. I am sure they are sincere - after all, employees of the posts and telecommunications authority, entirely voluntarily no doubt, donated a day's pay to cover shipping costs - but does Hanoi have no inkling that Fidel might find its generosity a tiny bit humiliating?