Cuba's Internet

-- By LizzethMerchan - 02 Dec 2017

Cuba Disconnected

An island-nation only 90 miles off Florida’s coast, Cuba is among the least connected countries in the world. Attempting to control the minds of its people, the Castro regime has sought to control all flow of information from abroad. Free access to the internet, the world’s largest source of information, is incompatible with the totalitarian model. In 2015, approximately 5 percent of the population had access to the global internet at home, although the Cuban government put that number closer to 35 percent. There is one source of permitted media in Cuba – the State.

Internet access in Cuba has been hampered by poor connectivity, prohibitive internet pricing, censorship, and systematic content blocking. For years, the internet was banned and ownership of most computer software and hardware was prohibited. In 2009, the Obama administration began allowing telecommunications companies to do business in Cuba. In 2013, Venezuela financed and activated a fiber-optic cable between the two countries. These recent developments have created a dual internet system on the island – the global internet, which is inaccessible to most Cubans, and its own intranet, which is cheaper and highly censored. The government’s intranet is more readily available and features restricted content, including the EcuRed? encyclopedia, a Wikipedia-like website that presents the government’s version of the world and history. Until recently, the global internet was only available at state internet parlors and hotels where connecting was slow and prohibitively expensive. In July 2015, however, the state-owned telecom monopoly, ETECSA (Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A.), began implementing WiFi? hot spots. Today, there are more than 240 public WiFi? spots scattered throughout the country. Although the hot spots have improved internet accessibility, service is slow and the price to connect remains unaffordable – $1.50 per hour in a country where the average monthly salary is $25.

Cuban Solutions

Despite the government’s efforts to restrict and control internet access, Cubans haven’t exactly been sitting around, letting the digital revolution pass them by. The Cuban population has responded to the media blockade with innovative solutions that range from hacking to the creation of an underground internet system. One of their most notable innovations is el paquete semanal, the “Weekly Package.” The paquete is a flash drive loaded with a week’s worth of foreign entertainment – including movies, music videos, and Netflix shows – that is distributed throughout the island. The process is coordinated entirely by an informal market of data traffickers, based both in Havana and the United States. Another, perhaps more sophisticated invention, is a bootleg internet system referred to as the “StreetNet.” The system is a home-grown network created and maintained by Cubans on the island – a network of black market computers, routers, nano-modems, and concealed cables. Connecting to the Streetnet gives thousands of Cubans access to one another for online gaming, messaging, and media sharing.

Although it is undeniable that the Cuban people have been creative and resourceful in bypassing their government’s resistance to internet access, their success is meaningfully limited. The content of the weekly paquete, for example, is primarily recreational in nature – the information disseminated is not political or religious in any way. Perhaps this is why the Cuban government has tolerated the circulation of such prohibited content – as long as the distributed material remains free of any ideologically-threatening information, the regime allows Cubans to get a taste of illicit foreign culture. The existence of these bootleg inventions is convenient for the government because it allows the masses to feel empowered while simultaneously silencing and appeasing them. In their quest to consume and share information, Cuba’s digital revolutionists have attained a restricted sense of “freedom,” one granted and controlled by their government.

Google in Cuba

In December 2016, Google announced a new partnership with Cuba. Cubans will now have access to Google Global Cache which allows users to store content from Google services such as Gmail on YouTube? on local servers. The agreement between Cuba and Google contains a clause in which ETECSA commits to “not censor, surveil or interfere with the content stored on those servers.” Some have praised the partnership and concluded that this clause, in particular, signifies that at last, “at least one place free of censorship” exists in Cuba – Google content stored on servers on the island.

Shortly after vowing to keep its servers on the island free of censorship, there are already allegations that Google is collaborating with the Cuban government and blocking political websites. Assuming the allegations are unfounded and Google is actually keeping its promise, is this new partnership a good thing for Cubans? It will undoubtedly make streaming video content faster and more efficient for Cubans, but are Cubans now trading in surveillance and censorship by their government for surveillance by Google?

It's impossible to test whether the external circumstances of embargo or the desire of Cuba's government for high levels of social control have more strongly determined the outcome, because both forces are so profound that the result was overdetermined. Just as I think there would be newer cars on the island, despite the oppressive quality of Cuban socialism, if the US had allowed the island's economy to function normally, I suspect the government would have chosen a less closed Net if they could have had one, even at the cost of some lost social control, if the calibration of that process had been in their hands. But we cannot tell. Certainly there is little reason to believe that the present government wishes to have a Net much freer than that of Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, or other Net-enabled despotisms elsewhere in the world, though that is very likely to change. The government isn't going anywhere, nor are its people; their brain-power is a much more valuable long-term resource than its sugar cane, or perhaps even its tourist development. So my guess, which may be different from yours, is that the continued building out and improvement of the Cuban Net is another of the elements in the generational transition now just beginning. The last US administration understood these issues quite well, in my experience, and was inclined to move to better policy as fast as the politics of Florida would permit. The current administration is certainly both less skilled and less motivated, but Hurricane Irma will change the politics of Florida on this subject more than enough. For the future of the Cuban Net, I think, the most important facts are that Fidel Castro and Jorge Mas Canosa are both irretrievably dead.

Improving this draft, in my view, mostly means tightening the exposition to give yourself more room, and replacing the Google paragraphs, which are out of continuity with the rest of the piece and don't actually go anywhere. The real point is that tentative experiments on both sides are beginning, affected both by the government's efforts to regulate the generational transition to a post-Castro, post-Soviet society and by the continued abnormality of the economic context as defined by the US. You may be more inclined than I to believe that the goal of government policy is the creation of a North Korea in the Caribbean, but regardless of our starting points we can both see that change is inevitable and has begun. Assessing the possible paths of continuance and their relative likelihood is a very good effort to attempt.

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