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Internet in Cuba: A New Medium for Individual Freedoms?

By Guest Writer on September 2, 2015


The famous Cuban blogger Yoanni Sanchez once called Cuba the island of the disconnected. According to Cuba’s 2011 official government statistics, a mere 25% of the population is connected to the Internet. Furthermore, Freedom House suggests that only 5% of the population is really connected to the actual Internet with the remaining 20% connected to a National Intranet. This Cuban Intranet consists of national content controlled by the government, which includes the national email system, educational content, and national and international websites that are approved by the government.

Challenges to Connectivity
According to the 1996 Decree-Law 209, in order to be eligible to obtain a permit to get Internet access at home, Cuban citizens must provide a “valid reason” to request the connection. An individual’s response is then evaluated by the local Defense of the Revolution committee, which will grant or deny the permit according to “merit” and priorities of the nation. Given that obtaining a permit to have home access to Internet/Intranet might be difficult for the average Cuban, the population usually relies on the government’s Internet cafes to connect. By 2015, it has been reported there are 118 Internet cafes (Salas de navegación) run by the national telecom (ETECSA) and 600 Youth Computer Clubs (Joven Club de Computación) throughout the island. Service is still unaffordable to most people, with prices ranging from $4 to $8 per hour, which is a significant amount to pay from the $20 per month average salary in Cuba.

For those who succeed in obtaining a government permit, the only available service is dial up connections with speeds up to 52Mbps. Broadband service is only offered to government offices and businesses tailoring to tourists. Professors and scholars at some universities have access to the Internet with a monthly time limit that should be utilized only for academic purposes. If recreational pages such as Facebook are accessed, the monthly time limit is consumed faster than if it was used for academic purposes. Therefore, the Internet in Cuba remains a luxury for the majority and is only accessible to tourists, government officials, scholars—albeit to a lesser extent—and those who are willing and able to spend a substantial portion of their monthly income.

Freedom of Internet in Cuba
Freedom of speech is a delicate subject in Cuba, and the constitution states that freedom of speech is only guaranteed if one’s opinions are aligned with “the objectives of a socialist society” and are not contrary to the Revolution.

To monitor Internet access, the Cuban government uses surveillance software to monitor all the Internet traffic in the country, and according to Reporters without Borders, the software is programmed to detect “subversive” keywords. There are legal consequences and imprisonment for violating the limitation on freedom of speech; one can even be jailed up to 20 years for writing against the revolution, according to the penal code.

However, a few bloggers have challenged these limitations and have found creative ways of connecting to the limited Internet access points. In the past 10 years Cuba has seen a rise in personal blogs and offline tools, a trend that is well-known all over the online world thanks to key figures like Yoanni Sanchez and Orlando Luis Pardo, who usually publish or update their blogs from hotel WiFi connections at very high rates, as much as $10 per hour, which represents half of their monthly salary.

Internet has already demonstrated the potential as a new way forward for civic expression on the island.

Telecom and the Lift of the Embargo

The re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and USA has triggered expectations from many telecom companies all over the world that are eager to enter one of the last remaining (largely) untouched telecom market frontiers in the world. In a speech President Obama gave in December 2014 when he announced officially the beginning of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, he mentioned the telecom sector as a priority in the negotiations. He said: “I’ve authorized increased telecommunications connections between the United States and Cuba. Businesses will be able to sell goods that enable Cubans to communicate with the United States and other countries. We welcome Cuba’s decision to provide more access to the Internet for its citizens.”

Meanwhile, President Raúl Castro’s speech mentioned telecommunications as a responsibility of the U.S. Government, where he “called upon the government of the United States to remove obstacles hindering …telecommunications”. And even though ETECSA has announced new plans for expanding telecommunications in Cuba, much still remains to be done in order to modernize Cuba’s telecom infrastructure and regulatory policies, such as allocation of the wireless spectrum, upgrade of the present telecom infrastructure, opening of the market with intellectual property and private property, and the change of laws limiting Internet usage for the general public.

Remaining Questions
Regulations that hinder the private sector from flourishing independently remain in place. Foreign companies that wish to enter the Cuban market should be willing to transfer 51% of ownership on their holdings on the island to the government, which poses many unanswered questions to the companies wanting to enter this virgin market.

Since the announcement of the restoration of diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba, many companies have shown their interest in the telecom market in the region, including industry heavyweights such as Google, Huawei, Netflix, AT&T, Verizon, Telefónica, and even Facebook. The unanswered questions include: will Cuba let these companies in, and under which conditions? Or, if the Cuban rules do not change, how much are these companies willing to adapt to the Cuban model?

The Cuban government hasn’t revealed how it plans to adapt its ICT and Internet capabilities and sector to sync them with the new times ahead. A leaked presentation from ETECSA showed some data on how they plan to expand broadband connection and fiber to the home, even suggesting price levels. However, even though ETECSA dismissed the information contained in the presentation and blocked the blog that served as its source, it shows that the Cuban Government is willing to move forward towards the upgrade of its telecom sector.

The Hope of Open Connectivity
In this new historic chapter for Cuba, it is difficult to predict what next steps the Cuban government will take. However, there is hope that Cuba re-connects and comes out of so many years of isolation.

The Internet has become the means by which the world is unifying ideas, efforts, and knowledge to solve problems and find new solutions. Furthermore, the Internet connects the world and gives space for freedom of speech and connectivity, and there is a strong hope that Cuba can enter this global “conversation” and use it as a tool to find new solutions to its problems and new ways of freedom.

Ultimately the hope for Cuba is that the Internet becomes a new medium for education, healthcare, and commerce and that Cuba becomes an integrated member of the global Internet.

Written by Mariela Machado, a graduate student studying Public Administration in Development Practice at Columbia University.

The first photo is provided by Panampost.com and the second photo is from the author.

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