The State of Cuban Internet

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Rick Paulas travels to Havana and navigates the bureaucracy of Web access. But will the country’s citizens ever be able to get online?

By Rick Paulas

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Havana. (Photo: bwjones/Flickr)

If you travel to Cuba, which you should, prepare for two big shifts in your normal international traveling procedures. The first — if you’re an American with an American bank, that is — is lack of access to your money. This means withdrawing all the cash you’re going to use on the trip and doing some strict budget work while you’re there. The second: Internet is a luxury item.

That’s not to say the island nation is unconnected. Below, you’ll find out what it’s like for an international traveler to get Internet access in Cuba as of late March 2016. (The qualifier because, man, things are moving quickly down there.)

First, you have to buy access. This means asking locals for the nearest ETECSA office, the government ISP that controls access, generally in buildings painted blue. During standard business hours, there will be a long, static line outside. Stand in it, wait a half hour or so, show the clerk your passport, and buy a few scratch-off access cards for two Cuban Convertible Peso, (or CUC) an hour. That’s the equivalent of $2 an hour.

According to the 2015 rating of Internet freedom by independent watchdog Freedom House, Cuba scored an 81 on a scale of 0 to 100. That looks good, until you realize that, like golf, you’re aiming for a low score.

Next, find service. This is more complicated. There are rumors about a map of hotspots throughout the country, but that information is online, which doesn’t help much when you’re already on the ground. (Tip: Print it out before you arrive, and hope the information is still up to date.) More likely, you’ll stumble upon areas where groups of foreigners and Cuban nationals have gathered with phones and laptops. Remember them, because these are the only indications of where your newly purchased cards will have value.

The final step is mentally running through the list of items that you need the Internet for, since this isn’t your standard “browsing at will” experience. There’s a ticking time bomb quality to each search when you’re dealing with pay-per-hour access. After getting the list down in order of importance, go ahead and cull the last third, because the Internet is slower than the speed you’re used to.

That may seem like a lot of steps, and it is. But it’s also the best that access has ever been in Cuba. What’s the next step forward?

Cuba’s lagged behind on Internet penetration from the beginning. The reasons are multi-tiered, but all can be explained by their unique government. The fall of the Soviet Union plunged the country into a dire economic depression just as the early infrastructure was being laid down. The Internet’s reputation (rightfully so) of galvanizing a potential revolution didn’t put it high on the communist dictatorship’s to-do list. Having poor relations with an Internet superpower 90 miles away hasn’t helped.

Of Cuba’s 11 million citizens, only about five percent have access to the Internet at home or work.

All of that explains its current state. According to the 2015 rating of Internet freedom by independent watchdog Freedom House — which looked at the obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights — Cuba scored an 81 on a scale of 0 to 100. That looks good, until you realize that, like golf, you’re aiming for a low score. For comparison’s sake, Russia scores a 62 and China gets an 88, while America has a 19.

There is access available, but there are distinct barriers to getting it. The first among them is the expense. That two CUC-an-hour price is steep in the United States, where the median household income is a little more than $50,000, let alone where state salaries come out to about $600 a year. And while international travelers are allowed uncensored connectivity to everything on the Web — remember, you have to show your passport when buying those access cards — Cuban nationals are allowed to access only a limited number of sites.

Those two barriers have led to a situation where a great majority of the country’s Internet users are actually foreign travelers. Of its 11 million citizens, only about five percent have access to the Internet at home or work. This has created an information access point that’s based entirely on income. Those class-based restrictions aren’t exactly in line with the communist ethos the Castros and Che fought for back in the 1960s. How long until a country stuck in the past finally moves into the present?

“[Barack] Obama’s great,” one Cuban cab driver told us as we navigated the labyrinth of Central Havana. “He’s bringing Google to Cuba, and they’re bringing the Internet!”

“Obama’s great. He’s bringing Google to Cuba, and they’re bringing the Internet!”

That’s not entirely accurate, but close enough. Among the news to come out of President Obama’s recent trip was the announcement that Google reached a deal to showcase their latest products at a Havana museum in an attempt to, according to Google, “enable people for whom Internet access is scarce to browse the web and find information.” The free exhibition will showcase 20 Chromebooks inside, allow 20 users outside to use the Internet (a limitation to keep the strain on the bandwidth from dragging down access speeds), and be open from 7 a.m. to midnight on weekdays. (Counterpoint: As Larry Press puts it on his blog focusing on Cuban Internet access, the products in question are “only” Acer Chromebooks and Nexus 5 phones, so “it feels cheesy given the hype surrounding the opening of the center.”)

The hope, though, is that this exhibition is just the first step in bringing high-speed Internet to the rest of Cuba. As Google’s official announcement puts it, in Spanish that’s been Google-translated:

We are especially happy that Cuban children can experience virtual reality and explore places around the world, from Stonehenge to Port Hercule, the same way that children from other countries. […] [The demonstration will ideally] occur in parallel with initiatives of other technology companies and other sectors of the United States to redouble their efforts to bring a variety of services to Cuba, including potential suppliers Wi-Fi and broadband.

The hope, of course, is that whatever initiatives come from America will be looked upon favorably by the Cuban government. While restrictions have relaxed over the past decades — in 2008, Cubans were granted access to tourist hotels and allowed to purchase mobile phones; in 2011, the government allowed private businesses to open; a few years back, some Cubans were finally permitted to leave and visit other countries — more changes are set to occur. America will be getting a new president, and there’s too wide a policy gap between the current front-runners to accurately predict what’s going to happen. And Cuban President Raul Castro has already announced he won’t seek re-election in 2018, bringing an end to the long reign of the Castro family.

The trajectory of Cuba’s connectivity, then, will depend heavily upon how the two new leaders, whoever they are, get along. A good relationship might bring the Cuban people onto the Internet. A bad one may keep them stuck in the past.

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