Trinidad, Cuba

Cuba's telecoms dilemmas

How is Cuba changing as one Castro gives way to another.

When Fidel Castro finally admitted in February that his deteriorating health meant he was not going to stand for president again, after 49 years in power, a sense of impending change gripped the populace of Cuba.

Five days after Castro's announcement, his younger brother and long-term comrade Raúl, who had been running the country since mid-2006, was confirmed as his successor by the Communist Party of Cuba. The new leader's reputation as a hardliner led political analysts to predict little structural change to the Cuban regime.

Raúl Castro's inaugural speech on 24 February did little to dispel this view. The speech promised a series of gradual reforms aimed at lifting some anachronistic restrictions, without actually specifying which restrictions, or when the reforms would be introduced.

In the end, when the first set of measures was announced a few weeks later, it disappointed those who had been holding out hope for more radical change. The prohibition on owning private land, property or cars, for example, remained firmly in place, as did heavy restrictions on foreign travel.

However, to the outside world, the news that the Cuban government was instead legalising DVD players, TV sets (up to a certain size), PCs, mobile phones and microwave ovens for personal use may have come as somewhat of a surprise.

Many of us take for granted the right to go to a shop, buy a computer, bring it home and plug it directly into the World Wide Web. In Cuba, until April, buying a computer was illegal. Now it isn't, but even for those who can afford one (in a country where the average wage is less than $20 a month), open Internet access remains virtually non-existent.

Disconnected

"Internet use is severely restricted in Cuba. A combination of Cuban government policy, the US trade embargo and personal economic limitations prevents the vast majority of Cuban citizens from ever accessing the Internet," reads the latest report on Cuba by the OpenNet Initiative. This independent group monitors how the Web is filtered, and is jointly run by the University of Toronto, Harvard Law School, the University of Cambridge and Oxford University.

"The few who gain access are limited by extensive monitoring and excessive penalties for political dissent expressed on the Internet, leading to a climate of self-censorship," the report adds.

If you are a Cuban resident intent on surfing the Web today, you've got two or three options. Contacting an ISP to come and install a residential connection is not among them, unless you are a highly ranked government official or a foreigner living in the island.

The first option is to head to your nearest Internet café - if you're fortunate enough to live near one of only three Internet cafés currently available for a population of 11.5 million.

All three stores are in the capital, Havana. Although Internet cafés exist in other cities, they're reserved for tourists. Cubans are banned from using them.

Havana's Internet cafés are expensive, too. The cheapest charges $4 an hour, and the most expensive $10 an hour. To make matters worse, the computers are so slow and the bandwidth feeding them so scarce that it makes the whole experience - after queuing for between one and three hours to get in - quite irritating.

The second option Cubans have to access the information superhighway is to work for one of the state departments that enjoy Internet access in their offices. Again, government officials, but also scientists and medical researchers, are said to enjoy this benefit.

However, according to a Cuban expatriate who emigrated to Chile in 1997 after 37 years living on the island, and has since been back a few times to visit his family, this option does not actually guarantee employees will be able to surf the Web without restrictions.

"Yes, those computers are connected, but only between themselves," says JC, who asks not to be identified in order to protect his family from potential reprisals by the Cuban government. "You can't use them to access the same Internet that you and I can access from any other country in the Americas. All the access you will gain through those machines is to a national intranet, where you will only be able to see those websites that the government lets you see.

"There are places in Cuba where you can access the open Internet: at Raúl Castro's home, or that of his daughter," he says. "National Security garrisons or the international news office of the state newspaper Granma will also have unfiltered Internet access. But, obviously, ordinary Cubans are banned from entering such premises."

Another option is to go to one of the hotels offering Internet access to tourists. Up until April, Cubans were forbidden from using these facilities: both using the Internet access and staying at these hotels was illegal. But this was one of the restrictions that Raúl Castro saw as pointless and lifted.

Finally, there are those who, having bought a username and password on the black market from someone with authorised residential Internet access, wait until after midnight to set up what Cubans call an 'underground connection'. These are made via slow, dial-up modems using fixed telephone lines.

But the servers used to access this traffic are still owned, monitored and filtered by the government through ETECSA, the country's only telecommunications company. People know this, so their use of such clandestine links is limited to chatting with remote friends and family or registering with job agencies.

This whole scenario may help explain why - as of April 2007 and according to figures from the OpenNet Initiative - there were only 190,000 regular Internet users in Cuba, less than 2 per cent of the population.

The blind blogger

The emergence and growing popularity of the blogging phenomenon that is Yoani Sánchez has come to symbolise the daily struggle that ordinary Cubans face to express themselves on the Web.

While blogs about Cuban affairs abound on the Internet, most are written by Cuban dissidents living abroad, and often in Miami, where the biggest expatriate community is based.

Sánchez, a 33-year-old philologist-turned-computer enthusiast, is one of a very small group of bloggers posting content (counter-revolutionary in nature) from inside Cuba - and possibly the only one stating her name and even showing photos of herself and her identity card.

As of May 2008, her site (http://desdecuba.com/generaciony [new window]) was receiving an average of 12 million hits per month. Any one of her posts, which she normally uses to describe aspects of daily life in her Havana neighbourhood, normally receives between 1,500 and 4,000 comments.

To avoid direct control by Cuban authorities, Sánchez uses a server located in Germany to host the site. However, two recent international awards (the 2008 Ortega y Gasset Prize for Digital Journalism and the inclusion of her name in the last edition of the Time 100 list of the world's most influential people) were always going to catch the attention of the censors.

Since the end of March 2008, 'Generacion Y', as the blog is called, has been filtered out from the few public Internet cafés and hotels that regular Cubans (including Sánchez) use t get online.

Not one to be deterred, the blogger has found a way to circumvent the blackout: "Isend my texts by email and my friends [abroad] publish them, and then email me back the remarks that are left by readers," she wrote in her 1 July post. "I am a blind blogger, a cybernaut with a leaky raft that manages to float through the support of a spontaneous network of citizens."

That network of citizens is also responsible for the blog's new English, French, Mandarin, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Polish and Lithuanian versions. The translations are done by volunteers around the world who have never met Sánchez but who sympathise with her cause.

Once Sánchez receives each email containing the thousands of comments triggered by her latest post, she makes and distributes digital copies of this material in the form of CDs and minidisks that allow her fellow countrymen and women to - modestly - join the debate.

Just as many Cubans had managed to get around the now-lifted ban on buying a PC by building their own machines using components acquired in the black market, a well-oiled mechanism was also in place to circumvent the ban on owning a mobile phone. It consisted of approaching a willing tourist and convincing him or her to buy a cellular contract, which would then be used by the interested Cuban.

ETECSA operates a national GSM network on the 900MHz band that began being deployed in 2001. An earlier TDMA network on 800MHz that was launched in 1991 is now being phased out.

The lifting of the restriction on mobile telephony, which became effective on 14 April, means that the thousands of Cubans who already owned a line can register them in their own names.

By 24 April, ETECSA announced 7,400 mobile contracts had been signed. The telecoms operator expects to sell 1.4 million new lines in the next five years.

At first glance, such ambition would appear unrealistic for a service that costs over $100 (or five months' salary) just to set up. The price of the handset then needs to be added, and these will be sold with a 200 per cent mark-up, just as DVD players and other now-legal consumer electronics gadgets will.

For a cubano de a pie (or 'Cuban on foot', the islanders' term for ordinary Cubans) this will be beyond reach. However, it is estimated that 60 per cent of the population boost their meagre state salary by either receiving cash remittances from relatives living abroad, renting rooms to foreigners, getting tips from tourists or earning bonuses through their work in factories and farms.

It is from this group of Cubans that the new mobile contracts will emerge. In the process, the Caribbean nation will try to close the gap that means it currently has the lowest cellular telephony penetration in Latin America. 

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