Cuba opens the Pandora’s box of the internet

Cuba opens the Pandora's box of the internet

The history of internet in Cuba is very short. In 2013, the government opened it up to the public, although with limitations, partly due to the effects of the US embargo on the island but also due to the regime’s iron grip on communications. Just two years later, the parks and areas around hotels were already full of people with computers and smartphones connecting to WiFi networks with their prepaid cards. Image taken outside a hotel in Havana in July 2015.

(AP/Desmond Boylan)

Cuba has reached a crossroads that will determine its social, economic and political evolution over the coming years. It is not a turning point reached as a result of the reform process – which is not delivering results, contributing more to the internal propaganda machine than to economic development – but the internet and its unstoppable spread. As independent Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez asserts: “The internet’s arrival on the island has reconfigured Cuban society”.

The government of President Miguel Díaz-Canel has a tricky task ahead of it managing this change, being fully aware of how essential it is to the country’s economic survival and yet unshaken in its determination to control the public’s access to information. The Castro regime knows that its very survival is at stake and that internet is a decisive factor in that battle.

“Just as well that Cuba still has ETECSA, with its poor and expensive telecommunications, because the internet is going to be the death of communism on the island. Everything can be filmed and uploaded to YouTube,” said a recent message on Twitter, one of the most dynamic social media networks for the Cubans who can afford to connect to internet. ETECSA is the state telecommunications company and the cornerstone of the internet monopoly on the island.

The internet “has given people a communication tool they didn’t have before. The Cubans, who have lived for over 60 years under the logic of a totalitarian, dictatorial system that has imposed its vision on public opinion, hijacking reality, are experiencing a form of liberation, by being able to access information, to communicate with the outside world and to talk about their everyday lives,” Abraham Jiménez, director of the independent Cuban news site, El Estornudo, tells Equal Times.

A thirst for information

The history of internet in Cuba is very short. In 2013, the government opened it up to the public, although with limitations, partly due to the effects of the US embargo on the island but also due to the regime’s iron grip on communications. Just two years later, the parks and areas around hotels were already full of people with computers and smartphones connecting to WiFi networks with their prepaid cards. Most were using the internet to contact relatives living in other parts of the world. Cuba’s “isolation” had come to an end.

The government took its next leap in December 2018, offering internet access via a 3G mobile network, giving everyone the possibility of connecting to the internet, anywhere on the island. Or at least in theory. In practice, however, it was not that easy, given the quality of the signal and the cost of connecting: the cheapest mobile data package, providing 600 MB a month, cost 7 Cuban convertible pesos (around €7). The 4GB package was 30 CUC, the equivalent of the average monthly wage for state workers.

On 29 July 2019, the creation of private internet networks, wired or wireless, was authorised in homes and businesses, as was the import of routers and other network equipment. Cuban citizens no longer had to rely on the over 1400 WiFi spots across the island. The number of homes with internet access rose to 80,000 and 2.5 million citizens had 3G connectivity. Around seven million Cubans (almost 57 per cent of the population) found themselves with continuous or regular access to internet content. Cubans were starting to see reality through their own eyes.

The internet was starting to be used as a tool for doing business in Cuba, facilitating the activities of self-employed workers. “Improving access and the quality of the connection in Cuba opened the way for new types of businesses and new pathways for attracting hard currency, with which the US Embargo could be circumvented,” Columbia University communications expert and journalist Javier Sauras, tells Equal Times.

“Internet access breaks with the insularity of Cuban society and satisfies the desire for connection and knowledge. From a more practical perspective, it opens new channels for expression and social participation,” adds the Spanish journalist, who has specialist knowledge on Cuba.

And it is true. If there is one thing that the arrival of the internet in Cuba has revealed is that its people are thirsty for information. Being able to connect is still a privilege in most parts of the country, but there is no turning back on the changes already introduced.

For Jiménez, there is a before and after to the arrival of the internet: “The birth of a new generation of independent media and the demands voiced by citizens in response to the shortages and shortfalls of a country beset by economic crisis and the erroneous policies dictated by the government. There is open talk of the birth of a new narrative in Cuba.”

Mobilisation of citizens via Twitter and WhatsApp

An example of civic mobilisation driven by 3G mobile internet access on the island was seen in January 2019, when a tornado hit Havana. The response was immediate, with direct help lines and networks being set up to assist the victims. The strength of the mobilisation provided confirmation that information and its management are not only a source of power but also effective action and solidarity.

It also contributed to highlighting the slowness of the governmental response when it comes to putting assistance in place in the event of natural disasters like this one. Until then, ordinary citizens were only able to assess that assistance based on the propaganda of the authorities themselves. Now they were discovering what was and was not, in fact, being done.

The civic benefits of the internet in Cuba have since then been demonstrated in a number of ways. The year 2019 has seen a deterioration in the economic situation, caused by significant supply shortages and the structural shortfalls of the Cuban economy. Internet access enabled the setup of WhatsApp groups sharing information about where such and such food products were being put on sale, where to go to find eggs or chicken, milk or cooking oil. Citizens are regaining the power to mobilise, independently of the authorities, now viewed with growing cynicism for their insistence on placing continued legal and technological restrictions on information and communication technologies.

Protests held around issues such as the rights of sexual minorities or the use of the internet have been called via WhatsApp or Twitter. And although the numbers attending were low, they were being followed, live, on the internet, by tens of thousands of people.

“The biggest change brought about by the internet has been the end of the state monopoly on information. Thanks to social media, news spread fast that the LGBTI community’s annual ‘Conga against Homophobia’ march had been banned. The official media blackout served no purpose,” says Fernando Ravsberg, a journalist of Uruguayan origin and a pioneer of independent news reporting on the island.

Ravsberg came up against state censorship of his website, Cartas desde Cuba (Letters from Cuba), an influential news and discussion forum until it came into the regime’s sights. For Ravsberg, one of the key benefits of the internet is precisely the fact that it encourages “debate”, as seen with the march in favour of LGBTI rights. “A huge amount of opinion was expressed on social media about the march, and the bipolarity was broken. Revolutionaries like [musicians] Silvio Rodríguez or Vicente Feliú criticised the police repression on social media,” he tells Equal Times.

Another protest fuelling digital debate was centred around SNet, one of those inventive solutions the Cubans come up with to “resolve” everyday needs. Over the last decade, SNet (Street Network) had until recently developed a semi-clandestine independent network, with principles similar to that of the internet, enabling tens of thousands of Cubans, mostly young, to exchange content on forums and webs, to share video games, creating a huge community that reached over 40,000 households. It was a network, initially linked up by cables and then routers, reluctantly tolerated by the authorities.

Greater internet access, greater scope for control

Resolutions 98 and 99 of May 2019, passed by the Cuban Communications Ministry, changed the lay of the land. SNet was not part of the state’s telecommunications monopoly, ETECSA, but the authorities’ chief concern was its potential to become a hotspot for dissent. Similar networks proliferated in the run-up to the Arab Spring protests that could not be shut down when the authorities decided to cut off access to the internet to stem the protests. What the Cuban Communications Ministry did was to integrate SNet’s infrastructures into the official institutions within the sector, such as the Youth Computer Clubs (JCC), or to simply dismantle and seize its equipment.

In August 2019, several independent journalists who had fought for SNet’s survival, including Jiménez, came under pressure from the State Security Services. The authorities were exhibiting their fear that this, or any other network, could be turned into a Trojan horse for foreign interference or a battering ram of internal dissidence.

Dissidence within Cuba is, in fact, quite weak, for now, precisely because of its inability to get its message out to the bulk of the population. The internet and networks such as SNet are, however, changing this opaque picture and the Cuban authorities are well aware of it.

“Just as we have seen in the rest of the world, from the United States to China, having more people connected to the internet means greater control over the population, more security tools, and greater scope for influencing and manipulating public opinion,” says Sauras, who nevertheless points out that “opening access to the internet was a political decision that the Cuban authorities meditated on for a long time”. For Sauras: “The Cuban government is not only going to adapt to the growth of the internet on the island but probably plans to take advantage of it, both nationally and internationally.”

Jiménez insists that the only thing we can be sure of is that there is a before and an after to the arrival of the internet in Cuba. “Since Cubans have been able to connect to the internet, be it through a WiFi hotspot in a park or through their own telephone at home, the country’s physiognomy has changed and it has started to bare itself more. The government can no longer hide what is happening,” concludes the journalist.

This article has been translated from Spanish.