US media depict the island as stuck in the digital dark ages, but Cuba has lively cultures of connectivity that could evolve into a self-sustaining, open, and accessible digital commons.
President Obama announced his historic upcoming visit to Cuba—the first in almost 90 years by a US president—on Twitter, meaning that most Cubans would have to learn the news by some other means. Only about 27 percent of Cubans currently have Internet access, and not all of these users can access the full global Internet. Many are limited to a government-controlled intranet through their workplaces. Key industries such as the banking system are only partly computerised, and simple tasks such as bank transfers are difficult.
It is generally agreed that Cuba would benefit from better telecommunications infrastructure, and during his visit, Obama is likely to suggest ways that the United States can help with this. A few days ago, the Obama administration announced that it was lifting limits on the use of American dollars in transactions with the island, as well as permitting educational travel to Cuba for individuals, which should help with expanding digital access. Yet there is no consensus between the two nations over how the improvements to Cuba’s infrastructure should happen.
Last November, The New York Times published an editorial calling on the Cuban government to partner with companies such as Google to update its telecommunications infrastructure and expand access to the Internet. The editorial argues that the only thing standing in the way is the Cuban leadership’s lack of political will. In January, the US Federal Communications Commission removed Cuba from its exclusion list, making it possible for companies to provide telecommunications services to Cuba without prior FCC approval. Shortly afterward, Daniel Sepulveda, the deputy assistant secretary of state and the US coordinator for international communications and information policy at the State Department, visited Cuba to discuss how US companies could help to connect Cuba to the Internet. He also reiterated that the main obstacle to improving Cuba’s Internet infrastructure was the unwillingness of the Cuban government to move ahead.
These perspectives downplay the role of the embargo in hampering Cuba’s access to Internet technologies. Presenting Cuba as a tabula rasa, stuck in the digital dark ages, fails to engage with the cultures of communication that currently exist on the island. These cultures could provide a strong base for constructing a self-sustaining, open, and accessible digital commons with robust privacy protections—an increasingly remote possibility in the United States, where ubiquitous surveillance is devaluing the Internet as a public resource.
Milena Recio, a Cuban journalism professor and the Havana-based chief Web editor for the American news website OnCuba, has been a strong advocate for expanding telecommunications infrastructure on the island. But she cautions that we need to talk not just about the Internet but about “connectivity” more broadly. This includes the development of network-based services and intranets in administration, education, banking, and other sectors that would benefit from connected software applications. Rather than simply focusing on “going online,” Recio draws our attention to the need for developing broader networks that can facilitate Cuba’s transition into a digital era.
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South America was connected to the global Internet through submarine cables from the United States, but Cuba could not access these cables because the US embargo prohibited American telecommunications companies from providing services to the island. Under the 1992 Torricelli Act, which proposed US Internet penetration as a means to undermine the Cuban revolution, these restrictions were loosened, and in 1996 the embargo was amended to allow US companies to provide telecommunications services to Cuba. That same year, Sprint Corporation signed a contract with the Cuban telecom company Etecsa to provide a 64 kbps satellite at a cost of $10,000 per month.
The costly satellite service made some digital access available for Cubans, but this was limited by various factors. Cuba was in the midst of a period of economic crisis following the collapse of its main trading partner, the Soviet Union, and there were no funds available to invest in Internet infrastructure. Further collaborations were hampered by the aggressive attitude of some in the United States, who periodically accused Cuba of cyberterrorism and digital espionage. (In 1999, for example, Manuel Cereijo, an engineering professor at Florida International University, produced a paper in which he accused the Cuban government of plotting telecommunications espionage against the United States.)
There were also embargo-related obstacles to expanding digital access. The embargo made it hard for Cubans to obtain basic equipment such as modems and routers. In April 2009, President Obama authorised telecommunication companies to provide satellite and fiber-optic services to Cuba. Although the company TeleCuba Communications obtained a license from the US Treasury Department to provide a 100-mile fiber-optic cable between Key West and Havana the same year, the project was aborted because the company was not allowed to ship associated equipment necessary to extend the cable within Cuba.
Currently, Cuba’s Internet access comes from an undersea fiber-optic cable that was provided by Venezuela in 2011 as part of a program for regional integration and cooperation known as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA). Although limited in size, this cable has made available high-speed connections for the first time on the island. In 2013, Etecsa offered a public Internet service known as Nauta, available for 4.50 convertible Cuban pesos, or CUCs, per hour (the average monthly Cuban salary is 28 CUCs).
In July 2015, the government opened 35 public Wi-Fi hot spots in parks and squares across the country, where Cubans can access the Internet for 2 CUCs per hour. The popularity of these services reflects the strong desire for connectivity on the island. When passing by one of these crowded hot spots, you can see families Skyping with their relatives abroad, or teenagers chatting online with friends. Despite the limited nature of the Venezuelan cable, which extends from La Guaira in Venezuela to the eastern coast of Santiago de Cuba, at least it makes possible a higher level of connectivity for Cubans that is not dependent on the United States.
It is often assumed that Cubans want access to the Internet so they can log on to Facebook or other popular social media platforms. While Facebook has certainly been integrated into the digital repertoire of Internet-savvy Cubans, it only scratches the surface of the rich cultures of connectivity that have been gestating in Cuba for over a decade. Cubans have made use of the state-provided intranet as well as limited Internet access to create their own networks of consuming and sharing information both on and offline. Those networks could provide an alternative to the corporate-driven World Wide Web, given the right level of support.
Although the national-bound intranet has been criticized by groups such as Freedom House for being a filter for the state to restrict what Cubans can and cannot see, it has actually been used by Cubans to develop local means of creating and sharing knowledge. One example of this is the Cuban version of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, called EcuRed: Knowledge with all and for all. EcuRed says its goal is to “create and disseminate knowledge from a decolonizing, objective, and truthful point of view.” Rather than Cubans providing local content to Wikipedia, on EcuRed they create entries on both Cuban and non-Cuban themes for their own encyclopedia. EcuRed is run by the state, and controlled by moderators who are government employees, but participation is open to all Cubans who are willing to abide by its rules of neutrality in reference to controversial political themes. The moderators enforce these rules, and can delete or edit content and block registered users. Despite the obvious restrictions this places on content, it still offers Cubans relatively wide latitude to share information. To date, the site contains more than 155,000 articles, produced by tens of thousands of contributors.
Outside of the intranet, Cubans have created their own innovative grassroots networks. SNet, or StreetNet, is one of several informal networks of computers connected via makeshift Wi-Fi antennas and Ethernet cables. The collection of short documentaries La Hora de Los Desconectados (The Hour of the Disconnected), coordinated by professor and Web editor Recio, shows how Havana residents create communities of users on SNet such as Red Habana Este and Comunidad Sur Boyeros Cotorro, each with up to 10,000 members. Unlike the intranet, these networks operate horizontally, and moderators don’t have the right to alter content. Although not legally approved by the state, these informal networks are tacitly permitted because of their clear prohibitions on pornography, sale of illegal drugs, and antigovernment material. Users access the networks to play online games, chat, and share television shows and movies. But as one user says in La Hora, SNet is limited to those in better-resourced areas of the city like Vedado rather than poorer areas such as Regla or Guanabacoa.
One of the groups that access SNet is made up of mostly young men who play interactive video games. The gamer culture began among various young people in government-sponsored Youth Clubs. Video games were not allowed in the Youth Clubs, because they were believed to encourage a culture of violence, so the young gamers began meeting outside the club. Through SNet and other electronic networks, they were able to link up their computers to play against one another in games like Star Craft and World of Warfare. One young and earnest gamer in La Hora, Ian Pedro Carbonell, founder of the Group of Electronic Sports in Cuba (ADEC), shares his vision of what he would like to see: “One of our main plans is to achieve a national festival of electronic games. Another is to have a national website, adec.cu. Also, we’d like to have exchanges between Cuban gamers and foreign gamers to raise the level. And, well, we’d like to reach a legal status.”
Cubans also find ways to use social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as foreign-hosted sites such as Revolico.com, an online classifieds site, like a Cuban Craigslist, that is hosted in Spain. Despite being blocked by the Cuban government, Revolico is accessed regularly by Cubans who use proxy servers to bypass the restrictions. Among the hundreds of thousands of items for sale are laptops, electric guitars, Samsung Galaxy smartphones, a bronze bust of Louis Pasteur, porcelain Chinese Buddhas, and the services of a clown called Payaso Refreskito.
Facebook users, known colloquially as feisbukeros, also find alternative means to access the site, although they can’t share and download large files or use many other functions of the site. In one short, La Hora draws on an actual story of a young woman who is on crutches after falling into a pothole. The film imagines what she could have done during her month of recovery if she’d had access to the Internet. In the fictional part of the short, the woman uses her time to develop a Facebook group called El Revolcón to share information about all of the potholes in the country. The filmmaker Rachel Rojas realized that the Facebook page could exist in reality, and she created “The Revolcón: National Database of Potholes.” Rojas recounts how the Facebook group led to more actual encounters with people in the neighborhoods: “We took photos, spoke with the neighbors of Central Havana and Vedado, and we gathered testimonial information that helped us to draw a map of the real necessities, many of which transcended the mere pothole in the street.” Despite the difficulties for Cubans in accessing Facebook, the page had more than 600 views in its first hours.
There is a Cuban farmer called Amador Sosa García who resides in the rural southern region of Cartagena, Cienfuegos, about 220 kilometres (137 miles) from Havana. Sosa, the subject of another short in La Hora, is on Twitter, and last December I followed him on the popular social media platform. Within 10 minutes, he followed me back and sent me a private message on Twitter thanking me for following him. Given the lack of connectivity in Cuba, especially in the rural areas, how did Sosa have the means to respond so quickly? How does he access Twitter in the isolated campo? Sosa was born in Cartagena in 1959, and after leaving to study computer engineering, he returned to the region in the 1990s to work on the land. He has a small LG phone that he uses to connect to the Internet through Nauta. One of his son’s friends helped him to set up a Gmail account, Twitter and Facebook accounts, and a blog. In one tweet from last August, he says, “In Facebook, you can see images of some fruits of a large size and excellent quality, harvested in our small farm.” In another tweet he says, “It’s a difficult journey to access the internet. #Farmers need another way.”
One cultural phenomenon that spans multiple forms of media and communications is the Paquete Semanal, or Weekly Packet. The Packet consists of one terabyte of data that is downloaded and distributed across the island via hard drives. The Packet began in 2007 as a clandestine medium with eight workers, and has expanded to an extensive business that employs about 45,000 Cubans and reaches half the population. It is a highly decentralized operation, with people in local barrios and provinces organizing their own packets. They sell parts of the Packet for as low as 1 CUC. Like many other kinds of subterranean digital culture in Cuba, the Packet mostly avoids controversial political themes and pornography and is therefore tacitly permitted by the state.
The Packet includes a range of materials. It has items downloaded from the Internet, like YouTube clips, Spanish-language news websites, games, music, computer-technology websites, and Katy Perry’s Facebook profile. But it also contains pirated material such as Hollywood films, Japanese anime, exercise videos, e-books, and pdf’s of magazines like People. Cubans are able to watch the US television series Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. Particularly popular are South Korean and Turkish soap operas and independent films from the remote Polynesian island of Niue. Another popular category is “Interesting Variety,” which is a collection of all kinds of things from jokes to fashion tips to healthy recipes.
Because of the success of the Packet in reaching large audiences, many Cubans advertise in it, from small-business owners who want to promote their restaurants or English classes, to highbrow literary journals on the island. There is a high degree of customisation of the contents of the Packet. Cubans can ask their local distributor for a particular genre of film, such as French neorealism. There is also a great deal of Cuban content in the Packet, including movies, magazines, and documentaries that might be otherwise difficult to obtain. Local habits of consumption are changing to fit the patterns of the Weekly Packet. Instead of tuning in regularly to one of the five local state television stations, many Cubans now own DVD players with USB drives connected to their television sets, and they screen material directly received through the Packet.
Even if Cuba were to develop the infrastructure to make broadband Internet easily available to its residents, Recio believes that the Weekly Packet will not go away. The Packet is more than the Internet, and more than a video service like Netflix. Packet distributors are curators who provide Cubans with easy access to a personalised selection of audiovisual media and print media from around the world. While Recio sees the Packet’s reliance on pirated materials as a big potential conflict, she hopes that it might transition into something more akin to Creative Commons, where freely available content not limited by copyright restrictions can be part of an open and plural public domain.
When we look at the grassroots cultures of connectivity that Cubans have built from the ground up—including horizontal and open-source methods of information sharing, using established platforms to promote social-justice concerns—and the noncommercial nature of these networks, it does seem that these cultures could be the basis for alternative and innovative uses of digital technologies.
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Most Western press coverage about the Internet in Cuba presents the government as holding back its expansion because of political concerns. It is said that the Cuban leadership fears that exposure to democratic ideas and the means of self-organization could be destabilizing for the revolution. Dissident groups and bloggers have argued that the Cuban government deliberately controls access to digital technologies as a means of social control. These blanket statements tend to conflate two sets of concerns: One is the fear of what the government calls “ideological risks,” and the other is the security and privacy issues that have been endemic to the worldwide Internet.
The Cuban government has prevented a greater degree of access to digital technology because of unfounded concerns about the Internet as a tool of subversion. As social sectors within Cuba such as Afro Cubans, women, LGBTQ groups, and others have become more organised over the past several decades, digital technology has been an important tool in helping them to share ideas and reach an international audience. The highly controlled state media do not often create the space for these voices to be heard, and the flourishing alternative cultures of documentary filmmaking, rap music, and other genres that took on social issues had to create their own channels of distribution in order to find an audience. This included passing around copies of films on flash drives and uploading music to iTunes.
Many groups are pressuring the Cuban government to reduce unnecessary political restrictions. Just last month, Reflejos, the platform of blogs managed by the government, shut down the blog of Proyecto Arcoíris, a self-described LGBTQ and anticapitalist collective. It was accused of “denigrating the revolution” by publishing a statement noting that the Cuban government had not apologised for the forced-labor camps for “antisocial elements,” where gay men were sent during the 1960s. In a blog piece, the group stated, “The Revolution cannot move ahead while the right to free expression does not have sufficient tools that can defend it.”
While the state censors and restricts Internet usage in order to quell political opposition, the government’s security concerns about handing over its telecommunications infrastructure to a company like Google are real. Particularly in light of the evidence revealed by Edward Snowden about how the US National Security Agency is using the Internet for spying and to engage in surveillance of users—and paying telecom companies for access to their communication networks—ceding control over Cuba’s digital sphere to private US companies could put Cuba at the same risk of insecurity that has occurred in other countries.
So what do Cuban advocates of connectivity see as the best solution for improving their telecommunications infrastructure? Recio suggests preserving the best aspects of the current system, which keeps the infrastructure in Cuban hands, avoids the market as the principal distributor of connectivity, and has very little commercial advertising. As she explains, “I would like to see a state capable of being the guarantor, principal investor, and beneficiary of all of our infrastructure.” In place of one company like Google supplying Cuba’s infrastructure, she favors a plurality of companies, to multiply the zones of dependency. She would like to see the evolution of national networks that can promote development in a sustainable way. “We have to find a way to achieve the best degrees of connectivity possible,” says Recio, “with as much protection as possible.”
The way that digital technology and infrastructure evolves in Cuba could have vital lessons for the rest of the world. The global Web is not the paradigm of democratic knowledge and freedom it is often made out to be, but is itself a sphere riven by inequality, corporate control, surveillance, and privacy concerns. Hopefully, Cuba will avoid the worst of these pitfalls and find a way to build a secure digital commons that taps into existing local and horizontal networks of sharing information. As Recio says, digital networks can provide a means to tell “the small stories of everyday people that you’re not going to find on the front page of any official press in Havana, or in the polarized press of Miami.”
This post was originally published on 18 March 2016 by the Nation. Photo credit: AP Photo/Desmond Boylan