HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 16 — Cuba’s official newspaper, Granma, published an article entitled “Bandits of Radio-electronic Sovereignty,” in which it reported the arrests of several people involved in the sale of clandestine Internet and satellite TV services.
Years ago, the Ministry of Communications told BBC News that there were tens of thousands of clandestine Internet accounts hosted by the government’s very own servers, an activity that has continued to grow.
This black market is based on the difficulty of internet access on the island, where most citizens can log on only from cybercafés in hotels at prices truly prohibitive for the average Cuban.
What’s paradoxical is that Granma devoted so much space to this alarmist case yet it still hasn’t given an explanation for the ineffectiveness of the underwater internet/telephone cable installed between Venezuela and Cuba in July.
Tens of thousands of clandestine operations
According to Granma, these “bandits” were dedicated to providing citizens with TV, Internet and telephone services using satellite dishes smuggled into the country and employing a sophisticated system of rechargeable phone cards.
In Cuba the word “bandits” is linked to the anti-Castro rebels in the Escambray Mountains in the 1960s, groups that promoted the violent overthrow of the revolution using weapons and provisions supplied by the US.
However most of those who deal in parallel Internet services are young computer specialists who began their operations working off the government’s servers to sell illegal accounts that access the net for around $50 (USD) per month.
This cybernetic black market fills a huge unmet demand for its customers, who are not served and therefore unsatisfied with the official channels. According to estimates by the Ministry of Communications made several years ago, even then there were tens of thousands of illegal users of the Internet.
What about the underwater internet cable?
During Raul Castro’s term as president, a law was passed that allows all citizens Internet access, but they can only connect in Internet cafes at truly prohibitive prices, between $6 and $10 (USD) per hour.
The government argued that limitations on Cuba’s access prevented this service from being provided in homes, so everyone was eagerly awaiting the installation of an underwater cable between Venezuela and Cuba that would increase connectivity 3,000-fold.
The work was completed but nothing has changed. Blogger Roberto Gonzalez, from La Joven Cuba, told BBC News, “Previously Cuba was linked to the Internet by a satellite connection, so I knew why it was so slow; but six months after we’ve been connected through an underwater cable, the service is just as bad.”
It’s not strange that no one knows the reason for this situation; the press hasn’t said a word about the failure of the cable even though everyone in the street knows that several senior officials responsible for telephone services and others in the Ministry of Communications are being investigated for corruption.
Little popular support
The Granma article tries to play to the emotions of Cubans in taking up its campaign against illegal servers. It describes them as “bandits” and says they are harming the nation’s “sovereignty” and could even be stealing cables from hospitals.
However, Internet servers are working in many areas and in every neighborhood there are illegal satellite TVs in operation without anyone reporting them. There are blocks in which even those people in charge of surveillance for the neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution watch soap operas from Miami.
Over the past 10 years the number of people who have contracted these services has grown. “I have Internet at work,” said one illegal user, adding, “I pay 40 CUCs a month for services at home because I want my son to have it too.”
The Cuban government seems quite isolated in the battle for “radio-electronic sovereignty.” Citizens are hoping for greater openness and they evade the prohibitions by turning to the black market – as they have for the last half century for a myriad of other needs.
The hand of the US
The US has found this contradiction the ideal gap for driving a wedge between the people and their government in its political battle against Havana. Millions of dollars have been allocated to smuggling satellite communications equipment onto the island.
US citizen Alan Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for that crime, after which time Cuban television featured the “specialist” training dissident bloggers in the use of these mediums and techniques for sending secret messages.
However most clandestine operators of the Internet and satellite TV dishes have nothing to do with those aims. These Cubans look at the black market as simply one way to increase salaries that aren’t enough to live on.