Cuba now ranks 129th in the world in terms of communication technologies, having been demoted from the 119th place.
By Cubano del Este
HAVANA TIMES — In Cuba, where most of the population struggles to put food on the table and scrounge up the bare minimum to get by, the recent report by the International Telecommunications Union (UIT), declaring the island the least developed Latin American country in terms of information and communication technologies, may seem trivial.
The cracks that have formed on the wall surrounding Cuba’s government controlled media in recent times, however, have awakened an appetite for technology among the younger generations that is difficult to satisfy, much less repress. This represents a genuine challenge for a society that practices censorship and manipulation as a means of survival.
In his address before the United Nations during the Sustainable Development Summit, and on presenting the resolution against the US embargo at the UN General Assembly, Cuban President Raul Castro stated that the “blockade” not only holds back the nation’s development but also stands in the way of improving the infrastructure needed to have a high-speed Internet on the island.
Though it may strike some as controversial, and even though to some extent the embargo has a negative impact on the island’s economy, this appears to be the old habit of placing the ball on the other court rather than a sincere description of reality. To illustrate this point, let us review some data about Cuba published by the UIT:
– 11.23 out of every 100 Cubans have a landline;
– 22.48 out of every 100 Cubans hold a cell phone contract;
– The average bandwidth per user is 462 Bit/s;
– 12.9 % of homes have computers;
– 4.12 % of homes have access to the Internet.
For those living outside the island, it would seem that the US government, with its restrictions and persecution of companies that have business dealings with Cuba, have mired Cuba’s population in a thick mud of technological backwardness.
Those who study its recent history, however, will recall that, a few years ago, Cuba’s leadership forbade the import of VHS and DVD players, mobile phones and personal computers. Cubans were also barred from freely owning cell phones or accessing the Internet (which only foreigners residing in Cuba, government officials, artists, journalists and some medical doctors could enjoy).
Despite the shy steps towards liberalization, the Ministry of Communications maintains restrictions on the import of no few information and communication devices, particularly any device related to satellite communications.
At Cuba’s government store chains, one not only finds it impossible to purchase a simple PC (which, if available, will be more expensive and worse than those sold in the black market), one also has a hard time finding a USB drive, a micro SD card or something as obsolete as a radio receptor.
Though ETECSA, the country’s sole mobile phone and Internet services provider, is unable to cover the demand for cell phones, the number of such devices that can be imported is limited, and new customs regulations make it difficult for communication devices and household appliances to be brought into the country. According to the Cuban government, this is in order to “protect the domestic market,” where, in addition to chronic shortages, products are sold at three times their market value abroad.
As though this weren’t enough, cell phone lines, calls, intranet mail and Internet services (offered at a handful of navigation locales and Wi-Fi hot zones) are very expensive, restricting their regular and massive use by Cubans.
Though the number of computers at Cuban schools have been doubled and computer sciences are part of their syllabi, and despite the Computer Clubs in existence around the country, the use of obsolete devices (too few to guarantee regular use) and restricted access to the Internet (no few centers offer merely intranet services, which afford access to Cuban pages or regulated content) demonstrate that these are merely excuses to cover up the State’s interest in keeping Cubans away from the digital world.
Though Cuba’s governing elite accuses the United States of maintaining a digital divide, as of December 17 last year, when the thaw policy was announced, several US telecommunication companies have expressed an interest in doing business with Cuba, but it seems that the Cuban government is ultimately the greatest obstacle standing between technology, the Internet and Cubans.
A recent New York Times editorial recommended an alliance with companies such as Google, so that Cubans will finally be able to access the World Wide Web freely. The article adds that millions of Cubans could have access to the Internet at affordable prices in a matter of months, and that the only thing keeping Cuba in the mists of the digital era is the lack of political will.”
Granma, Cuba’s official newspaper, only reprints those editorials that repeat its own rhetoric, but only 4.12 % of Cuban homes have access to the Internet (and many of these through a slow, dial-up connection). This time around, the embargo served to keep most Cubans from reading the points of view expressed by the New York Times editorial.
(*) Users of the email services offered by ETECSA (nauta.cu) maintain that it is affordable, as they compare it to the 0.35 CUC charged for calls and 0.09 CUC charged for messaging. This service, however, is designed to charge one cent per kb. In other words, if you send a 3 megabyte photo, you will require no less than 3 CUC of cell phone credit, which is more than what they charge for an hour of Internet use (2 CUC). Imagine if your g-mail account charged you, not only for your Internet use, but an additional dollar for every megabyte sent or received!