Cuba’s New Cybercafés: A Piecemeal Strategy

Fernando Ravsberg*

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There will only be 334 computers in the entire country to connect to the Internet. Photo: Raquel Perez.

HAVANA TIMES — Next month, 118 public Internet access points will open across Cuba, something which Cubans, one would expect, ought to regard as rather good news. Though any step in the right direction should be applauded, it would be remiss not to gauge the real impact this measure will have on the island.

Supposing that there are 8 million young people and adults across Cuba who are interested in using the Internet, we would have one cybercafé for every 65 thousand people. You would see line-ups of people longer than those that would gather outside bodegas if they began handing out beef rations again.

With a total of 334 computer consoles around the country, the cybercafés will be open 11 hours a day. If every user were to navigate for only an hour, a mere 3,700 people would be able to access the Internet a day. If we maintain our initial figure of 8 million potential Internet users, people would get to connect once every 5 years.

Even if we assume I am exaggerating and that only 10 % of this hypothetical population wants to use the Internet, each person would have access to the web only once every six months. And Cuba’s phone company, ETECSA, needed all of two years to take this bold step, from the date in which the installation of an underwater fiber-optic cable between Cuba and Venezuela was completed.

Though the company’s directives offer some hope, claiming that, “in the future”, they will attempt to expand their services to meet demands with Wi-Fi networks, Internet service for mobile phones and even homes, they play it safe and conclude by saying they “cannot give any specific dates.”

The price of Internet is so high that a typical Cuban family would have to spend all their income so one of their members could connect for one hour a day. Photo: Raquel Perez
The price of Internet is so high that a typical Cuban family would have to spend all their income so one of their members could connect for one hour a day. Photo: Raquel Perez

People, however, can do their own math. If, in the time since the sub-aquatic cable was installed, the capacities created can accommodate a mere 3,700 users a day, it will take centuries before all Cubans of age and deserving of Internet access have this privilege.

In addition to this, they have announced that rates will be lowered to US $5.00 (4.50 CUC) for every hour of Internet use, a price which proves affordable if one connects to the web once every six months, but which would entail spending US $135 a month if one wanted to do so, for 1 hour, at least once a day.

A Cuban’s average monthly salary is of US $20. Supposing that, in a given family, there are two people earning this salary and a couple of pensioners receiving US$ 10, plus a relative in Miami who sends them US $50 every month, they would have to devote the family’s entire income to pay the cybercafé bill.

The problem, apparently, is that ETECSA requires substantial sums of money, “significant investments”, to modernize the country’s technological infrastructure. It shouldn’t take long to put together such money, considering that, with these new cybercafés, the can take in US $16 thousand a day, some 6 million a year.

Strict Rules on Users

In addition to being expensive, cybercafés will impose strict rules on users, and authorities will reserve the right to block the account of any individual who employs the web to carry out actions that “undermine public safety or the country’s integrity, economy, independence and sovereignty.”

ETECSA will also “immediately suspend the service if it detects that, during the navigation session, the user has violated any of the ethical norms of behavior which the Cuban State has established.”

In a nutshell, no politics and no sex. I imagine that the slogan of these cybercafés will be something along the lines of “A healthy Internet for the Cuban family.” A system of filters which block access to a number of ideologically or morally “offensive” sites is already in place.

Each cybercafe with access to Internet will have approximately three computers and 67 thousand potential users.  Photo: Raquel Perez
Each cybercafe with access to Internet will have approximately three computers and 67 thousand potential users. Photo: Raquel Perez

Political censorship on the web is rather “tropical”: though some sites operated by Cubans living in Miami are blocked, the main newspaper of Cuban exiles can be freely accessed by cybernauts on the island. In the case of Spain, one anti-Castro page is blocked and another isn’t, though both publish pretty much the same information.

When it comes to moral matters, however, censors evince the puritanism of a small-town parish priest. In their crusade against pornography, they block new pages containing videos, photographs, contacts, stories or any kind of eroticism – literally nothing gets past them.

They are also particularly intolerant of any commercial use of the web. Cuba’s main classifieds page, Revolico.com, is blocked. There isn’t a single Internet user in Cuba, however, who does not know how to use a proxy to evade the official filters and access these ads.

The most surprising restriction, however, is that people under 18 will not be allowed to navigate the Internet at these cybercafés. It looks as though junior and senior secondary school students will have to cultivate a good deal of patience and wait until they reach university to get to know what the Internet is all about.

We would well be justified in describing Cuba’s current strategy for the expansion of Internet services, which leaders in the sector insist will lead to a luminous future of web connectivity, as a piecemeal tactic.
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(*) An authorized HT translation of the original posted in Spanish by BBC Mundo.


10 thoughts on “Cuba’s New Cybercafés: A Piecemeal Strategy

  • September 20, 2013 at 3:57 pm
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    Control, control and control. That is Cuba, China, and every other government by force. They really know how to gain time, and keep the people under control.

  • June 5, 2013 at 1:27 am
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    Does anyone know how to find out where these 118 sites will be? I want to know if there will be one in Moron.

  • June 1, 2013 at 7:02 am
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    I am sorry Yo. you are missing the point. There is no choice between Internet access and repairing a roof. There is only fear on the side of the ruling elite that the people will find out sooner or later they are no longer needed, ie have no clothes like the naked emperor. For you and me it is no big deal to spend CUC6 on an hour of Internet access in Hotel Santiago. That is 30% of a Cuban’s monthly salary. Your dismissive attitude towards a Cuban’s right to affordable Internet access makes me wonder what you mean by socialism?

  • May 31, 2013 at 5:46 pm
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    I had the opposite experience two weeks ago at the Havana Libre. The internet cards cost 10.00 cuc and there was a least a 30 minute wait every time we stopped by. All I tried to do was check my gmail account and send short replies. The speeds were slow but adequate for emails. By the way, it is not a priority for the Castros because they fear that more access to the internet will make it even more difficult to control the people. It is a low priority for the people because the costs is still so high. The Cuban people are more focused on daily needs like EATING given the low wages they are forced to live on. Finally, just stating the facts is hard to do sometimes without criticizing because of all the STUPID things the Castros have done to create these problems in the first place. Still, I take your point.

  • May 31, 2013 at 11:54 am
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    I am Canadian and I have visited Cuba several times in the past decade, most recently January of this year. While there, I went with my Cuban friend to one of the public access points to computers in the Melia Hotel Santiago in Santiago de Cuba. There are 11 Samsung computers with flat screen monitors in the computer room. My friend purchased a card from Etesca for 6 CUC which enabled him to access the restricted internet for 60 minutes. I check my email there while in Cuba. There has never been a lineup, usually only about half of them are in use at any one time. My friend also has a cell phone. My telephone service in Canada charges $1.53 per minute to contact Cuba so my friend and I usually use the internet to connect almost daily. Of course the government has to make choices in a socialist country and internet service to the citizenry is not a top priority. Similarly, it is not a top priority of the citizenry. A roof to replace the one damaged by hurricane Sandy would be more desired. I enjoy reading the articles in Havana Times and even moreso, the comments. It’s easy to criticize almost everything that happens in Cuba, but it would be great to just state the facts and let the reader make his or her judgment. Some of the journalists are a bit too opinionated, but maybe that is the best way to stimulate discussion.

  • May 31, 2013 at 10:48 am
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    Recommended labels for this measure:
    the inter-ñet (ñet being a Spanish transcription for the Russian word for ‘no’, well known by most Cubans).
    the interqué?
    the intershit
    the interTrek (as it is still science fiction…and into the darkness we are still headed)
    the interpet, as we are treated as pets, begging for bits of information
    the intercheck, given the cost

    and so on..you go on

  • May 31, 2013 at 7:14 am
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    The lack of will is obvious. Cuba had a backbone built in the 90s so there is no big problem to connect the island to the cable. The local infrastructure is a mess but internet could easily be offered for mobiles if they really wanted the people to have it. They have money to build new nice houses to the MININT staff and a huge surveilance center in Miramar, but not to upgrade the IT infrastructure that will actually generate some kind of revenue? I call BS on that.

    The fear of internet is also obvious. After the cable arrived and was recieved with celebrations and shown as a huge propaganda victory it just vanished after the arab spring. A mere coincidance? I think not..

  • May 30, 2013 at 2:40 pm
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    It’s obvious why the government is moving so slowly in providing internet access to Cuba. They want to limit and control access as much as possible. They will not install any more computers than they have the resources to closely monitor.
    And naturally, they want to rake in as much cash as possible while doing it.

  • May 30, 2013 at 2:34 pm
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    I agree with the conclusions Fernando reaches in his post, especially regarding the revenues likely to be generated given the high costs of accessing the internet through these cybercafes. What Fernando does not mention are longstanding offers that the Castros have received over the last two years to build out the internet infrastructure from French, Spanish and Canadian telecommunications companies. They also understood that Cuba is an underserved and potentially profitable market. The Castros have resisted expanding internet access to date because of a fear of losing control of the flow of information. The First VP, Diaz-Canel, acknowledges the existence of this fear through his recent public remarks. As a result, the “piecemeal strategy” is not a function of inadequate infrastructure or the funds to build it out but rather a continuing lack of political will to move Cuba into to 21st century.

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