The Internet in Cuba: 5 Things You Need to Know
BY LORENZO FRANCESCHI-BICCHIERAI
APR 04, 2014
A misguided attempt by the U.S. government to create a Twitter-like
social network in Cuba — which ended with $1.6 million spent and just
40,000 users to show for it — has put the state of the Internet on the
communist island back on the spotlight.
Cuba has long been one of the least connected countries in the world.
Indeed, the country rivals North Korea in the extent to which it has
shut itself out from the Internet.
Here are five things you need to know about Internet freedom in Cuba, a
country that blogger and Cuban dissident Yoani Sanchez calls "the Island
of the disconnected."
1. Internet access is the greatest obstacle ...
In 2011, roughly 25% of Cubans had Internet access, according to the
country's National Statistics Office and the International
Telecommunication Union. But that number is misleading — it includes
people that can only log into a government-controlled Intranet of
Only 5% of Cubans actually have access to the open Internet, according
to Internet freedom watchdog Freedom House. Home connections are
practically nonexistent, and only government officials, academics,
doctors, engineers, or regime-approved journalists have Internet access
at work, says Ellery Biddle, a researcher who has focused on Cuban
Internet issues for the last six years.
For everyone else, there are expensive government-run Internet cafes
where an hour of connection can cost between $6 and $10, a prohibitive
amount of money in a country where the average weekly salary is around $20.
Where connection is possible, the speed is so slow there's very little
they can do online but check email and sluggishly surf websites. "When
they do access the Internet, they try to do really the bare minimum,"
Cynthia Romero, the Latin America Senior Program Officer at Freedom
House, tells Mashable.
Even computers are hard to come by. Until 2008 Cubans were barred from
buying their own, which explains why Cuba's National Statistics Office
reported in 2011 that there were only 783,000 computers in the whole
2. ... but there are creative workarounds
With such limited access, Cubans have employed more creative methods of
surfing. One of the most popular is for people to download online
articles onto thumb drives, then pass them around to friends and family.
This is sometimes called the "sneakernet," though Sanchez calls it the
"Internet without Internet" — a callback to the 1990s, when Cubans used
to cook the "meat picadillo without meat" because of food shortages.
"With one person connecting to the Internet, a hundred, two hundred,
five hundred or a thousands are actually accessing information," Sanchez
said during a talk (embedded below) at the 2013 Google Ideas Summit in
New York City.
Some Cubans with Internet access sell it to others or share accounts.
Others build their own antennas or use illegal dial-up connections. But
the Cuban government clamps down on these efforts with technicians
"sniffing" neighborhoods for ham radios and satellite dishes, according
to Freedom House.
Activists also use alternative ways to tweet, like texting or even
"speak-to-tweet" systems. Cubans can call a phone number in the U.S. and
record an anonymous message that gets automatically converted to text
and shared via Twitter or Facebook. These calls, however, can cost more
than $1, making it an expensive workaround.
3. There's actually very little online censorship
When so few people have Internet access, you don't need to censor it
that much. In terms of blocking content, Cuba is no China. News websites
like The New York Times, or the Miami Herald are available, as are the
sites of Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International.
Facebook and Twitter are accessible. YouTube is not.
There is a certain degree of censorship, especially when it comes to
blogs run by anti-government activists like Sanchez. Her blog,
Generation Y, is inaccessible, and so are others like Bitácora Cubana
and Cubanet, according to Freedom House.
The Cuban government has also been prosecuting and silencing dissident
bloggers via arbitrary arrests, beatings and intimidation.
4. The Cuban government has a significant online presence
Despite limiting access, the Cuban government has a major footprint on
the Internet. A 1,000-strong cyber militia, made up of students from the
University of Computer Sciences (UCI) of la Havana, are part of a
so-called propaganda initiative called Operation Truth. They are tasked
with discrediting government critics and promoting the government's agenda.
"The Cuban government has always been very good with information and
disseminating its version of accounts," says Romer. "So now they're
starting to venture out more and more into the Internet and social media."
The regime even has its own versions of Wikipedia and Facebook. Cuba's
online encyclopedia is called Ecured, but it only has 78,000 articles
and a small number of hand-picked editors. Social Red was Cuba's
short-lived response to Facebook.
5. Internet surveillance isn't sophisticated, but Cubans take it for granted
The government has a tight control on the country's telecommunications.
There are only two Internet Service Providers; both are state-owned.
Cubacel, a subsidiary of Cuba's telecom authority ETECSA, is the only
With such control, Cuba doesn't need cutting-edge Internet surveillance
tools, but it does have software like Avila Link, which collects private
information from public computers and monitors Internet activity.
With real-world surveillance so widespread, Cubans "are paranoid that
someone may be watching," says Romero.
At Internet cafes, Cubans have to provide an ID to use a computer,
making anonymous use of the Internet nearly impossible. With all that
comes self-censorship — and a sense of resignation.
"There's no expectation of privacy in most aspects of your life," says
Biddle. "I think people people generally expect [online surveillance]."
Source: The Internet in Cuba: 5 Things You Need to Know -