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The View From Inside Cuba's Not-So-Worldwide Web

BY Anne Nelson | Friday, April 5 2013

"Palacio" Joven Club de Computacion in Havana (credit: Anne Nelson)

The “Palacio Central de Computacion” lies in the heart of central Havana, amid battered monuments and the crumbling shells of grand hotels. Despite its “palace” billing, the design of the squat blue two-story building recalls its origins as a pre-revolution Sears box store. At the entrance, a government employee sits at a desk, with two uniformed guards standing by. No, she states firmly, foreigners may not enter the facility, and no, photographs are not permitted. What are those intent young Cubans doing at the desktops behind her? “Computing,” she answers, that is, writing school essays and emails to their Cuban friends on the Cuban “Intranet.”

What about the Internet — the global force that has created new connections across the planet? “Not around here,” she says with a frown. In other words, as far as those young Cubans are concerned, the "world" in "World Wide Web" means "Cuba."

The Palacio Central is the largest outpost of the Joven Club de Computacion, the national collection of computer parlors created to serve a mostly young constituency. According to the government, there are some 600 Joven Clubs, approximately one for every 18,000 Cubans. But the Joven Clubs’ online access is restricted to the Cuban “intranet,” which accesses only Cuban email addresses, websites and resources. The centers also offer classes in Microsoft Word and Excel, and host visits by domestic bloggers. But the emphasis is solidly on “domestic.” When Fidel Castro announced the creation of the centers in 1987, he envisioned them as supports for the domestic pillars of collective society: “The Joven Club of the factory, of the institutions, and the Joven Clubs of the masses, because these are the neighborhood institutions; this is the family doctor, the Cuban family computer.”

Cuba’s online censorship is extreme, but it is not total. Ask any three Cubans about whether and how they can access the Internet, and you’re likely to get three completely different answers. Hardware is decidedly a challenge. According to HYPERLINK Cuba’s National Office of Statistics, there were only 70 PCs per 1,000 Cubans in 2011, and many of those could be considered antiques in computing terms. Nonetheless, PCs are fairly common possessions among prosperous residents of major cities, especially students, professionals and white-collar workers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of them are gifts from relatives who live or travel abroad.

Online access is "a mess"

But Internet usage is restricted, expensive, and sorely coveted. A straw poll conducted on my March 2013 visit to the island revealed that the minority of Cubans who managed to get online follow one of five basic paths — of wildly differing quality:

1. Senior officials generally have Internet access, often at good speeds. Senior professionals and members of the international business and diplomatic community also have privileged access.

2. Many government offices also have an Internet connection, but it is restricted to one or a few employees. Others may request to borrow it for a quick session — though their web traffic is monitored.

3. Some university and research facilities have access, though users complain that the connections are painfully slow.

4. The government telecommunications agency ETECSA announced plans to open “several” computer centers on the island in February, with 8 to 10 Internet connections each. Access would be open to the public, but priced at about $6 an hour, a prohibitive rate for most Cubans. It’s unclear how much of this plan has gone into operation.

5. Foreigners can easily buy time on the Internet at major urban hotels, and recently Cubans were granted the right to do so as well. Access is gained through purchasing a card with a scratch-off code, like a lottery ticket, also at a rate of about $6 an hour. (My experience, over several weeks in March, was that Google and Gmail loaded adequately, Twitter loaded partially, and Facebook not at all. The speed for search and sending email was erratic.) One young Cuban with a government position shared the opinion that dissidents such as star blogger Yoani Sanchez primarily use hotel access to post their blogs and tweets.

Logging on for Internet access with a purchasing card (credit: Anne Nelson)

It’s obvious that online access in Cuba is a mess, and the reasons are complex. The starting point, of course, is the Cuban government’s unshakable commitment to maintaining control of information. Cuba occupies ninth place on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2012 list of ten most censored countries in the world, and Reporters Without Borders includes Cuba on its 2012 list of “enemies of the Internet".

This may not be instantly apparent to the casual tourist. The Cubans’ famous joie de vivre is still apparent: even the poorest neighborhoods are generally safe, children play happily in the streets, and one finds live music on every corner. But every neighborhood also has a doorway bearing the letters “C.D.N.”, or “Comite de Defensa Nacional,” marking the local committee that serves to keep watch over neighbors, hold meetings to keep them in line, and guard against all forms of “ideological diversionism.” The print and broadcast media are abysmal. The three national newspapers (Granma, Juventud Rebelde, and Trabajadores) are all controlled by the Communist Party. They, like their regional counterparts, print little more than party press releases and sports scores; even local crime reporting is unavailable. Of the five television channels, four are Cuban government channels and the fifth, Telesur, is a Venezuelan government propaganda outlet. The programming is heavy on creaky nature documentaries, tireless reexaminations of Che and the revolution, and pirated American sitcoms.

Hungry for social media

The Cubans I spoke to were largely ignorant of news, but astonishingly up-to-date with U.S. popular culture. With what one young Cuban enthusiastically called “the upside of the embargo,” Cuba has no commitment to U.S. copyright. Both the government and private entrepreneurs routinely pirate U.S. music, movies, and television sitcoms. “Argo” was scheduled for broadcast on state television the same week as the Academy Awards, and the marketplaces are flooded with new pirated DVDs. (The young Cubans I met were desperate for YouTube, but dismissive of Radio and TV Marti, the U.S. government-funded services based in Miami: “It’s just propaganda, and we get enough of that around here.”)

The upside of the embargo: Cheap screenings of American films (credit: Anne Nelson) .

Young Cubans are hungry for social media, but even those who have the means to go online find the high cost and scarce access to be major limitations. The easy but less appealing alternative is the domestic-only “intranet.” This is Cuba’s small-scale experiment with the Chinese approach of creating a parallel online universe. Cuba’s attempt at a Facebook clone is called “RedSocial,” or “Social Network.” “"EcuRed” is a Cuban adaptation of Wikipedia, based on Wikipedia software but with censorship built into the edits. (As of April 2013, Edured had its own primitive Facebook page and a suspended Twitter account).

The evidence suggests a ripe audience for online engagement, and despite the many layers of control, the situation is far from static. The biggest — and in some ways the most mysterious — possible game-changer is the new underwater fiber optic cable stretching from Venezuela to Cuba, which reportedly went active in mid-2012. The 1,000-mile, $70 million project was completed in early 2011, and was supposed to increase Cuban connectivity by a factor of 3,000.

But as veteran journalist Juan Tamayo wrote in the Nuevo Herald, the process has repeatedly stuttered. In January Tamayo reported that the Cuban government blamed the U.S. economic sanctions for problems, but added that the new technology had been put into use to speed up Venezuelan and Cuban government communications. The U.S.-based company Renesys, which monitors online traffic, attributed the acceleration to Cuba’s “mystery cable,” but believed that the Cuban government service was, “either by design or misconfiguration, using its new cable asymmetrically (i.e. for traffic in only one direction),” enjoying “greater bandwidth and lower latencies (along the submarine cable) while receiving Internet traffic but [continuing] to use satellite services to send traffic.”

Curious about the outside world

Even Cubans with elite online privileges face restrictions. One cultural worker, for example, told me that she had extensive use of the Internet for her research, but once blundered across a prohibited site for a few seconds. Her superiors called her in for a meeting and confronted her with a printout of the offending site, and she had to explain that it was an accident. Even so, her possibilities for transgression were few; her connection was so feeble that any site involving flash or video was out of reach.

Millennial Cubans are curious about the outside world, and some of them told me they were hopeful of the day when the Internet could make the connection. (They still spoke of smart phones as a distant dream.) But even if the Cuban government relaxed its censorship practices, the country would still face massive obstacles. One of the most astute observers of Cuba’s digital culture is Larry Press, who publishes his online research at laredcubana. The site is a highly informative tour of the convoluted policies and problematic infrastructure that defines Cuba’s situation.

In the U.S., much of the story is defined by dissident bloggers such as Yoani Sanchez, who made a high-profile tour of New York, Washington, and Miami this spring. Sanchez has reported that that she has needed to scavenge computer parts out of the garbage, thanks in part to the U.S. embargo, which has limited access and raised the prices of everything from cell phones to the software for medical equipment. Last year the U.S. barred Cubans from using Google Analytics, and Cuban iPad users are not allowed to register as first-time users.

As a new generation of Cubans move into leadership positions, it may be time for the Internet freedom community to seek ways to inform and equip them for the modern world. The Cuban experience suggests that there are plenty of ways to prevent people from going online. It’s far more difficult to stifle the desire.

Anne Nelson teaches "New Media and Development Communication" at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, (SIPA). Her research can be found at
Follow her on Twitter: @anelsona

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