14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, July 16, 2018 – The screen stands out in the middle of the dilapidated communal taxi. A small arrow marks the path the vehicle is following through the crowded streets of Camagüey and the driver reassures the passengers. “I don’t know where it is, but this device tells me,” he explains and caresses the TomTom GPS, which has never been sold in Cuban markets and whose importation is tightly regulated on the island
Along with USB drives, external hard drives, smart phones, and Wi-Fi antennas, satellite geolocation devices for land or sea navigation have become common in Cuba. Among motorists, cyclists, or rafters, the desire to know exactly where one is has made Satellite Positioning Systems (GPS) a highly appreciated tool.
But the Customs General of the Republic warns that the importation of these devices requires prior permission from the National Office of Hydrography and Geodetics. Obtaining authorization for a private person is almost impossible. “If you belong to a company or are a foreign resident you must bring a letter explaining why you need a GPS,” an agency employee explained via telephone.
“We don’t give that permission unless the person first proves that it will be used in a professional task endorsed by some institution or a duly accredited project,” the official said. The law provides for confiscation of the device and a fine for those possessing a GPS “that entered the country without permission or was purchased without appropriate papers,” she added.
The official wasn’t able to confirm to this journal whether the restrictions on importation and use are due to security issues. “I can’t go into that in detail,” she said. A retired Interior Ministry official anonymously confirmed to 14ymedio that “those devices were banned at a time when it was feared that people would transmit detailed locations of military sites or houses of leaders of the Revolution.”
“I sell a Garmin GPS with all the maps of Cuba for 200 CUC,” says an ad on a popular classifieds website. A phone call is sufficient to flesh out the details. “This is the latest on the market and anyone who wants to provide taxi service professionally has to invest and buy a GPS,” says the seller. But he explains that “you won’t have any import papers, so if the police stop you, hide it.”
Among those seeking to exit the Island illegally, satellite positioning devices are almost as precious as the boat, motor, or rehydration salts that they tenaciously search for in order to leave the country. “A GPS makes the difference between being lost at sea or reaching a safe harbor,” says Víctor Alejandro Ruíz, a Cuban living in Tampa who managed to reach the U.S. on his sixth attempt to cross the Straits of Florida.
“I made it after selling all my belongings and buying a GPS. Before I always had problems,” he recalls now, three years after touching the U.S. coast when the wet foot/dry foot policy was still in effect. “I didn’t have to pay anything to the owners of the raft to let me join the expedition, because my payment was bringing the GPS.”
After arriving in the US, Ruiz became even more of a “GPS fanatic” for vehicles, he confesses, and managed to send one to the cousin he left behind in Cuba. “I sent it via a “mule” and although Customs found it, the lady gave them a few dollars more and they let it go,” he says. “Now my cousin is using his Garmin GPS and that has solved a ton of problems.”
Ruíz’s relative recently updated all the road maps in the device through another informal-market trader who “for 20 convertible pesos included everything, even the potholes in the street,” jokes the rafter. “Even though they are tightly controlled, just as with the parabolic antennas, you can’t buy them in stores or legally bring them into the country, but everyone has seen one.”
Foreign diplomats based on the Island and foreign media correspondents, who are authorized to import them, have found a lucrative business in reselling these devices to nationals. At least three drivers with TomTom or Garmin GPS confirmed to this journal that they had bought them from foreigners who finished their stay in Cuba.
Recently the news outlet Cubanet told the story of Shannon Rose Riley, an academic from the Humanities Department of San Jose State University in California, who visited Santiago de Cuba on the dates of the Fiesta de Fuego. The American brought a positioning device that works through the SPOT satellite system and that hikers and travelers usually buy when they go to remote places.
State Security subjected her to an intense interrogation and threatened to jail her if it was determined that she was using coordinates emitted by the device to send information to the government of her country.
In December 2009 Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba while working as a contractor for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The main accusation against him was that he had introduced satellite telecommunications devices that he delivered to the Jewish community of the Island. Gross was sentenced to 15 years and released in 2014, after the announcement of the diplomatic thaw between Washington and Havana.
The banning of these devices no longer makes much sense since many smartphones recently introduced to the market include positioning tools. Even without the ability to communicate with a satellite, some of these phones manage to tell the user where they are thanks to “telephone signal triangulation.”
“A mobile phone without GPS can provide location information,” confirms Yipsi Gómez, a computer graduate who works in a computer and cell-phone repair shop in the Cerro neighborhood in Havana. “The location can be obtained through the cell towers, by determining the intensity or time that radio signals are delayed between one and the other,” she says.
“When we have the data signal turned on, and even if we don’t have access to the internet, we can see in the maps on our mobile phones the point where we are, even if it’s not as accurate as when we receive the information from a satellite,” explains the young woman. “Most people who use a positioning system in Cuba do it that way, but it works poorly in areas with little mobile coverage.”
“Every day there are more devices that include a satellite locator, and they are continually getting smaller,” adds the computer expert, while showing her Garmin Forerunner sports watch with GPS.
Translated by Tomás A.
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