Eight in the morning. On the ground floor of the Focsa building – Cuba’s Empire State – on M between 17 and 19 Vedado, in a shop between the Guiñol theatre and a beaten-up bar at the entrance to the Scherezada club, a queue of about 15 people are waiting to enter the internet room.
It is one of 12 in Havana. They are few, and badly distributed for a city with more than two and a half million inhabitants. In El Vedado and Miramar there are four, two in each neighbourhood. Nevertheless, 10 de Octubre, the municipality with the most inhabitants in the island, doesn’t have any at all.
Poorer municipalities like San Miguel, Cotorro and Arroyo Naranjo (the metropolitan district with the greatest incidence of acts of violence in the country), don’t have anywhere to connect to the internet either.
On June 4, 2013, they opened 118 internet rooms for the whole island. According to an ETECSA (Telecommunications Company of Cuba) official, around 900,000 users have accessed the service. Not very impressive figures.
On average, each internet room has received 7,600 customers a month in the first 12 months. Some 250 internet users a day. 25 an hour: the internet premises are open 10 and a half hours every day of the week, from 8:30 am to 7 pm.
But remember that Cuba is the country with the lowest connectivity in Latin America. Some people continue to regard the internet as something exotic with hints of espionage or science fiction.
The murmurings of the NSA analyst Edward Snowden, accusing the Unted States Special Services of eavesdropping on half the world, added to the paranoia of the Castro regime, which compares the world wide web with a Trojan Horse designed by the CIA, along with the USAID’s trickery, trying to demolish the olive green autocracy with a blow from twitter, inhibits many ordinary Cubans from exploring the virtual world.
The oldest people get panicky when they sit at a machine – the way they do. Lourdes, 65-years-old, housewife, only knows the internet by references. “Seeing it in American films on the television on Saturdays. I have never sat down in front of a computer. That is something for the youngsters”
There are plenty of people who see a James Bond in every internet surfer. Norberto, president of a CDR (Committee for the Defence of the Revolution) considers that “the internet is a Yankee military invention which is used to subvert and drive the youngsters crazy with frivolities. An instrument of virtual colonisation. Our organs of State Security have to meticulously regulate those of surf the web.”
And they do it. The Cuban Special Services have taken note of the way the social networks operate during the Middle East uprisings.
According to an ETECSA source, who prefers not to be named, there exists a formidable virtual policy police which controls all the access services to the internet in Cuba with a magnifying glass.
“From the spy programs and the army of information analysts to hack into dissidents’ accounts, up to following social networks like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. All surfers are under suspicion. Before ETECSA opens a new internet service, the State Security surveillance tools are already working,” indicates the informant.
A technician tells me that, right now, the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) has a fleet of vehicles equipped to detect illegal internet signals and cable satellite channels.
“Month in and month out there are MININT and ETECSA personnel working together to remove cabled games networks or illegal wifi which are connected up by kids where they live. They also pursue pirate internet connections, illegal international phone call connections, and cable television. A couple of years ago, in one of these investigations, even Amaury Pérez, a musician loyal to the government, had an illegal cable dish connected” recalls the technician.
In spite of everything, the internet is an unstoppable phenomenon for many Cubans, who don’t care about the absurd prices. Although you pay 4.50 CUC (112 pesos, a third of the average salary in the island) an hour, in internet rooms like the one in Focsa, there is always a queue.
Just to open an account in the Nauta mail on their mobile phone, in order to read their emails, a little over 100,000 Cubans stood in queues from the early hours of dawn.
“There were so many people waiting, that we had to assign 30 daily shifts,” indicates a lady working in the Focsa internet room.
The international press tends to incorrectly refer to the Cuban internet rooms as “cyber cafes”. Nothing further from the truth. In none of the 118 premises do they sell coffee, refreshments or sandwiches.
They are commercial offices, where people also pay their phone bills, they sell flash cards and charge up mobile phones. They are big and have air conditioning like the one at Focsa or the Business Centre of Miramar, with 9 computers. The one which has more pc’s, with 12 of them, is situated in Obispo Street, in the heart of Old Havana.
The connection speed can’t be compared with what you find in other countries: between 512 Kb and 2 Mb. It’s a huge difference in comparison with the narrow band connection of 56 Kb offered by ETECSA to the state-approved users.
Even in 5 star hotels, like the Saratoga or Parque Central, the connection is no more than 100 Kb. The price they charge in the tourist locations is very high. One hour costs between 6 and 10 CUC. There is no business strategy. In spite of charging more, the connection is slower.
Because of that it is normal to see lots of foreign tourists or Latin Americans and Africans studying in Cuba, standing in queues outside one of the 118 ETECSA internet rooms.
The internet rooms are called Nauta. The staff are friendly although some have limited ability to advise people who are using the internet for the first time.
I only go onto the internet twice a week. And, apart from striking up conversations with anonymous surfers, who are not known to be dissidents or independent journalists, I have noted that their ages range between 18 and 55, approximately.
There are more whites and mestizos than black people surfing. When you talk to them, 90% say that they are going to look at their Facebook account, look for friends or boyfriends/girlfriends, or to read news about sport, and deal with processes for migration or working abroad.
For those who like to read the international media, the favourites are the BBC, El Pais and the Financial Times. Of the Cuban pages, the most visited are Diario de Cuba and Havana Times, and, of the Miami newspapers, El Nuevo Herald and Diario de las Américas. Martí Noticias, Cubanet and Cubaencuentrohave always been blocked by the govenrment.
Of the blogs or webs originating in Cuba, like Primavera Digital, out of every 100 people consulted, only 9% said they copy the contents onto a pendrive to read later at home.
Cuba is a country of extremes. The internet arouses affection and fear. A country which limits it, disconnects itself from scientific advances. Puts shackles on progress and throws away the keys in the bottom of the ocean.
he government’s fear of a possible seditious uprising, has reined back the world information superhighway, at the expense of torpedoing the economy and branches of cultural and technological knowledge. That’s what happening in Cuba.
Translated by GH
29 May 2014