The Two Faces of the Internet in Cuba

For Rolando, a 56-year-old worker, the internet is science fiction. Fernandez, who has never navigated the information highway, thinks it is pure fantasy that someone sitting in their home can read a newspaper or magazine, watch television shows or listen to the radio.

Laureano, a 61-year-old retired cigar-roller, looks at me with amazement like he doesn’t believe what I am telling him: that you can reserve airline tickets or buy tickets to the World Cup in South Africa, all on the Internet.

Many Cubans have only seen the Internet in films that come on Cuban television on Saturday nights. Magic and immediacy. A fabulous way to get whatever inquiry you want from the keyboard of your personal computer.

Internet is seen as an impossible art. When someone wants to share reliable information, the say “I read it on the internet.” On the island, it has become customary to disseminate texts on the subject of Cuba downloaded from newspapers, blogs or digital pages.

As less than 0.8 % of the Cuban population have a home  connection to the World Wide Web, people try to manage as best as they can. In the offices of the Telecommunication company (Etecsa), hotels, hospitals, airports, government ministries and offices of the main national media, the employees can access the Internet.

But people who are lucky enough to get on the Internet, are always in the eye of the hurricane.  It works for many things.  To be able to have an e-mail address through Yahoo or Gmail and be connected with family and friends outside the country. Or to read secretly the last post of Yoani Sánchez or articles in El Nuevo Herald, El Mundo or El Pais, Cuban’s preferred news sources.

Also the Internet is used to spread gossip about those who are famous, to try to make foreign friends and why not, if the your boss isn’t too controlling, then like a business tool.

Those that have Internet at their jobs can make some money off of it too.  Not much, but enough to be used for the daily needs.  Luisa, 29, works at a hotel and every morning she comes in with a flash drive full of messages her neighbors have given her to send to their families, girlfriends or friends whom live outside the country.

“I charge 10 pesos (50 cents in dollars) for sending an e-mail.  If the connection is possible, I copy movies or soap operas which later I burn to a DVD and rent it out for 5 pesos (25 cents in dollars).  It’s not much, but it gives me enough so I can have lunch and take private taxis daily.”

Others like Mariano, 43, with a vast knowledge of the Internet, can make an appreciable amount of money. He designs web pages for people who rent rooms to tourists, or for prostitutes which advertise themselves on the net.  And also copies films or TV programs broadcast from Miami, especially about when people close to Castro leave the country, or other critical reports on Cuba.

“I sell films, soap operas and reports to people dedicated to renting movies.  For designing a web page I charge 50 pesos (40 US Dollars).  In the case of those who rent rooms, I charge a 5 peso (4 US dollar) commission per tourist who rents their house.  On a good day I can earn from 60 to 100 pesos (50 to 80 US Dollars).”

Knowing that people are making money with the Internet connections at their jobs, the Castro government has tried to close the web, and watches it with a magnifying glass.

At her workplace, Nora, 43, was obliged to sign a code of ethics, whereby she pledges not to access counter-revolutionary, politically biased or defamatory web-pages. At the same time, it is forbidden to possess an email account.

The least expensive Internet connection costs 5 CUCs (cuban convertible pesos) or 125 pesos in local currency, equivalent to half of the minimum monthly wages in Cuba. Beside being expensive, the connections are extremely slow. The fastest ones do not go above 50 Kbs and are only available in luxury hotels like the Melia Cohiba or the Saratoga.

Uploading photos or videos is almost impossible.  To think you can have Internet at home is a fantasy.  On the black market they sell Internet passwords for the most secure and fast Internet connections in a range of prices from 50 pesos to even 120 (from 40 to 100 US dollars).

If they catch you, the fines are scandalous.  From 20,000 pesos (4,000 US dollars).  If you are a resident you can even go to jail.  A lot of Cuban workers like Rolando or the retired Laureano can’t believe that one day they will be able to sit in front a desk and find that the Internet is not magic nor a fable.

Until such time comes, Cubans will have to be satisfied to learn about the Internet from their children and  grandchildren. Or from the Saturday night movies on TV

Photo: bibicall, Flickr. Tourist connecting to the Internet from a cybercafé in Santa Clara, a city in the center of the Island

Translated by:  Betsy