Cuba: Internet, in Slow Motion and Hard Currency / Ivan Garcia

Cuba-Internet-150x150Facing the India fountain, next to Fraternity Park and close to the Capitol, in the center of Havana, is nestled the Hotel Saratoga.

Its ancient facade, painted lime green, has an architecture of curved arches and tall columns. The interior is a modern frame with iron structures and plasterboard. According to the relaxed norms of Cuban hospitality, the Saratoga is a 5 star hotel.

Like almost all hotels, has an Internet cafe. Going up a wide staircase with iron railings, after crossing the piano bar in a small room and pool, one can connect to the internet.

If you have a tablet (iPad), laptop or smartphone, you can do it from anywhere in the hotel, thanks to a wireless network. Otherwise, the Saratoga has three computers. The speed of transmission is a maddeningly slow.

Opening a Yahoo email can take up to 6 minutes. Forget Gmail. The connection runs at 100 kilobytes. Downloading videos and photos that exceed a megabyte is not advisable.

The service is too expensive, even for a foreigner. Half an hour for 6 CUC (over $6 US). One hour for 10. Two hours for 15. In the same hotel where a month and a half ago the singers Beyonce and Jay-Z stayed, the internet works in slow motion.

In 2010 the Castro government, opting for a full ’digital sovereignty’, decided to open its wallet to the investment and together with Venezuela and Jamaica, financed a submarine cable of several thousand kilometers. Its birthplace was the Venezuelan region of La Guaira and termination, Siboney Beach in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, about 550 miles from Havana.

Little is known about the cable. It is a kind of ’ALBANET’, with filters and control mechanisms. Behind the famous cable there is an Olympic framework of corruption.

Some put out their hands along the way and lost several million dollars. It’s rumored — in Cuba the rumors are more reliable than the news from the official press — that several people could go to jail.

State media reported euphorically that when the cable is connected, the  data transmission speed would be multiplied by 300. While technical issues are resolved, 97% of the Cuban population still sees the Internet as the stuff of science fiction.

In its absence, a USB flash drive serves as transmitter of information for those computers not connected to the network. The regime considers the internet a ’hegemonic control tool of U.S. imperialism’.

Since the island links to the information superhighway via satellite, the tropical ’think tanks’ wear themselves out trying to design and effective cyber police that can tame the democratic worldwide web.

So far they have not succeeded. What they have achieved is to block sites deemed ’subversive’ and in the workplaces ’big brother’ is watching the footsteps of those disobedient people who decide to take a look at a digital newspaper from Miami or Madrid.

In ETECSA, the State telecommunications company, staff with access to the web had to sign a statement agreeing not to read ’enemy pages or visit pornographic sites’.

Nor may they have international email account (Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail). Zero Twitter, Facebook or other social networks. But in such closed societies, people applaud a speech with the same emphasis that they blatantly steal from their job or violate established rules.

Raisa, 24, has never surfed internet. That has not stopped the girl from having a Facebook account and a page where she advertises herself as a photographer for weddings and quinceañeras — girls’ 15th birthday parties.

All thanks to a computer savvy friend, charged with editing and updating her site. And those who have State accounts on the internet don’t miss a trick. They sell access for 2 CUC an hour.

But I don’t recommend it. At its best, the connection is 50k. It can take you up to 30 minutes to get to the online edition of the Journal of The Americas.

Even though the Castro regime has established a drips-and-drabs internet, some censored information reaches the average Cuban. Late, of course.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: Several people access internet in a room in Havana. Taken from Infolatam.

1 June 2013