14ymedio, Havana, 1 April 2018 — ‘FactorUV’ does not like his name spoken and prefers the pseudonym for which he is known in Cuban digital networks. He is 21 and has been glued to a computer screen since he was a child, although he lives in a country with one of the lowest Internet connectivity rates on the planet.
FactorUV’s generation are digital natives, but they face many difficulties in getting a computer or a cellphone in a country with a completely distorted economy, where the average monthly salary barely exceeds 30 dollars.
“Fortunately as a child I liked putting things together and taking them apart, so I assembled my first computer,” he recalls now. “At the beginning it was harder to get the pieces, but right now buying a hard drive, a memory, a processor or a cellphone is easier than buying a sofa,” he says ironically.
At the end of 2017 there were 4.5 million mobile lines in Cuba, a country with a little over 11 million inhabitants. Although the island continues to be at the bottom of the list in terms of cellphone access, the progress has been significant in recent years and has had a clear impact on daily life.
Internet access has been one of the demands most repeated in recent years by activists, opponents and citizens in general. Despite the limited advances in information and communication technologies, Cubans today are increasingly informed and aware of what is happening inside and outside their borders.
However, this slow transformation coexists with censorship, high prices and a lack of transparency on the part of state institutions.
In FactorUV’s family, the digital divide is evident. His grandmother, a retired woman who worked for decades in a ministry and still belongs to the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), refuses to even touch a cellphone. “She does not understand everything that can be done with these devices,” says the young computer expert.
FactorUV’s parents spent some years in China on an official mission and “that’s where they realized that you have to use technology,” explains the young man, who also says it makes their lives easier. The family has also allowed him access to devices that many Cubans of his age can only dream of.
Despite the material limitations, barter, exchanges and loans between friends are helping the digital experience reach many others. “When I’m going to connect in some Wi-Fi zone, we almost always go in a group and the one that doesn’t have money to buy a recharge uses a bit of someone else’s time.”
In 2015, the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (Etecsa), a state monopoly, installed the first Wi-Fi connection zones, a few dozen throughout the Island. There are currently a little more, half with wireless connection.
The rates, very high at the beginning, have been reduced little by little. An hour costs 1 CUC (1 dollar) but it is still expensive for those who live only on their salary. These limitations have strengthened an informal market where accounts or browsing time are shared.
Etecsa offers a speed of 1 Mbps (megabits per second), but in practice it remains, at most, around 125 KB/s (kilobytes of data per second) or even less when there is congestion in wireless zones, something that happens very often.
For gamers like Ramón Gómez, who is called Pocholo, the speed of connection to the web is often “frustrating.” Games “are blocked or do not run well and playing online is a headache,” he explains.
Through tools such as Connectify, which allow sharing the same connection, digital entrepreneurs who have appeared in plazas and parks sell browsing hours at half the Etecsa price, an offer closer to the pockets of many Cubans.
Despite all its failures, ranging from power outages to the difficulties of opening the user portal, the wireless connection has become an indispensable tool for the emerging private sector, which consists of only half a million people.
From rental houses advertised on tourist websites to popular classified sites like revolico.com, digital businesses have boosted creativity and expanded economic opportunities for many Cubans.
Young graduates of the University of Computer Science (UCI), who sell their services as programmers of mobile applications, or prostitutes who offer their favors to tourists through Tinder, all of them use the internet to promote their services.
The most visited sites continue to be social networks, chatrooms and dating sites. The information sites about visas and scholarships are also among the priorities for domestic Internet users.
“In the wifi zones, sitting on the ground in a park or on the sidewalk at the edge of the street while the cars pass and make noise or it starts to rain, you can’t have a complete experience as an Internet user,” laments Pocholo. “You also have to be careful with the technology because the thieves know that in the wifi areas, especially at night, it is easy to snatch a tablet or a phone.”
His dream is to be able to connect from his own home, but he must wait to fulfill it because the Havana municipality where he lives is not yet included among the first areas where this service has started, so common in the rest of the world.
Nauta Hogar (Home): step by step
In the first months of 2017 the first tests began on installing domestic internet service in 17 districts of the municipality of Old Havana, in the historic center of the capital. The initiative has been extended very slowly to other provinces and is intended exclusively for residents who have a fixed telephone line.
Etecsa modified the initial rate and connection speed. Initially, the user paid 15 CUC (15 dollars) for browsing with a bandwidth of 256 Kbps; now that same rate buys 1 Mbps. The prices are still well above the economic reach of the average wage earner, which explains why only 11,000 people have contracted for Nauta Hogar.
An annual index of world development in information and communication technologies places the Island in 166th place out of 176 countries in terms of access to the web. Cuba continues to be one of the countries with the lowest internet penetration rates in the world and until last year connection from the home was a privilege enjoyed only by high officials, and professionals such as doctors, lawyers and journalists.
However, official figures say that Cuba registered more than 4.5 million Internet users in 2016, which means 403 connected users per 1,000 inhabitants. Most of them connected from the Wi-Fi zones installed starting in 2015 or from the internet rooms managed by Etecsa with terminals belonging to the company.
These figures are questioned by experts, who say Raúl Castro’s government includes in these data users who connect to intranet services, national email and other sites hosted on local servers, such as the Infomed medical information site, available for workers in the sector without having to access the web.
Connected yes, but not free
Amnesty International’s most recent report, referring to 2017, says that in Cuba there are “undue restrictions” on access to the internet and cites at least 41 blocked websites, all critical of the Government of Havana. Among them are the digital newspaper 14ymedio and other websites such as Cubanet, Martinoticias and, recently, El Estornudo.
Censorship also refers to the filtering of words that circulate through national email (Nauta) and text-only messages (SMS).
A report published in 14ymedio reveals that messages containing words like “democracy” and “dictatorship,” or the names of the main opposition leaders of the island never reach their destination, despite the fact that the state communications monopoly charges the fee as if they had been delivered.
Self-censorship also affects how Cubans use the networks. For example, in the wireless networks of games or forums that have become very popular in the neighborhoods since the arrival of devices such as the NanoStation or Mikrotik (sold on the black market), virtual communities such as SNet have emerged, which has more than 50,000 users in Havana and extends to other provinces of the country.
These communities prohibit political, religious and pornography issues so as not to endanger a network that, without being expressly allowed, at least passes under the radar of the toughest censorship.
The blogs written from within the Island, which emerged starting in 2006, were mainly managed by citizens independent of institutions, activists and opponents. Over time, as has happened with social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, the government has placed its own bloggers in these spaces to defend the official discourse and, also, to denigrate and defame its opponents.
Currently, several of the founders of the “alternative” blogosphere have become media managers or political activists. Also, many of them have been exiled due to pressure and repression.
Editor’s Note: Venecuba is a space created by journalist Andrés Cañizalez to share information and analysis on the presence and influence of Cuba in Venezuela.
The alliance of Venecuba with 14ymedio and the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional has supported the writing of this report.