Ivan Garcia, 11 October 2016 — Marcos, the fifty-six-year-old owner of an illegal gambling operation, went to Cordova Park in Havana’s La Vibora neighborhood to chat online with a friend who lives in Miami. When he got there, he wondered if he was dreaming.
Perhaps there are people in some remote corner of Africa or in the Amazon rain forest who are still surprised by the possibilities the internet provides. On a planet where there are as many mobile phones as people, access to cutting-edge technologies has spurred economic, cultural and scientific development in a number of countries.
The underutilization of worldwide web in Cuba is comparable to the rejection of motorized transportation, television and antibiotics by puritanical cults.
The regime is fond of saying that the island’s most valuable resource is its human capital. The country boasts of more than a million university graduates and the average person attends school through the twelfth grade. But what does it matter if in the twenty-first century countless Cubans are unaware of the unlimited powers of the internet.
In a country with stagnant economy in crisis due to government mismanagement, with no significant natural resources and with an infrastructure in serious disrepair, encouraging the adoption of start-up technologies that have the potential to unleash expansion of the tourism industry and domestic electronic commerce should be a priority.
But the autocratic regime has always looked upon the internet with suspicion, assuming it to be a CIA-designed Trojan horse. This fear has put the island at the tail end of countries with limited internet access and mortgaged the nation’s future.
There are not many entrepreneurs in Cuba like Reinaldo, the owner of a bar in southern Havana who saw his sales increase 25% after launching a website.
It has been private businesspeople, especially those based in the capital or in cities near tourist destinations, who have pioneered the use of the internet as something more than simply a information tool.
For roughly 90% of state-owned enterprises, the web is a mere formality. Visit their websites and you will see how poorly the internet is being used to attract potential buyers and investors.
Online commerce in Cuba is extremely limited and geared strictly to a foreign market. Even then, very few stores offer Cubans living overseas the option of purchasing food or home appliances online.
The service is also expensive, slow and inefficient. In theory, the Carlos III mall in downtown Havana offers e-commerce. “But it leaves a lot to be desired. They sometimes wait two or three weeks to ship purchases,” says Olga Lidia, a regular customer whose daughter lives in Canada and sends her merchandise this way.
According to a floor manager at Carlos III, transportation shortages and “the little fuel they allocate us are the reasons internet sales are bad or almost non-existent.”
Internet use in the national educational system is scandalously low. Primary, secondary and college preparatory schools do not have access to the information highway.
Universities do have internet facilities but the connection speeds are so slow that the ability of take full advantage of the web’s possibilities is limited, rendering its usefulness questionable.
“Every student gets a certain number of hours a month but the machines are old, broken or barely working. You can almost never use them to do a research paper or homework assignment. Generally, students use them to gossip on Facebook or to read about sports and celebrity gossip. Using internet proxies to access sites blocked by the government such as as Martí Noticias, Diario de Cuba and 14ymedio would be unthinkable. The fallout would be huge” says a telecommunications engineering student.
Infomed, a vast network for local medical professionals, has filters to detect access to websites that the regime considers counterrevolutionary and to “oligarchic [periodicals] that are part of the campaign of distortion against Cuba.” One doctor notes that, “even in emails you have to choose your words very carefully or they can cut off your access.”
Some workplaces have internet access but, before being able to use it, staff must sign a code of ethics agreement promising to “use it appropriately in accordance with the principles of the socialist revolution.”
“You have to be inventive. You cannot open international email accounts or send emails to relatives overseas. People do it but, if they catch you, they punish you. You lose your monthly hard currency bonus and they take away your internet access,” says an engineer with ETECSA, Cuba’s telecommunications monopoly.
After commercial wifi hotspots became available in June 2013, more than a million users opened Nauta accounts.
One hour of internet access initially cost 4.5 convertible pesos (CUC), the equivalent of one week’s salary for a working professional. But in 2015 the price fell to 2 CUC per hour, roughly three days’ salary for a construction worker.
A network traffic specialist notes that “80% of internet activity in Cuba involves using social media, looking for work overseas, registering for international immigration lotteries, talking to family members in other countries, shopping on sites with overseas servers or reading sports articles, especially those by ESPN and Marca. Only 20% of of internet users go online to do research or read Cuban blogs.”
In the various wifi hotspots around the country, most people use it strictly to chat with friends and relatives overseas.
Marcos, the owner of the illegal betting operation, is convinced that connecting online is like traveling from the past to the future with one click.