Iván García, 10 December 2018 — Internet for free in Cuba? Well, the devil is in the details. If you talk to Joel, an urban bus driver, you will know that the problem is not just that you have to recharge your mobile phone account with 7 CUC (roughly $7 US), if you want to have at least 600 MB available to surf the internet.
“The biggest drawback is that my cell phone is from the dark ages and it does not pick up the 3G signal. Then I will have to connect by 2G, which takes a century to establish the connection. And buying a phone for myself is no less than 200 CUC,” says Joel, who drives an articulated Chinese-made Yutong bus on the P-10 route.
Like Joel, “between a million and a half and two million people will not be able to access the new service quickly because they can not connect to 3G, and because 2G does not guarantee a quality connection,” says Deisy, an engineer for ETECSA, the State communications company.
Several students talk about the opening of the Internet on mobile phones in a small stairway at the entrance to René O’Reine High School, in the neighborhood of La Víbora, south of Havana. Andro asks “how long does the 600 MB (the cheapest package) last and is it possible to download audiovisuals?” Melissa replies that her “mom works at ETECSA and they give her 5 gigabytes and if she downloads applications or music videos, it is used up in ten days.”
Two years ago, to Nélida, a housewife, the Internet sounded like science fiction. “But my son who resides in Miami sent me an iPhone 8 that when connected is a cannon. I take care of it like a treasure. Three times a week I talk to my two children, my son who lives in Miami and my daughter in Spain. Sometimes we go as a whole family with folding chairs and a blanket to park ourselves in the grass of the park, as if we were at a picnic.
“They are the ones who recharge my cell phone with 40 CUC per month and also with a 40 CUC the card to surf the internet. I do not know how many gigs I will consume monthly, I suppose that ETECSA designs those services to be so expensive because the Cubans who live abroad pay for it.”
Deisy, the ETECSA engineer, agrees with the Havana housewife: “It is true that part of the services offered by the company, such as mobile telephone service, internet browsing and now data internet, are sold at prices that a worker [in Cuba] cannot afford on their salary. These services can be paid for by self-employed people and people who have relatives and friends abroad.
“However, right now in Cuba there are more than five million mobile lines and between three and four million citizens frequently connect to the Internet. It is very expensive, but Cubans or their relatives abroad pay for these services and ETECSA takes advantage of the mother-lode and increases its profits. Internet is a necessity.”
Luis Carlos, a university student, believes that “the news is not that there is internet for mobile phones in Cuba. The news is the high prices. Any specialist or professional who systematically uses internet for their work spends more than 4 gigabytes that cost 30 CUC, the average monthly salary here. It is a shame that the government talks about their working on behalf of the people and in order to the demands of the poorest.
“ETECSA long ago stopped being a company that prioritizes social services to the most humble. Like any capitalist company, what they are looking for is profits. And at what prices. They want to sell you internet as if it were a luxury item. The Internet is not just for talking with friends and reading the foreign press. The Internet is economy, business and commerce.”
In their statements, Mayra Arevich and Tania Velázquez, president of ETECSA and vice president of marketing for the company, justify the high prices because “the company is spending important resources to modernize the infrastructure that provides Internet services. And that equipment is paid for in dollars.”
Natasha, a waitress in the restaurant of a five-star hotel, does not agree with this assessment from ETECSA officials. “If we had to award a prize to the three most unpopular state agencies in Cuba, without a doubt, ETECSA and the Ministries of Internal Trade and Transport would take the trophy. It’s a shame to make that statement on television. Some 80 percent of the convertible pesos that circulate in the country are backed by the exchange of foreign currencies. If that’s not the case where do they come from, because only a small portion of workers get a bonus of between 10 and 35 CUC on their waters. That is a very small amount of money not backed by hard currency. For that reason and for many other things, ordinary people are fed up with the government and its leaders.”
Eddy, a high school teacher, believes that “the government has to take off the mask. Once and for all let them say that this is state capitalism, because it works as such. Those who are most favored are those who do not work and families that receive dollars from the former ’worms’*. Cuba is a country that is upside down. The professionals, intellectuals and workers live worse than street vendors and private food sellers. The Internet is a business for ETECSA. Why don’t they put internet in elementary, secondary and high schools and in the homes of teachers?”
An ETECSA specialist acknowledges that “ordinary people are right. ETECSA works poorly and the prices are sky high. But in the end, as disciplined soldiers, people contract for a mobile line and open an internet account. According to a study, from the opening of data internet it is expected that, within two years, 7 or 8 million users will have mobile accounts, since from their cellphones they will be able to access innumerable services, from browsing online to paying for electricity.”
ETECSA, having no competition, leaves Cubans without options. Take it or leave it. It’s that simple
*Translator’s note: Fidel Castro and his regime coined the use of the term “gusanos” or “worms” for Cubans who left the country. These former “worms” are now supporting their country with their remittances to family still in Cuba.