Iván García, 30 January 2017 — Five or six abstract oil paintings are tastelessly jumbled together in the living room of a house in the west of Havana, next to a collection of laptops and ancient computers waiting to be repaired. We can call the owner Reinaldo.
A clean-shaven chap, who has fixed computers, tablets and laptops for twenty years and also, quietly, provided an internet service on the side.
“I have two options. Dial-up internet at 50 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC – roughly $50 US) a month. And via ADSL at 130 CUC. The transmission speed of the modem is between fifty and seventy kilobytes a second. With ADSL, the speed is two megabytes. It has the advantage of being free (i.e. unlimited), as it is rumoured that two MB connections will be marketed by ETECSA, the government-owned telecoms company, at 115 cuc for 30 hours,” Reinaldo explains.
No-one is surprised by anything in Cuba. Clandestine businesses are always two steps ahead of what the state comes up with. Many years before the olive green people legalised private restaurants and lodgings, people had been taking the chance of running such businesses anyway.
And something similar is happening with internet business. The spokesmen for the ETECSA monopoly — the state run telephone and communications company — strongly deny it.
When, on 4 June 2013, the government opened 118 internet rooms all over the country, Tania Velázquez, an executive in the organisation, announced that “by the middle of 2014, we will start to market the internet for cellphones and, by December, at home.”
It was a bluff. While we are waiting for ETECSA to get the internet for cell phones started, what we have now is ETECSA’s Nauta email for cell phones, running on out-of-date 2G technology, too many technical problems, and initially they were charging 1 CUC a MB.
Just over a month ago, they lowered the price to 1.50 CUC for five MB, calling it Bolsa Nauta. But the service is dreadful. “You wait five or six hours to send an email, and the message never leaves the outbox. They are robbing you, as they sometimes charge your account without having offered any service. My advice is to disconnect Nauta from your cell phones as quickly as possible,” says Marlén, who opened an account two years ago.
Marketing the internet at home service is two years behind what Tania Velázquez promised. Just after Christmas 2016, ETECSA started to provide free internet via ADSL to two thousand families with fixed residential phones around the Plaza Vieja, in Havana’s colonial quarter, as a pilot, until the month of March.
“The connection is better than the wifi hotspots. Although it sometimes runs slowly. You need to have a conventional phone to receive the internet service. It isn’t true that you have to belong to the CDR, or Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, or be working. I don’t know if dissidents will be able to opt for the service when they start to sell it. Although the prices will be “thank you and goodnight.”
An ETECSA engineer, working in an internet distribution centre in the capital states that “the prices for internet at home are bollocks. Saying that they will charge 30, 70 and 115 CUC, the dearest tariff, for 30 hours, and depending on the bandwidth, is unofficial. They are looking at setting up a flat charge and also a charge per hour. The prices will be high, but not what the foreign press claims, because an hour at two MB would cost nearly three CUC, and users of half that would prefer to connect to a wifi point. There will be various speed options. The highest will be two MB,” says the engineer.
The military dictatorship has designed a structure capable of controlling the internet. Before the internet landed in the island, where previously the finca rusa, a Russian-built electronic spying base, known as the Base Lourdes, operated. Fidel Castro inaugurated the University of Information Science on the San Antonio de los Baños highway on 23 September 2002. In addition to exporting software, its functions include the rigorous monitoring of internet traffic in the country.
The internet started to operate in Cuba in September 1996. One of the first public internet rooms was located in the National Capitol building, charging $5 an hour. The connection was painfully slow and was not provided by ETECSA, but by CITMA, the present Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment.
The internet was also offered in four and five star hotels, at between $6 and $10 an hour. In the winter of 2011, the coaxial network on the island was connected to a submarine cable, at a cost of $70 million, and jointly planned with Venezuela and Jamaica.
“The cable was quite a story. It had everything. Embezzlement, poor work quality, various company officials jumping ship. Leonardo, one of the people implicated in the misappropriation of funds, stayed in Panama. The Obama administration authorised a Florida-based company to negotiate with ETECSA. The proposal was to renovate an old underwater cable. The project cost about $18 million. But the government, citing digital sovereignty, opted to do the cable with Venezuela. It is that cable which is providing the present service,” explains an engineer who worked on the ALBA-1 project.
The Cuban secret services have tools for hacking into opposition accounts and spying on the emails of the embassies in the island, including the US one.
“You must not under-estimate the technical capacity of the counter-intelligence. Almost nothing works in Cuba, but they have the latest technology for their work. Since the time of the EICISOFT (Centre of Robotics and Software) at the end of the ’80’s, the Ministry of the Interior has had specialists in new technologies. Maybe they can’t get into Apple systems, but the rest is easy peasy. They now have advice from Russia and China, which is amongst the best in the world when it comes to hacking,” says an ETECSA specialist who prefers to remain anonymous.
According to our informant, “Nothing gets past them. They have a complete arsenal of spy programs and an army of information analysts to crack dissidents’ accounts and keep an eye on social networks like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Everybody who travels the information highway is under their microscope. Whenever ETECSA opens a new internet service, the State Security monitoring tools are already in place.”
For Cubans whose breakfast is just a coffee, account privacy doesn’t matter much. It’s normal for people to lend their cellphones to strangers. Or to give out their passwords to show how to work their emails. “I don’t care if the State Security is watching me. What interests me is getting off with girls on Facebook, arranging to get out with the help of workmates who have already got to the US, and finding out stuff about CR7, as Cristiano Ronaldo is known, and Real Madrid,” says Saúl, undergraduate.
The thing is, in Cuba, the internet is, with few exceptions, a means of communicating with your family “across the Pond” (i.e. in Florida). You will see that when you go to any wifi hotspot. “Hey guys, look at the new car Luisito’s just bought,” a kid shouts to a group of friends in the Parque Córdoba hotspot in La Vibora.
“Look, what matters for most people is asking for money by email, talking to family and friends by IMO, the Cuban equivalent to WhatsApp, using the internet to read about famous artists and sport personalities, and other unimportant stuff like that. Not serious media or websites published abroad about Cuban issues,” is the realistic view taken by Carlos, a sociologist.
You can read periodicals from Florida, the New York Times in Spanish, and dailies like El País and El Mundo, without any problems. But not sites like Martí Noticias, Cubanet, Diario de Cuba, Cubaencuentro or 14yMedio.
“But you can reach them with a simply proxy,” says Reinaldo, who, as well as repairing computers, sells internet service on the side. And he takes the opportunity to explain the technical features of a gadget he has for sale, which lets you connect to the internet via satellite, without using ETECSA’s servers.
How do such gadgets get to Cuba? I ask him. “Through the ports and airports. The government controls the state economy and also the black market”, he tells me. And I believe it.
Photo: The wifi hotspot outside the old El Cerro Stadium is one of the few where you can calmly and comfortably connect to the internet, due to the park they put up because of the presence of Barack Obama at a baseball game, when the US ex-president visited Havana on 20, 21 and 22nd of March, 2016. Taken by the New Herald.
Translated by GH