Internet Access Remains a Luxury in Cuba / Iván García
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
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
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
"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
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
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
Source: Internet Access Remains a Luxury in Cuba / Iván García –
Translating Cuba -