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Cubans have to endure some of the most limited internet access in the world. Until recently most people had to rely on a network prohibitively expensive internet cafes and government-run WiFi hotspots to communicate with the wider world, although ingenious and highly unofficial offline solutions have helped to plug the gaps.
Things are changing, though. In 2017 Cuba’s only internet service provider (ISP), ETECSA, began offering a limited number of home broadband connections, and in December 2018 it launched a 3G mobile network.
Despite being very expensive for Cubans, who must also tolerate continued stability problems, uptake of 3G internet has been high. Out of a population of 11.2 million, some 5.3 million use mobile phones, and three months after its launch around two million of these have subscribed to ETECSA 3G service.
Internet penetration is likely to further increase following a deal between Google and ETECSA announced in March 2019. Cuba broadband capabilities are currently limited to a single fiber-optic cable to Venezuela, which is often overloaded and slow.
Google and ETECSA have pledged to work together to improve this situation, with talk of new submarine fiber-optic cables linking the island directly to the US and Latin America.
Cuba is a one-party socialist republic, opposition parties are illegal, and all news media outlets are owned and controlled by the state. Selected by a closed party vote in April 2018, President Miguel Diaz-Canel appears largely determined to continue the Castro legacy of political oppression.
A defining feature of Cuban history for the last 60 years or so has been its poor relationship with neighboring superpower the United States. An ongoing policy of political isolation and harsh economic sanctions has left Cuba desperately poor, but also proudly defiant.
Relations between the two countries looked set to thaw somewhat under the Obama administration, raising hopes of foreign investment in Cuba infrastructure. Diplomacy turned frosty again under the Trump administration, however, and this investment never materialized.
Under Fidel Castro, those who criticized the government were routinely subjected to torture, arbitrary imprisonment, unfair trials, and extrajudicial execution. In 2008, on the date of his resignation as President, Human Rights Watch reported that Castro’s abusive machinery remained intact.
Over the last ten years, however, this situation appears to have mellowed somewhat. During the run-up to the 2017 elections, many independent journalists were accused of spreading enemy propaganda and arrested on trumped-up charges. But far as we can determine, they were all released once the elections were over.
Indeed, although illegal, there has been a growth in independent news websites, although bloggers critical of the government are routinely blocked. And fines, confiscation of equipment, and arbitrary detentions remain common.
International news and social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and the like, however, are not actively blocked.
The largest barrier to uncensored news and opinions, though, is the simple lack of internet penetration. The cost of using WiFi at an internet cafe or government-sponsored hotspot has dropped from $5 an hour in 2015 to $1 an hour, but this is still very expensive in a country where the average wage daily wage is just $1.
That internet use is largely confined to outdoor public spaces which are often subject to sweltering heat and a complete lack of privacy are also issues. As is the fact that large numbers of users sharing a single connection makes internet access incredibly slow.
The result is that most Cubans who use the internet at all do so only for essential matters such as keeping in contact with relatives. What is fascinating, however, are the ways in which Cubans have adapted to this situation and found frankly ingenious ways to enjoy many of the benefits of the internet without access to the actual internet.
The offline internet
A cottage off-line data brokering industry has emerged in Cuba, where semi-legal data mules sell hard drives full of internet content. Known as the Paquete Semanal, or Weekly Packet, this content provides the latest TV shows, movies, programs, games, and magazines to a data-hungry public.
Built along the same lines by tech-savvy enthusiasts who cannot afford real internet access, an ad hoc street net (also dubbed SNet) has also developed, composed of expensive but powerful hidden Wi-Fi antennas and Ethernet cables strung over streets and rooftops spanning the entire city.
This semi-legal (technically illegal, but the authorities seem happy to exercise discretion and turn a blind eye) home-spun intranet allows many Cubans to chat, play Warcraft, share data, and otherwise participate in an online community of the kind that has long been denied to them.
The state-controlled ISP, ETECSA, has a monopoly on internet access in Cuba. When purchasing WiFi access to the internet citizens must show their ID cards, and to log in, they must enter their national ID numbers.
There is evidence that the government installs Avila Link surveillance software on public, university, and cyber cafe computers. Indeed, a fairly recent report from the Austrian Red Cross notes that:
The government routes most connections through proxy servers and is able to obtain all usernames and passwords through special monitoring software called Avila Link, which is installed at most ETECSA and public access points. In addition, delivery of email messages is consistently delayed, and it is not unusual for a message to arrive censored or without its attachments.
All anonymity and encryption systems are illegal, including VPNs and Tor. And when users email attachments, they are warned that other people may see what you are sending – before being asked if they wish to continue.
It is worth noting that internet access at international tourist hotels does not appear to be so limited.
Given the prohibitive cost and sheer impractically of such frivolities, direct copyright piracy over the internet is all but non-existent in Cuba. As already noted, there is a thriving market in data which is distributed offline. The vast majority of which is very much pirated from the internet. Where the data comes from in the first place is not clear, but corrupt government officials with privileged access to fast internet connections are the most likely source.