A few years ago, some computer gamers based in Havana strung a small web of ethernet cables from house to house so they could play video games together. The network continued to grow quietly, and today it's called StreetNet: a bootleg internet for Havana with more than 10,000 users. It was an innovation forged by necessity in a country where only 5 percent of citizens have access to the uncensored internet. Watch the video to learn why Cuba's internet is stuck in 1995.
Since the communist revolution of 1959, the Castro regime has enforced a strict ban on all forms of information flow that challenge official policy and history. Enforcing such censorship has been relatively easy for an island nation that has a monopoly over all media outlets. But when the internet arrived in the '90s, it complicated matters for the Castros.
Cuba's first 64KB/s internet connection came to life in 1996, making it one of the first countries to connect in the Caribbean region. Cuban technicians were resourceful, educated, and motivated to connect the country, which led to a surge in initial infrastructure development.
That surge soon stalled as the government realized the ramifications of allowing such a decentralized and uncontrollable network into the lives of the Cuban people. "The wild colt of new technologies can and must be controlled," warned Communications Minister Ramiro Valdés in 2007, summing up the regime's policy toward technology over the previous decade.
Getting online in Cuba
Connecting to the web in Cuba has historically been a matter of money and power. Some government insiders have dial-up internet in their homes. But for the rest of population, getting online has meant paying around $9 for one hour of internet access in state-run internet cafes. This in a place where an average salary is just over $20 per month.
Alternative methods include poaching wireless internet from hotels, which can be done if one person gets his hands on the wifi password and shares it. Many hotels in Havana now have security guards whose responsibility consists of shooing away these internet parasites from the sidewalks and benches surrounding the hotels.
"Cuba is like a pressure cooker. Frustration builds from all the lack of basic freedoms, and eventually the regime has to let out a little steam to keep everyone happy," says Jose Luis Martinez of Connect Cuba, an advocacy group based in Miami.
In July, the regime let out a little steam by installing 35 wifi hotspots throughout the island. Now, to connect, you can buy an access card for $2, which will give you one hour of access to the uncensored internet. These access cards are usually sold out, which has led to an informal street market where cards go for $3 or $4.
Is this an improvement? Perhaps. But 35 expensive hotspots for 11 million people is certainly not a significant step toward a freer internet. "Imagine if you told the island of Manhattan that they could only access the internet with 35 wifi hotspots. There would be riots in the street," says Martinez. "This is not progress."
The hotspots are located in tourist-dense downtown parks, not in places where typical Cubans spend their time. Martinez thinks the regime is creating the facade of progress to quell international criticism. "They are good at playing the international PR game, but this is still a very, very small step," he says. "I'm not hopeful."
The Cuban government has made efforts beyond the 35 hotspots. In April, the international telecoms office of the government announced a plan to connect all Cubans to the internet by 2020. How they will do this and what level of censorship the connection will have is not clear, but the announcement shows that the government recognizes the need for an expansion of internet access.
Reluctant to accept help
Last December's normalizing of relations between the US and Cuba brought with it new allowances for US telecoms companies to sell equipment to the island. Top Google executives have made several visits since the announcement, offering Google's infrastructure to help expand internet in Cuba.
But the regime is not likely to consider these offers. "Some want to give it to us for free, not so Cubans can communicate but to infiltrate us for ideological work. ... We have to possess the Internet our way, knowing the imperialists aim to use it to destroy the Revolution," said Vice President José Ramón Machado Ventura.
With $30 million of US federal money allocated for the "promotion of democracy in Cuba," the regime remains suspicious of any American-led initiatives, especially in a sector as politically sensitive as information technology.
So Cuba has turned to China, a model in how to keep a tight grip on the internet faucet. The 35 wifi hotspots use Chinese hardware, and two Chinese telecoms firms, ZTE and Huawei, have proposed a plan to connect the island by 2020. Cuba is much more likely to entertain a deal with China, given the two countries' parallel ideologies toward open information.
Momentum is building
As Cubans get a taste for the wonder that is the internet, they want more. As internal pressure grows, the Castro regime will likely continue to find creative ways to offer the internet without losing control of the flow of information. The opening of Cuba to foreign investment and travel will only speed up the process.