Getting Online in Cuba Remains a Risky Endeavor for Most

A recent article in the Cuban newspaper Juventud Rebelde described the "cyber-warfare"being used by the United States to subvert Cuba.

A stylishly-dressed man in his late 20s hawked pirated DVDs and computer games from the doorway of his apartment in the alleyways of Old Havana.

He is licensed and fully sanctioned by the Cuban government to do so, he told me, adding that if I wanted a TV show or movie that he didn’t have, he could almost definitely find it for me.

Illegally copied media is not an officially recognized issue in this country.

Internet access is another story.

When I asked the DVD seller about his Internet-related behavior and practices, he quickly hushed me up and insisted we move to the other side of the road to speak.

“Internet? Things here are bad,” he said quietly. “They’re really bad.” When I inquired about his use of the Web, he shut up completely and walked back to his booth.

This is a typical story in Cuba, where only a tiny fraction of Cubans have legally-sanctioned Internet access and many more use a variety of clandestine methods to log on and connect with the rest of the world.

As of 2010, Internet penetration in Latin America and the Caribbean stands at 34.5 percent, based on data from Nielsen and the International Telecommunication Union.

But a recent survey done by Cuba’s National Statistics Office says that only 2.9 percent of Cubans have direct access to the Internet–a number that includes state and academic officials.

Even for them, it’s mostly at work where they can use the connection, because it can be monitored. The Big Brother treatment extends to the home as well, one university professor with a connection in his house told me.

The key word in that statistic, though, is “direct.”

In my conversations with average Cubans, even outside of urban centers like Havana, people showed an impressive knowledge of popular Web sites, online services and modern hardware.

More than once, as I used it to snap photos on the street, my camera was correctly identified by cries of “iPhone, iPhone!” by excited children.

So without direct access, how is this information coming through? Certainly, many Cubans are in regular contact with their family members in other countries, and some interact with tourists on a regular basis.

But others are finding different ways of getting online in their own country.

One teenager told me about her friend of a similar age, who set up his own pirated connection at great financial cost and legal risk.

“It is a big risk, but for him it is worth it,” she said. Sometimes she uses his connection as well, but made me promise not to say a word of that to her mother.

Individuals with sanctioned and illegal connections alike share them with other Cubans, a sort of Internet black market. As it was explained to me, people will offer up their bedrooms or workspaces, wherever a computer may be set up, as illegal cyber-cafes of sorts–one of many ways to supplement their universally meager income.

Another journalist who recently visited related her experience in one of these situations.

“I would go to a home to check my email, and I did it seated on a queen bed, beside another customer who was also surfing,” she said in an email.

Once connected, some of the more daring users will access sites like, a sort of Cuban black market craigslist, where people can post classifieds to sell anything from computer parts to cars or apartments.

Private buying and selling of the latter two have been very tightly restricted by the government, but new laws mentioned at the country’s Communist Party congress in April may change that.

Knowing all of this, I felt a bit guilty when I was easily able to check my email from the hotel’s computer. The price for 60 minutes of access is about $6.00, a sizable chunk of the average Cuban monthly salary of $20.

Considering the intolerably slow connection speed (by American standards), it comes out to the value of most of a week’s work for the typical state employee for me to find out that AT&T is buying T-Mobile, shoot off some one-sentence responses to friends and delete a few daily Groupon offers.

There was some hope for improvement in the country’s connectedness when a fiber optic cable from Venezuela arrived in Cuba in February, after four years, with nationwide installation estimated to be complete by July.

But state officials have made it clear that, while this cable will dramatically increase connection speeds and lower costs to go online, it will only benefit those who are already on the Internet, which includes foreign businesses, high-ranking government workers, some students and foreign visitors like me.

To make matters worse, Raul Castro’s government has a history of characterizing the Internet as a means for nefarious capitalists to corrupt Cuba’s socialist ideals, with an obvious focus on the United States.

Most scholars on this side of the Florida Strait agree that the new cable won’t do very much to let Cubans see the rest of the world in any truer light than what state-run media casts.

But those Cubans I spoke to who even knew about the project were optimistic. After all, what choice do they have?

I couldn’t help but be optimistic for them myself, even as I stood in the immigration line at Miami International Airport 100 miles away, lamenting the spotty 3G coverage inside the terminal building.

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