Cubanálisis - El Think-Tank
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Cuba and the internet
Wired, at last
The battle of the blogs begins
ACCORDING to government figures, only 3% of Cubans frequently use the internet, making the communist island the least connected place in the Americas. Those that do require patience: according to an industry survey, Cuba’s dial-up internet access is the world’s second-slowest, after Mayotte, a French territory in the Indian Ocean. Under the guise of rationing the use of bandwidth, internet access is banned in most private homes and censored in offices.
For this sorry state of affairs, Cuba’s authorities have long blamed the United States’ trade embargo. They have a point. Although a fibre-optic cable, capable of carrying heavy data traffic, runs tantalisingly close to the island’s northern coast, George W. Bush’s administration blocked a proposal by AT&T to hook Cuba up to it. In 2009 Barack Obama authorised American companies to provide internet services to the island. But Cuba showed no interest in exploring the possibility. Instead it turned to its ally and benefactor, Venezuela.
Last month officials celebrated the arrival of a 1,600km (1,000-mile) fibre-optic cable laid along the seabed from Venezuela by a consortium including France’s Alcatel-Lucent and Britain’s Cable & Wireless. Venezuela’s government has put up the $70m it cost (including a second link from Cuba to Jamaica). Once fully connected in a few months’ time, it will raise data-transmission speed almost 3,000 times.
So will Cubans now have free access to the internet? The government has no fear of that, insisted Jorge Luis Perdomo, the deputy-minister of information. Yet last month it charged Alan Gross, an American arrested in 2009 for distributing satellite gear for accessing the internet to Jewish groups in Cuba, with spying. Mr Perdomo says that Cuba simply lacks the cash to install the necessary computers and routing gear. Nevertheless, it recently found $500m as an upfront payment to buy out an Italian group which had formed a joint venture with the state telecoms firm.
Officials know that they face a small but active band of critical bloggers. In practice, the government has found it impossible to block access to the internet completely. Many Cubans bypass curbs by buying internet accounts on the black market. The loophole they exploit is that senior managers, doctors and some academics are permitted home internet accounts. Some use this perk to supplement their state salary of $20 a month by selling their usernames and passwords for around $30 a month, often several times over.
In a video circulating in Havana, probably leaked by the government, an official promises to fight back against the American government’s use of social-networking sites to promote dissent. “They have their bloggers and we have our bloggers,” he says. “We will fight to see who is stronger.” Recently, for the first time in three years, Cuban internet users could access the website of Yoani Sánchez, an opposition blogger. Along with her many supporters abroad, a handful of government backers have taken to posting their hostile comments. A virtual battle has begun.