CUBA: Sharing Connectivity in Castro’s Old Plazas

A system of blackmarket internet access has grown from users’ frustration with lacking international connectivity. (Photo: People gathered at what is now a landmark wifi spot, Malecón, Miami in the far distance behind them).A system of blackmarket internet access has grown from users’ frustration with lacking international connectivity. (Photo: People gathered at what is now a landmark wifi spot, Malecón, Miami in the far distance behind them).

Once it was only the colonial wrought iron street lamps that kept Cuba’s plazas alit, now the blue tint of mobile phone and laptop screens illuminate city centres around the island. This is the sign of the increasingly interconnected, online Cuba.

There are now 212 public wifi hotspots around the island to add to the 171 internet cafes. The latest announcement is that the state communications company ETSECA will introduce internet access along Havana’s aesthetically distinctive Malecón. This new emblematic hotspot is known as a popular nighttime hang-out for young Cubans who perch on walls, chatting and sharing music, with the Straits of Florida at their backs.

For a people whose culture and customs are based on sharing, it is inevitable they strive for greater connectivity. After a two minute interaction with most young Cubans, one will have already shared email addresses and Facebook profiles.

Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, July 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan) ORG XMIT: XDB102

Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, July 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan) ORG XMIT: XDB102

Hotspots continue to appear throughout the island but there is still disillusionment amongst Cubans over the price and speed of the ETSECA connection.

Camilo, an IT worker for a state fruit company, is amongst the lucky few to enjoy free internet access through his work. On his standard wage, internet is still a luxury at 2CUC (£1.50) an hour and he says there has been no discernible increase in broadband speed since the ETSECA ‘salas de navegación’ (internet cafes) were introduced around four years ago.

The lagging speed of the ETSECA connection has been reflected underneath the sea, as Cuban internet connection still relies on a slow Venezuelan fibre optic submarine cable laid in 2007. There were celebrations in 2013 when the modern cable first came into official use and the development was lauded as a break from the technological isolation enforced by the U.S blockade.

Since then, the government has been focused on developing public infrastructure to accommodate widespread connection, instead of opening up free wifi access liberally, as many hoped.

The vast majority of internet use is still carried out in educational, health and governmental spheres. This embodies the revolution’s belief that internet access is not an individual right but more a potential part of the modern collectivist consciousness, ‘un instrumento revolucionario’ in the words of Fidel Castro.

The new generation enjoy connectivity in a Wifi hotspot. Photo, (cc) jauretsi

The new generation enjoy connectivity in a Wifi hotspot. Photo, (cc) jauretsi

Connection is therefore kept in public spaces and people are obliged to consume their information together. Where once dominos and gossip were the form of connection, now extensive families crowd around single mobile devices to view photos of new relatives abroad. Meanwhile groups of teens huddle together to catch a glimpse of kittens playing pianos. The collectivist way of viewing cannot dictate the communist value of the content viewed.

On the liberal side of the argument, these charming visions of an internet shared digitally and physically are not enough. Elaine Diaz, founder of Periodismo del Barrio (Community Journalism), says “The internet needs to be brought to peoples homes like anywhere else in the world. It needs to become an accessible good.”

'El Paquete Semanal' is the underground system of keeping Cubans digitally entertained at home. Photo (c), Cubanet

‘El Paquete Semanal’ is the underground system of keeping Cubans digitally entertained at home. Photo (c), Cubanet

Unofficially, but now widely known, a system of blackmarket internet access has grown from users’ frustration.“El Paquete” is a weekly delivery of online content transferred through pen drives to home computers.

The government persists that the cost of bringing internet to every Cuban home is out of their reach. Yet, last year a seemingly generous offer arrived from Google to expand Cuban connectivity and trials were proven to increase internet speeds to up to 70 times. The response from government official Jose Ramon Machado in state magazine Juventude Rebelde was “There are those who would like to give us Internet for free, but they aren’t doing this so that Cubans can communicate with one another, rather they’re doing it with the goal of penetrating us on ideological grounds,”.

There is a rich history behind the war of communications that Machado cites and for all the ideological bias in the Cuban media, there are prominent neoliberal interests fighting on the other side.

USAid's project to stir citizens into a 'Cuban Spring' through a Twitter-like platform. Photo (c) Cubadebate

USAid’s project to stir citizens into a ‘Cuban Spring’ through a Twitter-like platform. Photo (c) Cubadebate

Still fresh in the mind is the scandal of ZunZuneo- a Twitter-esque Cuban platform conceived by USAid to prompt civil unrest on the island. The secret ‘AID program’ offered an unforeseen free messaging service that operated under the Cuban state’s radar, seeking to help “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey helped direct the project.

The movements of multinational communications platforms and American interest are thus seen as indivisible to the Communist Party of Cuba.

The fight to penetrate Cuba’s communications sector continues. The major anti-Castro platform Radio and TV Martí received close to $800 million in U.S funding between 1984 and 2015 and a recent deal has taken investment to $30 million a year. It is American policies such as these that have pressured many nostalgic Cubans into paranoia over liberalising the internet.

As youths along the Malecón wait for their webpages to load, they face away from the Miami coast. So it is on the Malecón, so it is in the Communist Party. The government continues to turn its back on offers from the North, taking on the ominous task of carving out a modern, globalising communications system that is still very Cuban in nature. An internet of collectivity as well as connectivity.