There will be no Arab Spring in Cuba.
© 2012 Robert Nelson
The young blonde pounded fists on knees, glaring at her laptop in the Wi-Fi lounge of Havana’s Hotel Nacional.
Click… and wait. Click… and wait.
Tourists can find Internet service at about 400 places in this 43,000 square-mile country with three million annual visitors. This equates to one access point per 100 square miles; one wired computer for every 7,500 visitors.
The monopoly ISP is a throwback to 2400-baud modems of the eighties. Thirty minutes to log in, scan your FB wall, post a check-in without photos, look for urgent emails, and send one or two quick replies. Click, and wait.
Access points (sounds kind of like “phone booths”) can be found at a few hotels, some embassies, government communication offices, and business centers. Cost ranges from $5 to $10 per hour. There is no broadband Wi-Fi service and only a few Wi-Fi hotspots in hotels. Smart Phones are dumb and laptops are useful only with a USB disk to transfer data to old and slow PCs at the access points.
For tourists, while agonizing and expensive, connectivity is possible. But it is not affordable or accessible to most of the 11 million Cubans.
A few residents can have Internet access in their home or in their business for a government-sanctioned purpose. One knowledgeable person estimated that direct access is available for perhaps two to five percent of Havana dwellers. She was not sure if residents in other Cuban cities have any service at all.
If Cubans use the Internet system available to tourists, it is rare. First, the cost is out of reach for locals. A one-hour access card is $5 — a week’s wage or more. There are conflicting stories about the propriety of Cubans using this system. One reliable source said she was denied access because she does not have a foreign passport. Yet, a young Havana skateboarder who attends university in Madrid said he has logged-on at public access points with no questions asked. Maybe it was his recently acquired Castilian accent.
There is a government intranet system that can be used by Cubans at post offices and some other locations where email can be sent within the system for about $.15 per email per recipient. That is about an hour of the average Cuban salary for one short email. Remember telegrams?
Without ubiquitous and affordable Internet access, social media is irrelevant in Cuba. The Castro government need not fear a social media-driven uprising.
All communication — Internet, telephone, and postal — remains in the hands of a government-owned monopoly. Big Brother is not only watching; he’s listening.
Since Raul Castro succeeded Fidel as President in 2008, things have lightened up a bit.
The Raul reform that affects people most is private ownership of cell phones, previously prohibited to Cubans. The cost is high: about $.50 per minute for the caller, plus $.25 to the other end if it is a cell phone, no charge to a land line. SMS text messages are about $.16 for 140 characters. There is a much higher cost for international communication.
To put this cost in perspective, a five-minute local call would be almost one day’s wage for many people. The call better be important.
Phones can be purchased from the government or through private means, but only a government SIM card will work. A $40 SIM card can only be purchased — and registered — in person at Cubacel, the government cell phone office. Tourists are permitted to have a government SIM card added to their phone for a similar charge.
Upscale mobiles include a MP3 player and a camera. It is possible to attach a photo and SMS it, but the cost would be very high, so no one does it. Internet access, albeit limited, is another major reform from President Raul.
Eight five percent of Cubans are government employees. The guy at the hardware store, the police officer, the hotel maid, the physician, and the bartender receive their salary from the government. Retail stores and hotels that appear as individual businesses are actually different faces for a monolithic government ownership system.
Salary is tightly controlled in a narrow range. An entry-level low‐skill worker is paid about $11 per month — a surgeon tops out at $25. While the physician is eligible for better housing and some perquisites of daily living, differences in economic power between occupations is largely irrelevant.
While the omnipresent billboard propaganda refers to “socialismo”, Cuba is mostly a communist state with elements of socialism and pockets of minor capitalism. Economically, progress is measured, and slow.
People are now able to sell their homes to another Cuban if they can find financing. Some small private businesses are officially sanctioned and taxed. Visits to the U.S. are possible if you can get a visa from the U.S. government and if you can afford the trip. Some managers and their teams are now eligible for performance bonuses, which probably has Lenin rolling in his glass coffin.
A second, tourism-inspired economy operates alongside the main national system. It can be highly lucrative for the few who have found a way to work the system.
The best cigar rollers in the world find a way to obtain some tobacco on their own behalf to roll cigars after work that would sell in government tobacco shops for $10 to $25. Home-rolls made by a Cuban woman who works in the Partagas factory were obtained for one dollar each. (If you reside in the U.S, smoke’em when you get’em, as our government does not permit bringing Cuban-purchased merchandise into the U.S.)
A young Bavarian man comes to Havana each year for a cigar conference. He has a private arrangement with one of Havana’s top rollers who makes him 250 unlabeled Cohiba Behike cigars that sell for $25 in Havana and €30 in Germany. He pays the roller three dollars each. That $750 is 30 month’s salary for a Cuban physician. The Bavarian plans to sell them to friends for €20 each — ten times his cost; 25 years salary for a Cuban doctor.
A taxi driver with a spiffy 1958 Buick Special will drive a carful of passengers two hours to the resort-laden Playa Veradero Peninsula. You can return in a 1956 Olds Ninety Eight Holiday. Cost of the trip each way will be $160. Certainly there are significant costs to fuel and maintain a 55-year-old car in highway condition. Regardless, there is likely some pretty good profit involved, at least in high season. One round-trip per day would gross $320, more than $9,000 per month — about what a doctor, scientist, or engineer earns in 30 years. But who knows, maybe that’s what these classic car taxi drivers do when they’re not driving.
Whatever the equity of Cuba’s government-controlled economy may be, with these few notable exceptions there seems little ability to enrich oneself at the expense of others. So Cubans are probably less dog-eat-dog than people from other nice places. But it also means most will never have enough money to own much of anything. And even for those permitted to leave the island, the cost is mostly prohibitive. A round-‐trip flight to Miami represents a year’s salary or more.
They certainly cannot afford Internet access, even if they can find it.
If freedom of speech, press, and religion are not important to you, Cuba might be a fine place to live. The weather is mostly wonderful, albeit punctuated by the occasional hurricane. Cubans enjoy high-quality universal health care, a livable pension, great music, rum, and cigars. But the vast majority will never leave the island.
Baby Boomers and earlier generations remember the 1961 military blockade of Cuba. U.S. spy planes far above Havana discovered Soviet nuclear missile sites. One nuke stood near the USS Maine monument, about five football fields from the frustrated young lady at the Hotel Nacional Wi-Fi lounge.
“Duck and cover” drills pretended that school desks could protect children from Soviet nuclear attack. Boomer-era Cuban kids received similar instruction. People in both countries hid behind a psychological shield then, just as Americans are made to feel safer today when octogenarians are searched down to their Depends diapers at airport screening stations.
Many people on both sides of the gulf hope for reconciliation between the U.S and Cuba. But anyone who believes this will be a quick or easy task is dangerously naïve. While China U.S. economic relationships are enormous today, one recalls that Richard Nixon began this transformation in 1972.
Lao-tzu wrote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Consider that the U.S. was on a near-war footing with the former USSR, and open hostility was mutual between China and us. Today we are huge trading partners and all three countries benefit from the thaw.
Will Cubans be ready for the onslaught of commercial advertising that would accompany a capitalist economy? Will they want to cope with uncontrolled markets, or is the apparent stability of a moribund managed economy more attractive? Are they prepared to trade the security of their accessible and affordable health care for an uncertain and often cruel system like that in the United States?
Would Cubans be happy in a free market society if it means their homeland is suddenly on sale to the highest bidder? If friends of a lifetime leave whenever they want, and people they don’t know buy the house next door, what will life be like? If you have a long-time Hawaii friend, ask how they felt when Japanese companies began buying-up property in those islands.
Most importantly perhaps, how strongly do they want to preserve the essence of Cuban culture?
For tourists like the young woman at the Hotel Nacional the Cuban government will probably find a way to improve Internet access. There’s money to be made, and the youngest tourists will probably look elsewhere if they can’t get on Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, or Grindr.
But for Cubans, narrowing the gulf between the U.S. and will take more than Wi-Fi or pay-per-view TV. It will mean restructuring their economy and culture, if not their government. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya it won’t happen in one season or even one year. But over a decade or two, perhaps. We’ll see how the next generation of Castros shapes the future they want for their people.