The Cuban Internet Crisis

Ninety miles to our south, young people’s dreams are dashed because they have no digital access

A few weeks ago I went to Cuba to interview 20-somethings and middle-schoolers about their lives. The trip was a profound reminder for me of the necessity of having big dreams for Internet access around the world.

I had never been to Cuba before. I had no real expectations about what I would see and feel. I was just one of the onslaught of American tourists going there these days. Let’s get this out of the way: I’m an American, so I loved the old cars. They were like manatees of chrome floating down the ruined streets of Havana: beautiful, enormous, dreamlike.

But it was the young people I met whom I will remember.

First, the numbers: 95% of people in Cuba don’t have access to the Internet.

Those who do get it have access mostly through shared university connections, most of which are heartbreakingly slow. You can get WiFi in some of the big hotels in Havana and in Internet cafés, but it is unthinkably expensive: an hour of WiFi costs about a quarter of an average Cuban monthly salary — $20/month, $4-$7 for an hour of WiFi. There is mobile email access, but it too is wildly expensive; nonetheless, when it was first introduced people lined up in huge numbers to get access to smartphones. Bottom line: for the subset of Cubans that have experienced Internet access in Cuba, it feels like sending a letter — one email at a time, at noticeable expense.

The issue of Cuban Internet access is a highly political, fraught question. One older man told me that there are only three things to know about the Cuban government: “Control, control, and control.” So the thing that government likely fears the most is widespread Internet access. They’d like to censor Internet access as the Chinese do. by watching carefully what everyone is doing, but they don’t have the manpower to carry that off: Cuba is a nation of just eleven million people. The most anyone will say is that the government is proceeding deliberately.

Raul Castro, 83, said last month that the Internet was a great invention but “the Internet can be used for the worst [behavior].” The statement was read by young Cubans as “Don’t expect Internet access any time soon. We’re not going to let bad things enter our country.”

On the other hand, Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, 53, a technocrat said to be in place to become the president of Cuba when Castro (presumably) steps down in 2018, has remarked, “The development of information technology is essential to the search for new solutions to development problems [in Latin America].” The students I met knew about Diaz-Canel’s speech, but weren’t counting on rapid change.

And that is tragic. One young man told me that he wants desperately to be a film critic. He loves movies and he would like to study the relationship between a particular Argentinian writer and the films that influenced him. He thinks there might be a program in Argentina that would help him study this subject. But he’s not completely confident that the program exists; he can’t check. He doesn’t have online access that would allow him to find out. This kind of barrier exists for everything he wants to do, and he thinks it’s a barrier to everything Cuba wants to do; everything is slowed, blocked, moving in mud.

The young man said that, for him, “the Internet is like a ghost. It’s a mystery.” He doesn’t think Internet access will arrive in Cuba for at least five years.

He said life in Cuba feels like Virgilio Piñera’s poem about the awful circumstance of being surrounded by water. Here’s a translation of the beginning of the poem:

The Whole Island
The curse of being completely surrounded by water
condemns me to this café table.
If I didn’t think that water encircled me like a cancer
I’d sleep in peace.

His girlfriend is an engineer who moved to Cuba from Mexico. “The world knows nothing about Cuba,” she told me. And the young man added, “The entire world is ten years ahead of us.”

I also met a young woman who had been able to travel to Spain for a graduate program for a few months. She quickly got used to having Internet access there. It takes so little time for habit to divest of their mystery the sacred forces with which we are in contact; it’s alarming. But when she had a month left to go, and she realized that she would be returning to Cuba, she was like Cinderella checking her watch at 11 pm. She frantically started to download everything she could — YouTube channels, Vimeo channels, documents, articles, everything — feeling as if she was running out of air.

This young woman is staying in Cuba because she knows she is making a difference. She is a media scholar who wants to help people younger than herself understand what the Internet is and what it can be used for — for good. She says Cubans who don’t care about Internet access — and there are many — don’t care because they don’t know what the Internet is.

I often ask people in their 20s how they describe the Internet. The answers I got in Cuba were disheartening like nowhere else. One said to me, “It’s a universe I can’t see.” Another related a story about an older man who had come up to her and said, “The Internet is like death. I’ve heard about it, but never experienced it.”

In Cuba’s misery, there is a lesson for the U.S.: Don’t take Internet access for granted, and work to ensure that it is as fast, cheap, and ubiquitous as possible. Today, world-class access requires fiber optics plus public WiFi everywhere. No one wants the curse of being surrounded by a heavy weight of water. That’s what life without sufficient access feels like.

Cover photo: Gareth Williams, via Flickr

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