The internet in Cuba is so bad that Cubans had to invent their own.
A few years ago, some computer gamers based in Havana strung a small web of ethernet cables from house to house so they could play video games together. The network continued to grow quietly, and today it’s called StreetNet: a bootleg internet for Havana with more than 10,000 users. It was an innovation forged by necessity in a country where only 5 percent of citizens have access to the uncensored internet. Watch the video to learn why Cuba’s internet is stuck in 1995.
Cuba has some of the worst internet access in the world, with just 5 percent of Cubans able to access the uncensored web.
Since the communist revolution of 1959, the Castro regime has enforced a strict ban on all forms of information flow that challenge official policy and history. Enforcing such censorship has been relatively easy for an island nation that has a monopoly over all media outlets. But when the internet arrived in the ’90s, it complicated matters for the Castros.
Cuba’s first 64KB/s internet connection came to life in 1996, making it one of the first countries to connect in the Caribbean region. Cuban technicians were resourceful, educated, and motivated to connect the country, which led to a surge in initial infrastructure development.
That surge soon stalled as the government realized the ramifications of allowing such a decentralized and uncontrollable network into the lives of the Cuban people. “The wild colt of new technologies can and must be controlled,” warned Communications Minister Ramiro Valdés in 2007, summing up the regime’s policy toward technology over the previous decade.
Getting online in Cuba
Connecting to the web in Cuba has historically been a matter of money and power. Some government insiders have dial-up internet in their homes. But for the rest of population, getting online has meant paying around $9 for one hour of internet access in state-run internet cafes. This in a place where an average salary is just over $20 per month.
Alternative methods include poaching wireless internet from hotels, which can be done if one person gets his hands on the wifi password and shares it. Many hotels in Havana now have security guards whose responsibility consists of shooing away these internet parasites from the sidewalks and benches surrounding the hotels.
“Cuba is like a pressure cooker. Frustration builds from all the lack of basic freedoms, and eventually the regime has to let out a little steam to keep everyone happy,” says Jose Luis Martinez of Connect Cuba, an advocacy group based in Miami.
In July, the regime let out a little steam by installing 35 wifi hotspots throughout the island. Now, to connect, you can buy an access card for $2, which will give you one hour of access to the uncensored internet. These access cards are usually sold out, which has led to an informal street market where cards go for $3 or $4.
Is this an improvement? Perhaps. But 35 expensive hotspots for 11 million people is certainly not a significant step toward a freer internet. “Imagine if you told the island of Manhattan that they could only access the internet with 35 wifi hotspots. There would be riots in the street,” says Martinez. “This is not progress.”
The hotspots are located in tourist-dense downtown parks, not in places where typical Cubans spend their time. Martinez thinks the regime is creating the facade of progress to quell international criticism. “They are good at playing the international PR game, but this is still a very, very small step,” he says. “I’m not hopeful.”