Feb 11, 2021 in Exploratory

History of the Internet in Cuba

For much of its recent history, Cuba had been a restricted country, maintaining relatively close ties only with other socialist states and frowning upon excessively overt relations with capitalist and fully democratic states. In these circumstances, the countrys leadership naturally resisted the inexorable onslaught of the trappings of capitalist states. The Internet essentially, one of the obvious and most flamboyant trappings of a mature democracy also failed to strike root in Cuba for the same reason. Until recently, the Internet in Cuba was a prerogative of only those who had enough means to pay for it in state-owned Internet cafes, as national legislation rendered private ownership of modems virtually impossible. It was only after Raul Castro succeeded his brother as the countrys paramount leader in 2008 that some cautious changes started to occur. Among other things, nearly 40 government-sanctioned wi-fi hotspots have recently sprouted across the country, offering largely untrammeled access to most websites and social media at a higher speed and lower cost. But the levels of Internet penetration, especially its penetration in public households, as well as the speed of Internet connection, its cost, and censorship of certain websites are still problematic. This paper will outline the history of the Internet in Cuba, explaining its evolution over the years. In addition, this paper will try to explain why the countrys leadership has been regulating the Internet and the impact that this has had on Cubans. Finally, this paper will explore the current situation around Internet availability in Cuba, prophesizing the potential impact that the lessening of restrictions will have on society. The preliminary findings suggest that meaningful changes concerning Internet availability in Cuba will not occur unless a democratic government and not one steeped in nepotism and prohibitive of opposition activities is established in this country.

Although invented in the 1980s, the Internet began to sweep across the world sometime in the 1990s. Cuban enthusiasts, too, experimented with international computer networking in the early 1990s, as the government failed to establish strict oversight over this area, perhaps because it still did not realize the potential challenges. According to Kalathil and Boas, Cuba established its first continuously operated direct Internet connection to the outside world in 1996. On the face of things, Cuba was keeping abreast with the rest of the world even though it did not become a pioneer in the realm of Internet developments. In the first ever email sent from the shores of Cuba, Jesus Martinez spoke of a new era that has dawned on Cuba and, struck with a bout of optimism, augured that the Internet would have a profound impact on Cuban individuals, organizations and society in general. Yet, his words have failed to materialize in the ensuing decades, as the countrys leadership hastened to address the challenges that the Internet posed to the legitimacy of its regime.


Indeed, one of the key reasons why the Cuban government bestirred itself to impose crippling regulations on Internet diffusion in the country was its rapidly growing obsession that the Internet would undermine its legitimacy. Thus, in response to the establishment of the first direct connection to the world in 1996, the Cuban government passed a decree that presumed the introduction of regulations that would guarantee its adequate and harmonious development, as well as the interests of the countrys defense and national security and created a commission to oversee the process. Couched in cautious language, this sentence essentially meant that the regime was worried about the threats that the Internet posed to the regimes own security. Indeed, the consulted authors agree that the Cuban government, while acknowledging some benefits of the Internet, regarded it as a tool of political subversion by the antagonistic west and the US in particular. , Lest criticism should appear too gentle to the US, these fears of Cuban leaders were not completely unsubstantiated. Indeed, as Kalathi and Boas explain, American policymakers had entertained the idea of using e-mail and later the Internet in general to promote an open society and pluralistic tendencies in Cuba. Cuban dissidents exiled in Florida and the rest of the US also used the Internet as a launching pod to spam their Cuban compatriots on the island with anti-regime propaganda. Apparently, the Cuban authorities had good reasons to anticipate negative implications of allowing unfettered access to the Internet. Yet, they could not forbid the Internet completely.

The first Internet cafes that opened in Havana in 1999 and 2000 did not offer unfettered access to the Internet. Kalathi and Boas argue that the authorities restricted access to these Internet cafes only to a select few categories of people, such as members of the Cuban Union of Writers and Artists, and ostensibly required other Cubans to obtain a letter of authorization from their employers. In other cases, the authorities simply set prohibitive prices per hour of Internet access to discourage the population. Over the next decade, many other Internet cafes sprang into existence in Cuba. Yet, they all have been subject to some regulations. For example, not all Internet cafes, in fact, offer connection to the Internet. Instead, some offer access to the Intranet that is, an Internet-like computing network that spans only Cuba and does not connect users to the global network. Even those Internet cafes that link users to the global network are often strictly censored by the authorities, with the most frequent butts of censorship being websites of the opposition. Overall, few Internet cafes in Cuba offer a comfortable experience to those users who can pay for this expensive service, as the speed of connection remains a big problem. In addition, the lack of privacy also militates against meaningful and unrestricted access of the Internet in Cuba. Indeed, to access the Internet in an Internet caf?, users need to provide their IDs first.

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Private access to the Internet from ones household has historically been even more problematic in Cuba. Thus, until 2008, when Fidel Castro stepped down as the countrys supreme leader, private ownership of computers and cellphones was subject to governmental approval. In other words, people desiring to buy a computer and connect it to the Internet had to obtain a permission from the government. This restriction was rescinded and the situation around private ownership of devices has improved since that time. Even so, the rise in private ownership of computers and other devices has not translated into a rise in private access to the Internet. Indeed, as of 2016, only 5% of Cubans can access the Internet from their households. If the rate of individual access to the Internet is taken as a yardstick, Cuba appears to be one of the most restricted nations in the world, even compared to other authoritarian states.

Importantly, however, the obsession of the Cuban government with the threats posed by the Internet to its legitimacy is not the only reason why individual access to the Internet in Cuba is so low. The thing is that Cuba has a very limited bandwidth with the global Internet, which is due to two major problems. First, after the collapse of the USSR, the Cuban government lost its primary international sponsor and did not have finances to bankroll the development of a proper Internet grid. In the same vein, it did not want to attract foreign investors for fear that this step would compromise the countrys sovereignty. Second, the US embargo that is still in place has hampered the development of Internet technologies in Cuba, preventing the laying of the much-ballyhooed undersea cable and rendering the price of computer and Internet technologies prohibitive. As of 2011, there were only 783,000 computers in the country of 11 million people. What is more, as a result of its limited bandwidth, the government has given preference of Internet access to government ministries, universities and schools, Cuban and foreign firms, professional organizations such as the official journalists union, mass organizations such as the Federation of Cuban Women and other similar institutions where the Internet is used on a collective basis (Kalathil & Boas, 2010, p. 55). Even so, affiliation with one of the aforementioned categories does not ensure free access to the Internet, as these organizations have to obtain a license from the authorities before being able to connect to the global computing network.

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Kalathi and Boas maintain that the Cuban authorities realize the benefits of the Internet for the development of the countrys educational, economic, political and social spheres. In fact, this understanding prompted the government to inaugurate a massive campaign to enhance computer literacy of its people in the 1990s. This program has withstood the test of time and is still active. On the downside, however, this computer literacy program often excludes lessons about the use of the Internet. In other words, the Cuban government carefully controls who has basic knowledge of the Internet. In these circumstances, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Cuban people have failed to take advantage of the cornucopia of possibilities presented by the Internet. Indeed, brought up on politically charged textbooks, Cubans seldom have the opportunity to use the Internet to find an alternative explanation for the processes taking place in their country and the world. Educational opportunities available online have also been limited for Cuban people. After the Arab Spring in the Middle East and the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine, it can now be taken as an axiom that the Internet facilitates sociopolitical activism in world nations. In Cuba, however, Internet censorship and low rates of Internet penetration have stultified political activism. Likewise, the Cuban economy has also suffered because of the low levels of Internet penetration. Because Internet access is strictly regulated and foreign business prevented from entering the telecommunications industry of Cuba, this industry has been floundering economically. In addition, Cuban businesses, while generally having better access to the Internet that the public, have nonetheless failed to avail themselves of online opportunities to expand their activities. Overall, even though Cuba positions itself as a peoples democracy, the Cubans, in fact, encounter many difficulties to exercise one of the basic democratic principles that is, free access to information.

After the ascension of Raul Castro to power in 2008, the outlook began to change. In 2008, for example, the government lifted its doubtful regulation that required people to obtain a license for the purchase of personal computers. In 2012, fees for the reception of calls within the country were eliminated the move that, by extension, led to a perceptible fall in Internet connection prices. The next year, frustrated with the delay of a highspeed undersea cable to the US, the Cuban government activated a similar 900-mile-long cable to Venezuela and opened more than 100 Internet navigation halls around the country. In 2014, the Cubans received an opportunity to send and receive e-mails via their telephones something that they could not do before. But the most important news in terms of its symbolism, at least came in December 2014, when President Obama of the US announced the restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba. Against the background of thawing relations with the US, Internet connection prices in Cuban Internet cafes, navigation halls and public wi-fi areas dropped substantially. Likewise, in 2015, the Cuban government pledged solemnly to expand home connections to the Internet to 50% of the population by 2020. But the most promising news came in 2016, when President Obama declared during his visit to Cuba that Google was cooperating with the Cuban authorities to bring broadband and wi-fi to the country. All these developments bode well for Cuban people, who have a strong craving for the trappings of a democratic world, including unfettered access to the Internet. The recent demise of Fidel Castro, while a sad news to many Cubans, may, in fact, herald the beginning of a new era the era characterized by greater democratic practices and better Internet connection.

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Overall, this paper has shown that Internet connection is one of the least connected nations on the planet. Cuban enthusiasts experimented with global computing networks in the early 1990s and the country established a direct connection to the Internet in 1996. Yet, between 1996 and 2008, Cuba had virtually shut itself out of the Internet. The Cuban regime feared, to the point of paranoia, that wide public connection would undermine its legitimacy and carefully controlled who would have access to the web. Additionally, because of the US embargo and its own financial difficulties, the Cuban government could not develop Internet technologies at the same pace as the advanced world. It was also chary of inviting foreign investors to fill the niche. As a result, Internet penetration in Cuba was negligent and Internet connection speed very low. Unreasonably high prices also distracted many potential users. Since 2008, as Raul Castro succeeded his brother as the countrys leader, the outlook has changed perceptibly. The government has been gradually lessening Internet regulations. Similarly, it has been more willing to cooperate with international partners to bring high-speed and cheaper broadband and wi-fi to the country. Yet, many problems mentioned above remain persistent, as the country lags behind the world in terms of Internet speed and penetration. The cautious democratization of Cuba bodes well for the future of the Internet in this country, but more needs to be done to achieve the results desired by the public.


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