Cuba: the island of the disconnect

Cuba: the island of the disconnect

This post was written by GRI analyst Daniel Lemaitre and guest author Ana Caridad.

Cuba is considered the “least connected” country in the Americas. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) ranks the country 125th out of 166 countries worldwide in its Measuring the Information Society Report. According to the country’s National Statistics Office, in 2014, 27 per cent of Cubans had access to the internet. 

However, the number is misleading, as it includes people that can only log onto a government-controlled Intranet of state-approved websites. High prices, slow connectivity, and extensive government regulation have contributed to the disconnect. Although mobile phone and smartphone penetration is on the rise, Freedom House estimates that only 5 percent of Cubans actually have access to the open Internet. Home connections are practically nonexistent, and only granted to a lucky few—government officials, academics, doctors, engineers, and regime-approved journalists. Resolution 92/2003 prohibits email and other ICT service providers from granting access to individuals who are not approved by the government, and requires that they enable only domestic chat services, not international ones. In February 2015, the government canceled the Informed national browsing and email service for some doctors and dentists because their emails had been used to publish classifieds on the popular website Revolico, a website similar to Craigslist used to sell products in the black market.

For everyone else, there are expensive government-run Internet cafes and Wi-Fi hotspots managed by the state phone company, ETECSA. An hour of connection in legitimate Wi-Fi areas can cost between $2 and $10, a prohibitive amount of money where the average monthly salary ranges from $20 to $60. With access to the internet costing roughly one-tenth of the average monthly wages, Cubans have found ways to bring the online offline.

In the last couple of years, private entrepreneurs known as Cuentapropistas have surged in Cuba, representing a little more than 9 percent of the active labor force, including some 430,000 legally registered self-employed operating throughout the island. The growing private sector is addressing the high unemployment rates and providing the Cuban public and international tourists with a widening range of more attractive goods and services. The majority of Cuentapropistas, roughly 68 percent, were previously unemployed, 15 percent were retired, and only 17 percent had jobs in state-run enterprises. Data also suggests that 36 per cent of the registered Cuentapropistas are young entrepreneurs.

Even with highly restrictive regulations, Cuentapropistas are fueling Cuba’s rapid entrance to the digital age. In a country where the state is ever-present, this new class, accounting for roughly 9% of the labor force, has proved tremendously resilient and innovative. The rapid proliferation of internet penetration in the past decade despite the state’s heavy handed prohibition of digital content implies that access to the internet, although only informally, will continue increasing in the years to come.

If current trends continue and the Cuentapropista culture continues to democratize the internet by bringing the online offline, web penetration rates might become irreversible, thus forcing the government’s hand to accept liberalization. The gradual entrance of United States consumers to the Cuban tourism industry might also lead to a more rapid pace of internet liberalization. Investment opportunities in the burgeoning telecommunications industry might also incentivize a more rapid pace of liberalization and increasing access to the web for the domestic market.

Within the realm of creative services provided by these entrepreneurs a person-to-person distribution network to share digital contents offline has emerged. Much of the largely offline nation simply receives internet by hand. “With one person connecting to the Internet, a hundred, two hundred, five hundred or thousands are actually accessing information,” said activist and blogger Yoani Sanchez during a talk at the 2013 Google Ideas Summit in New York City.

One of the Cuban novel solutions to the disconnect is El Paquete Semanal, the Weekly Package. El Paquete is distributed widely on thumb drives, and consists of a terabyte of data including the latest, newspapers, music, movies, TV series, mobile phone apps, magazines and even a classifieds section known as Revolico, similar to Craigslist, where individuals sell products in the black market. Every week, contents are loaded onto the disks and drives and widely distributed. Despite being underground, its national distribution scope covers hundreds of thousands of Cubans. Users pay between $1 and $2 dollars for the Paquete each week, depending on how much they choose to copy onto their computers.

The Paquete has become so popular in Cuba that it has paved the way for the creation and expansion of new media ventures. Among these is Vistar Magazine, a monthly digital magazine that covers the culture, show business and entertainment in Cuba, closely following new talents and artistic projects. It has a website and an app for iOS, but its main distribution is made through the Paquete.

Other services include Alamesa, and Isladentro, platforms created with the purpose of disseminating information on Cuban culinary culture, restaurants, and services. These platforms have websites and apps available for IOS and Android operating systems, and  operate as guides for all types of businesses, restaurants, places of interest, artists and projects—the equivalent of an offline Yelp. They also provide an offline GPS system. These platforms are available through the Paquete and private cellphone workshops, and allow private businesses such as restaurants, photographers and beauty salons the opportunity to reach their prospective clients via the Paquete.

All of these creative ventures have become a part of an alternative digital revolution in Cuba, where highly-educated and information-hungry individuals have found ways to bring hundreds of Cubans without internet access information just hours after they’ve become available online elsewhere in the world.

 

Ana Caridad currently works for an international NGO focused on promoting democracy and human rights. She holds a dual M.S./M.A. in International Service and Conflict Resolution.
Daniel Lemaitre is a GRI Senior Analyst. He has worked in policy research centered on the political economy of the Andean region in the public, NGO, and private sectors. Daniel holds an MSc in Comparative Political Economy from the London School of Economics, concentrating on Latin American markets.

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