Cuba On The Cusp

How technology is (slowly) allowing Cubans to be free-thinking citizens

Wi-fi is hard to find in Cuba, with only tourist hotels offering their guests access at a premium price. Much more common is to see tourists queuing for creaking connections at state run cyber cafes, where some sites are blocked.

Cubans are officially barred from having the Internet in their homes, just as they can’t have satellite TV with international channels. All domestic media is state owned with carefully controlled stories that don’t criticise Raul Castro’s regime.

But despite the restrictions Cubans are cut off from the outside world. Those that are given Internet access often sell access on the black market to others – by sharing passwords – to their dial-up connections.

Our guide on a trip described how slow it is to load these pages, to the extent that you could make a cup of tea before all the graphics are in place. Yet this process still allows Cuban citizens the chance to read a plethora of international news sites.

They also get round the fact that it’s illegal to own a satellite dish by teaming together with neighbours to buy channels. One might illegally get a subscription and then charge those living close to them access for 10 convertible pesos, who in turn could then sublet a connection for 5 convertible pesos.

These illegal connections can often become fairly sophisticated with a person owning a number of dishes, allowing their customers the opportunity to access different channels. Sometimes schedules are even published, meaning that if a neighbour switches to satellite dish X at X time they will know what international programme to expect.

We heard about the time when dish owners in one neighbourhood were warned on the grapevine that police were embarking on crack down. One day our guide said he saw hundreds of people clambering in their roofs so they could hide these illegal pieces of equipment. “It was raining electrical cables in the city,” he said.

Given the slow download speeds even those with some form of internet access need to resort to other means for specific music and films.

The so-called ‘package’ is extremely popular with Cubans who buy a hard drive each week with a range of current material. Our guide told us that the latest edition he received had everything from The Voice and Britain’s Got Talent to Breaking Bad and films that aren’t even out in the cinema in America, plus PDFs of international news magazines.

Thriving micro businesses have grown up over the years delivering the latest ‘package’ to their clients. Nobody seems to want to ask exactly the material is put together, they just appreciate that the service is offered.

Mobile phones are also becoming increasingly popular in Cuba, which were banned (along with DVD and computer sales) until 2008. And Cubans apparently want to get the latest models of smartphones – even though at present they can only use SMS and call (no Internet) functions.

Cubans are well educated (there is a literacy rate of 99.8%) – tuition is free from early years right up to those wanting to complete PHD levels. I found them, in general, to be extremely inquisitive and people that want to have a good understanding of the world.

And if our guide is anything to go by, they are not afraid to speak their minds. Committees of the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs) were created in 1960 as the “eyes and ears of the revolution” and now extend to 130,000 branches across the country (with a total membership of 95% of the Cuban population). Officials are said keep records of neighbours spending habits and contact with foreigners (as well as organising occasions like street parties), but their effectiveness of protecting wholesale the original values of the revolution has to be questioned given some of the illicit black market activities going on in Cuba today.

During the height of the Cold War pupils in schools were taught that people in the West were dying on the streets because they didn’t have enough to eat, while in states like Cuba everything was provided for. With access to the Internet a possibility for those that seek it out, that illusion can no longer be maintained (although older generations in Cuba are often still apparently likely to take everything the state tells them at face value).

In recent years there have new schemes have been introduced allowing citizens to work overseas for specific periods (especially if they a letter of invitation from a person living at their destination which effectively means they will be fined if they don’t return to Cuba). Furthermore the blanket travel ban for Cubans was officially lifted in 2012, allowing them to go abroad much more freely for the first time since 1961 (all there can still be complications with paperwork).

It still important to be careful not to insult the Revolution and the Castro brothers in a public place. I was told that nightclubs and other busy public places have police round ready to deal with any trouble makers who might want to grab the microphone and denounce the government. But as a tourist I didn’t feel in any way restricted in how I expressed myself.

Yes, it’s true that Cuba has a considerable number of political prisoners (the outside world doesn’t know exactly how many). But the state denies they are dissidents, calling them instead mercenaries. Those that fall into this group have chosen (like the Ladies in White that protest every Sunday) to take on the state in a very public way and are sadly paying the price, yet I am not sure they speak for the majority of Cubans.

The fact that things don’t always happen in real-time technology-wise shouldn’t be used to suggest Cubans are out of the loop. In today’s Cuba, modern generations will find out what they want to find out. They form their own opinions on things and – quietly, like my guide – know exactly what they think about the Castros.

Tomorrow: Religion in Cuba and the Revolution looks to the future

Categories: Cuba On The Cusp

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