Internet Access in Cuba

In 2011, a United Nations report argued that by curtailing their respective populations’ access to the Internet, some governments were committing serious human rights violations and breaking international law. The report went on to condemn state suppression of online political dissension in particular, and urged governments everywhere to do everything in their power to facilitate free, secure and ubiquitous access to the Internet within their own individual boarders.

With the International Telecommunication Union reporting only 3.4 percent of Cuban homes maintaining online connectivity in 2014, the Castro regime is failing miserably at promoting what is increasingly being viewed around the world as a vital domestic utility.

This failure is, to a significant extent, intentional; outside of government facilities, universities, public institutions, public Internet cafes (called Nauta), hotels and some restaurants, wireless internet access is strictly prohibited in Cuba by the Castro regime. In those instances when access is permitted, the information that regular Cubans are able to obtain is highly censored and most emails are monitored. Only those prominent citizens with special permission from the Cuban Ministry of Communications are able to purchase private WiFi routers for their homes and enjoy unfettered access to online materials. Even so, illegal connections to WiFi networks in Cuba are common, with savvy hackers regularly utilizing signals from hotels and public facilities to access the net and all of its contents. The perceived need to suppress political opposition is a major factor in the Castro regime’s policy of limiting domestic internet access according to a 2011 Human Rights Watch report.

American USAID contractor Alan Gross -who was recently released by the Cuban government in a prisoner swap after several years of imprisonment- was initially arrested in Cuba in 2009 for circulating illegal satellite phones and computer equipment designed to circumvent Cuban Internet restrictions among Cuba’s Jewish population. His efforts -for which he was being paid around half a million dollars by the American government- were part of a protracted campaign by the U.S. government to undermine Cuban Internet restrictions and thus weaken the Castro regime. From 1996 through 2011, the U.S. congress appropriated $205 million to fund USAID and State Department efforts to “promote democracy” in Cuba according to a 2013 U.S. Government Accountability Office report -though this figure doesn’t take into account the classified activities and budgets of certain U.S. intelligence agencies like the CIA. A significant portion of these efforts were devoted to expanding Internet access in Cuba.

Clandestine attempts by the U.S. government to promote illegal online connectivity among the Cuban population have yielded questionable results. What has proven fruitful with regard to advancing this and several other goals is the U.S. government’s recent diplomatic rapprochement with the Castro regime. In the wake of moves by both governments to normalize relations in December -and the aforementioned prisoner swap that freed Alan Gross-, the Cuban government announced that it will begin offering public WiFi access via smartphones, tablets and laptops to all Cuban citizens this month through its state-run ETECSA telecommunications company.

Unfortunately, these services will only be offered in the Cuban city of Santiago (de Cuba) initially and will be priced at a whooping $5.00 per hour. In a country were most workers earn an average of $20 a month, this steep price tag ensures that Internet access will remain a luxury rather than a human right, for the foreseeable future at least. Still, the move is a step in the right direction.

Increasingly, online connectivity is being viewed as a necessary component to the development of dynamic economies and vibrant civil societies throughout the world. Few technological advances -with the possible exception of the invention of the printing press- have been more revolutionary than the Internet in terms of enhancing the lives and power of common people. For a purportedly revolutionary popular government like the one in Havana to actively limit its population’s access to this groundbreaking medium is shameful. Hopefully, the Castro government’s recent move -limited as it is- to expand Internet access is an indicator of greater reforms to come.

Source(s): 1) “Cuba to test public WiFi for the first time” RT (January 11, 2015): accessed January 13, 2015 http://rt.com/news/221599-cuba-wifi-internet-test/
2) Circles Robinson “WiFi in Santiago de Cuba at Killer Prices” Havana Times (January 11, 2015): accessed January 13, 2015 http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=108521
3) David Kravets “U.N. Report Declares Internet Access a Human Right” WIRED (June 3, 2015): accessed January 13, 2015 http://www.wired.com/2011/06/internet-a-human-right/
4) Robert Farley “Here’s The Part Of Alan Gross’ Story That Obama Hasn’t Been Talking About” HuffingtonPost (December 24, 2015): accessed January 13, 2015 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/24/alan-gross-cuba_n_6377774.html
5) Human Rights Watch “World Report 2011: Cuba” (2011): accessed January 13, 2015 http://m.hrw.org/sites/default/files/related_material/cuba_1.pdf
6) Claire Voeux and Julien Pain “GOING ONLINE IN CUBA : Internet under surveillance” Reporters Without Borders (October 2006): accessed January 13, 2015 http://www.rsf.org/IMG/pdf/rapport_gb_md_1.pdf

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