The Cuban regime, more wary of bloggers than traditional dissidents, decided to expand its online presence to combat them. Now that Venezuelan fibre optic cable is available on the island, the authorities have what they need to improve connection speeds and lower costs. There are fewer and fewer excuses for maintaining censorship or keeping the population away from the Web. Are we witnessing signs of a Web Springtime, now that the journalists persecuted during the Black Springtime of March 2003 have all been released from prison?
Fibre optic cable in Cuba: Unprecedented potential for growth?
According to the authorities, nearly 10% of Cuba’s population is connected to the Internet. That does not necessarily mean that they have access to the World Wide Web. Two parallel networks co-exist on the island: the international network and a closely monitored Cuban intranet consisting only of an encyclopaedia, email addresses ending in “.cu” used by universities and government officials – a sort of “Cuban Wikipedia” – and a few government news websites such as Granma.
Outside of hotels, only a few privileged individuals have a special permit to access the international network. Yet even the latter does not escape censorship, which is mainly directed against dissident publications on foreign websites, but has been relaxed to some extent since early February 2011.
The regime does not have the means to set up a systematic filtering system, but it counts on several factors to restrict Internet access: the exorbitant cost of connections – about 1.50 U.S. dollars per hour from the points of access to the state-controlled intranet, 7 U.S. dollars per hour from a hotel to access the international network (even though the average monthly salary is 20 U.S. dollars), and lastly infrastructural problems, particularly slow connections.
These obstacles explain why the number of Internet users and the time spent online remain limited. Most cybernauts try to just read their emails and answer them. They do not have the time to navigate the Internet or surf websites. For years, the regime has been blaming the American embargo for the lack of a good Web connection on the island, claiming that it prevents the country from accessing international networks. That problem is about to be solved, thanks to the ALBA-1 fibre optic undersea cable which has been linking Cuba to Venezuela since February 2011, thereby increasing 3000-fold Cuba’s capacity to connect to the rest of the world. It is scheduled to be put into service in July 2011.
Until then, international network connections will continue to be made via satellite, at immoderate costs. Theoretically, fibre optic cable should lead to lower Internet access prices and improve connection speeds.
It is unlikely, however, that Internet access will be democratised and made available to the general population.
The authorities are cautious when commenting on this new development. In February 2011, Cuba’s Vice-Minister of Information and Communications, José Luis Perdomo, pointed out that cable “is not a ‘magic wand,’” and that granting Cubans access to the Internet will require a substantial investment in its infrastructures. He also said that there is “no political obstacle” to offering such access. For the time being, this access to the Web will remain reserved for “social use” by institutions, universities and certain categories such as doctors and journalists. He stated: “Our priority is to continue the creation of collective access centres in addition to strengthening the connections in scientific, university and medical research centres.”
A genuine black market has been prospering in Cuba in which offers are made to buy or “rent” passwords and codes used by the few individuals and companies whom the incumbent party has cleared for Internet access.
Navigating the Net costs 50 U.S. dollars per month and receiving/sending one email message costs 1 U.S. dollar in some “hacker centres.” Illegal users find it safer to connect only at night.
Some international network connections can be accessed from foreign or private residences.
Certain dissidents tweet by sending SMS via foreign-based accounts, while others insert foreign SIM cards into their cell phones to access the Net. While netizens will stop at nothing to pass on information, it can come at a high cost. Freelance bloggers do not have direct access to their websites, which are not hosted on the island. They are have to rely on friends abroad to publish their articles and posts. They do that by following a well-tested procedure: they prepare their content in advance, copy it onto a USB flash drive, and send it by email from a hotel or other location, because dissidents are more and more frequently denied entry into tourist hotels. USB flash drives, which are also being passed from hand-to-hand, are the new vectors for freedom of speech in Cuba – the local “samzidats.”
Demonising bloggers and social networks: A digital cold war?
In 2009, the regime became wary of the growing popularity of certain bloggers, notably Yoani Sanchez. The latter has been repeatedly assaulted, interrogated and targeted by genuine slander campaigns, while other bloggers, such as Luis Felipe Rojas, have been arrested several times.
Cuban dissident and cyberjournalist Guillermo Fariñas Hernández (“El Coco”), winner of the 2010 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded by the European Parliament, was arrested three times in less than 48 hours in January 2011. His only wrongdoing is that he has been militating in favour of the right to inform and to circulate news freely.
The legal arsenal used against online opposition to the regime remains particularly harsh and dissuasive. Cuban netizens risk punishment of up to twenty years in prison for posting an article deemed “counter-revolutionary” on an Internet website hosted abroad, and five years for illegally connecting to the international network.
The problem is becoming increasingly urgent as the authorities fear the social networks’ mobilisation power even more after witnessing Tunisian and Egyptian examples of it. Some U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks in December 2010 revealed that the Cuban regime is more afraid of bloggers than of “traditional” dissidents.
In a 15 April 2009 telegramme, dissidents were described as forming “a movement as old and out of touch from the lives of ordinary Cubans as the regime itself.” A cable dated 20 December 2009 stressed, to the contrary, that bloggers are “a much more serious threat” to the Cuban government. The United States views the reporting by Cuban netizens of their arrests and mistreatment as an invaluable political tool, because the latter represent “a group which frustrates and scares the Cuban government like no other.” “The bloggers’ mushrooming international popularity and their ability to stay one tech-step ahead of the authorities are causing serious headaches for the regime.” The U.S. diplomat concluded: “We believe that it is the younger generation of ‘non-traditional dissidents’ that is likely to have a greater long-term impact on post-Castro Cuba.”
Another telegramme noted that “Younger individuals, including bloggers (…) are much better than traditional dissidents at taking ‘rebellious’ stands with greater popular appeal” – an assessment that Cuban leaders seem to share. Since February 2011, a one-hour or so video has been circulating on the Internet (vimeo.com/19402730) in which an unidentified Cuban expert explains in detail how the American enemy is funding Cuban cyberdissidence.
Using as an example blogger Yoani Sanchez, he asserts that “she is organising a virtual network of mercenaries who are not traditional counter-revolutionaries.” The expert urges that these new forces be neutralised, stressing that “being a blogger is not bad. They have their bloggers and we have ours. We’re going to fight to see which of the two turns out to be stronger.”
Government reprisal: Occupy the field
The authorities are now striving to expand their presence on the Web: an official Cuban bloggers association was formed in 2009. The number of “pro-government” bloggers is said to be constantly rising, and may be as high as several hundred. In February 2011, the Reuters press agency reported that Cuba had some 1,000 “official bloggers.”
Any possible links between the Havana government and hackers who target Cuban websites and blogs hosted abroad, among others, are under heavy scrutiny.
Since the regime’s strategy is to “drown” dissident bloggers in a flood of pro-government bloggers, the government no longer needs to keep such a tight rein on the former, and can afford to make some concessions. Since 9 February, forty-some opposition blogs and Internet pages, among them Yoani Sanchez’s Generación Y, are accessible again from the island for those who can connect to the international network. According to this blogger’s statements to the foreign press, Cuba may owe this breath of fresh air to the 14th Informática - International Convention and Fair, held in Havana from 7 to 11 February. What remains to be seen is whether this deblocking will last.
The authorities’ negative track record with regard to censorship accounts for dissidents’ doubts that the Internet will ever be accessible throughout the island. According to Yoani Sanchez, “the cable optic fibres are already engraved with the name of their owner and its ideology. This undersea connection seems destined more to control us than to link us to the world.” However, with this cable, “it will be more difficult to convince us that we cannot have YouTube, Facebook or Gmail,” she pointed out, specifying that “no one will prevent us from using this cable to do something very different from the plans of those who bought it.”
For the middle or long-term, some people are banking on Chinese-type progress: Web growth for economic reasons, with more access for the population, while maintaining political control. A glimmer of hope remains: Cuba has announced that it wishes to switch from a Windows to a Linux operating system. This initiative may enhance the technical expertise of Cuban IT specialists, who will then be in a better position to circumvent censorship.