The Cuban Web. Venceremos!

May 29, 2013

Cuba's painfully long, slow, incremental emergence from the electronic dark ages continues with the news that the state telco, Etesca, is, at long last, to provide expanded public access to a heavily restricted and controlled version of the Internet via 100 new so-called "cyber-salons" that will be sited in towns and cities across the length and breadth of the Caribbean's biggest island.

As far as ordinary Cubans are concerned there has been some liberalisation and lifting of state control over electronic equipment and media since, in 2008, an ailing Fidel Castro finally relinquished the presidency and handed power over to his similarly geriatric sibling Raul. For example it is now possible for citizens to buy DVD players and even some mobile handsets - provided they have enough hard cash to pay the comparatively enormous prices charged - but access to the Web remains restricted, heavily censored and immensely expensive for all but the privileged political elite.

Nonetheless, any slackening of the ropes is welcome and, with effect from Tuesday next, June 4, 2013, ordinary Cuban citizens will be able to gain better and greater access to a version of the Internet.

That said, and as might be expected, the process will be tedious and bureaucratic. Potential Internet users will have to register an interest in having either a temporary or permanent Internet account with Etesca. If they pass muster (the vetting and authorisation process "may" take up to a month for each individual supplicant) they will be given an ID and registration rights to use one of (what will by then) be 118 Internet salons.

Hitherto. the man and woman in the Cuban street has effectively been unable to gain any access to the Internet because the web has been the preserve of the government and Party elite, some businesses, overseas companies (predominantly Spanish) and foreign tourists. Holidaymakers staying in Cuba's idiosyncratic hotels are routinely charged an arm and a leg for the privilege of having slow and spasmodic access to a sub-set of the Web. Some people such as trusted writers and scientists do have archaic dial-up Web access but these state-sanctioned second-tier of the elite are as rare as hen's teeth.

According to the latest ITU figures, Internet penetration in Cuba is just 2.9 per cent of the population (now estimated to be about 12 million) but some 16 per cent can get access to limited and heavily policed email via schools, universities, factories, officially sanctioned computer clubs and Cuba's overcrowded, overused post offices which function as much as social centres as they do as an arm of the state communications network.

When the late Hugo Chavez was president of Venezuela, Cuba benefited from highly preferential treatment in terms of the provision of oil and other necessities and, in 2011, was linked to the country by a new fibre-optic sub-sea cable. It is believed this cable is the backbone that will provide the expanded "high-speed" Internet access to Cuba.

The Cuban government says that better and wider connectivity "is consistent with Cuba's stated strategy of continuing to facilitate more and more access to new technologies, depending on the availability of resources and with a focus that favours social use."

If the experiment with the cyber-salons is successful, it is expected that more will be provided.

That said, people hare hardly likely to be banging the doors down to get on to a terminal. In a country where basic food remains scarce and is still rationed 54 years after the revolution and where the average wage is just the equivalent of US$20 a month, few will have the wherewithal to pay the $4.50 an hour (that's almost a quarter of a months income) to browse a censored version of a sub-set of part of the Web.

However things in Cuba are slowly getting better. I was there during what was euphemistically described as the "special economic period" after the Soviet Union collapsed and the $11,600 per annum subsidy per head of population Moscow had been paying the Cuban government for decades suddenly dried up, throwing the island nation into stark poverty and deep economic crisis.

One day I was in the dusty office of the Head of Police in the western province of Pinar Del Rio when he needed urgently to speak to a counterpart in Havana. This is the police remember. It took him 40 minutes to get dial tone on a preferential emergency line and when he finally got through to the capital, the call failed. It took over an hour for him to get dial tone for a second time and when he did at last get through the man he wanted to speak to had gone home and didn't have a telephone at his residence. Sums it up really.

I spent getting on for two and a half hours looking at a fly-blown wall covered in pictures of Fidel and Che surmounted by a macrame work done by the chief's daughter. And this was after a train journey from Havana that was scheduled to last five hours but actually took 24!

It was an exciting, bizarre and Kafka-esque experience that I will tell you about one day. All I will say now is that it was, quite literally, unbelievable. I have knocked around the world a bit but have never, ever known anything like it for applied, inescapable madness - from start to finish. The people were absolutely fantastic though - and absolutely fatalistic. In Cuba the concept of 'manana ' is on a different cosmic scale to the rest of the world.

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