Cuba: Long live freedom (but not for the Internet)!

Ministry of Informatics and Communications

The arrival of fibre optics in the island via the ALBA-1 submarine cable from Venezuela and the unblocking of some websites have offered a glimmer of hope, but Cuba still denies most of its population free access to the Internet. The Castro government has developed its own control model based on a local Intranet, sky-high Internet access costs and an all-pervading government presence.    

“Anti-revolutionaries” censored

The country’s censorship agency is the Revolutionary Orientation Department (DOR), which filters all news and information published by the official media, based on criteria set by the party. In other words, all content deemed “anti-revolutionary” is automatically blocked. These censorship regulations are not confined to the Internet. They are based on provisions in the criminal code that criminalize insults, slander, libel, abusive language and affronts to the authorities, institutions of the republic and heroes and martyrs of the nation, among others.

The ministry of informatics and communications was formed in 2000 to ensure the revolutionary ideology preached by the DOR is implemented on the Internet. Little information is available on the censorship technology used by Cuban authorities. The University of Information Science and the country’s telecoms operator ETECSA, which is also the sole Internet access provider, both have censorship and monitoring departments that support the actions of the ministry. The blocking of Internet content is carried out by ETECSA.


One step forward, two steps back

In 2011, the government made some concessions, such as unblocking some websites like the portals Desde Cuba and Voces Cubana which hosted blogs by government critics such as the Generación Y ( blog run by Yoani Sanchez.  However, this small step was cancelled out by the arrest of a dozen bloggers and netizens in late 2012, including Calixto Ramon Martínez who was released after spending seven months in prison. Arrests were less frequent in 2013, but it must be noted that change in Cuba takes place inch by inch and the situation remains at a standstill.

In 2008, the Internet penetration rate was just 1.2 percent. Since then the number of access points appear to have been increasing. In June 2013, 118 new “navigation halls” have been opened, according to the authorities.  However, connection costs remain prohibitive, equivalent to one-third of the average monthly salary of about $21 U.S for access to the government-controlled Intranet.

The authorities maintain that in 2013 four Cubans in 10 regularly logged on to the Intranet, allowing access to email and some official websites. However, the independent news agency Hablemos Press estimates this figure at only two in 10. The Internet proper is available in international hotels but remains available only to tourists who can afford to pay up to $10 U.S., two weeks’ salary for the average Cuban.

Internet connections are almost always monitored. Cubans must provide proof of identity to access the national network and browse under the watchful eye of CCTV cameras and surveillance officers stationed in Internet cafes.

The computers are equipped with software such as Avila Link, developed in Cuba, which are designed to shut down at the slightest hint of dissident behaviour.  Independent Cuban news sites hosted abroad, such as Payo Libre, Hablemos Press, Cubanet, Cuba Encuentro and Martí Noticias are on the blacklist and cannot be accessed, even from international hotels.

Cuban authorities have long blamed the problems with Internet access on the U.S. embargo, but the activation of the ALBA-1 fibre optic cable makes this argument obsolete and highlights the authorities’ desire to control the network and their fear of making the Internet freely available. High-speed Internet access via ALBI-1 is used only for some government functions.

If official statements are to be believed, 2014 will be a good year for accessing the Internet in Cuba. ETECSA plans to start installing ADSL lines by the end of the year in locations that already meet the technical requirements. However, the necessary infrastructure and funding are sorely lacking.

The telephone network is under-developed and entirely controlled by the national telecoms provider ETECSA. In these circumstances, it is difficult to see that the arrival of ADSL will have much effect. A plan was announced in January this year for Internet access via the cell phone network, made easier by a new system for paying for online packages from abroad. Not just a new opportunity for Cubans, it is also an economic strategy to bring foreign exchange into the country.

Nonetheless, some analysts see a trend towards greater openness and the news site Cubanet, based in the United States, has forecast seven technological developments over the next year, including the ability to access the Web via cell phones and the development of wifi on the island, and the opportunity for activists to learn about online security thanks to travel reforms that took effect in January last year.

Bloggers branded “mercenaries of the U.S. Empire”

In the 2012 edition of its “Internet Enemies” report, Reporters Without Borders highlighted Cuban propaganda which continually attacks bloggers that criticize the government, accusing them of being mercenaries working for the “U.S. Empire”. They have been the targets of a campaign of smears and defamation in the state news media and on external propaganda websites and blogs, such as Blogueros y Corresponsales de la Revolución and Las Razones de Cuba.

A U.S. government cable published by WikiLeaks in 2009 suggested the government feared bloggers more than other activists, these days more than ever.  When the blogger Yoani Sánchez decided to return to Cuba after spending time travelling abroad, she announced she planned to create a platform for free news and information in Cuba. “The worst that could happen is that they close us down on the first day, or block our access to the Internet,” she said. “But perhaps we shall also sow the first seeds of a free press.”

In response to the problems of Internet access, information is passed from person to person using a USB memory stick, and some people have tried to set up illegal access points. But agents patrol the streets to track down and destroy satellite antennas, and the risks for individuals are serious. Antennas are placed every 5 square kilometres to jam the signals. Netizens are sometimes able to send Tweets blind using SMS messaging, with no guarantee that they will appear on Twitter. The micro blogging site is regularly blocked by ETECSA, sometimes for months at a time.

Bloggers and contributors to opposition websites such as Hablemos Press and Payo Libre are forced to send content via various diplomatic missions to post on sites hosted abroad.  Others, such as the Miami-based site Martí Noticias, have correspondents on the ground.

Those involved in news and information inside Cuba are regularly the targets of raids on their premises and arbitrary arrests. They include Mario Echevarría Driggs, David Águila Montero, William Cacer Díaz, Denis Noa Martinez and Pablo Morales Marchán, who were detained for several days in October 2013.

Angél Santiesteban-Pratz, a writer and author of the blog Los hijos que nadie quiso, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in February last year. Last month, at the end of his first year in prison, his lawyer was suspended for six months. Santiesteban’s blog still keeps Cubans informed about his fate, thanks to activists outside the country.