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Havana's Hotspots

Cuba is coming online, but who will control its internet?

A midnight rain fell through the oak trees of Vedado, a neighborhood in Havana, onto the heads of a dozen people gathered outside a small hotel. The power was out. The only light on the block came from the screens glowing in their hands.

Weaker souls had taken off when the rain began to fall, but the stalwarts along the wrought-iron fence weren’t going anywhere. They had come to this corner among the faded manses of pre-revolutionary sugar barons and mafiosi to taste one of the rarest commodities in Cuba — the internet — at one of the wireless hotspots the government set up a few weeks before. They weren’t going to let a little signal outage, or a rainstorm, stop them from trying to get online.

Cuba New lead

Havana's Hotspots

Cuba is coming online, but who will control its internet?

By Jonathan M. Katz | Photography by Allison Shelley

A midnight rain fell through the oak trees of Vedado, a neighborhood in Havana, onto the heads of a dozen people gathered outside a small hotel. The power was out. The only light on the block came from the screens glowing in their hands.

Weaker souls had taken off when the rain began to fall, but the stalwarts along the wrought-iron fence weren’t going anywhere. They had come to this corner among the faded manses of pre-revolutionary sugar barons and mafiosi to taste one of the rarest commodities in Cuba — the internet — at one of the wireless hotspots the government set up a few weeks before. They weren’t going to let a little signal outage, or a rainstorm, stop them from trying to get online.

Over the last two decades, as the internet spread across the planet, Cuba has been in digital isolation. Only the most privileged or crafty have been able to get connections: just 4.1 percent of Cuban households had the internet as of 2013, the most recent data available, according to the UN International Telecommunications Union, and there is no public cellular data service. The only internet cafés are branches of the state telephone company, where customers can use an archaic terminal under the surveillance of a government worker sitting a few feet away. Even those with home dial-up can rarely access sites outside the national ".cu" domain.

Only the most privileged or crafty have been able to get connections

Since the United States and Cuba began restoring diplomatic relations last December, the socialist archipelago has been undergoing an experiment: a slight but steady increase in internet access. The Obama administration, which had been busy trying to sneak private internet connections into Cuba before the détente, has made boosting information technology one of its top negotiation priorities. On September 21st, it lifted restrictions on US telecommunications companies doing business in Cuba, spawning dreams of a telecom gold rush.

But there are other governments, companies, and people fighting to shape the country’s online future as well. There is the Cuban state, still wary of the internet as a dissidents’ tool or a weapon of capitalist empire. There are companies from fellow Communist regimes and autocratic states eager to put Cuba online. There are Cuban activists who have spent years demanding the internet as a fundamental human right. And then there are the Cuban masses, 11 million on the island, many of whom are now getting their first tastes of the internet and wanting more.

The concrete improvements so far have come from the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which put up the routers to create 35 new hotspots in July. For the first time, wireless access was available in a handful of public parks, near hotels and along the capital’s gritty seafront Malecón — for a price.

A dim streetlight flickered back on at the hotspot in Vedado, but the signal had yet to return. A young man leaning against the fence shook his head, dolefully refreshing a list of networks that showed only an HP printer from the adjacent hotel. Like most people at the hotspots, he had been video chatting with a loved one overseas — his fiancée off studying in Austin, Texas — until the power went out. He was a chef who hoped to join her there to take cooking classes and maybe get a job working in a restaurant. The wind blew, and a fresh spray of water came down from the trees. "We’re trying to plan my trip," he said.

Cuba Perez

Carlos Alberto Pérez, internet activist and proprietor of the blog La Chiringa de Cuba, or The Kite of Cuba

President Raúl Castro likes to blame the public’s lack of connectivity on the US trade embargo. But it has clearly been his government’s choice. Cuba is much richer than its Caribbean neighbors in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica, yet lags behind them all in internet access.

There is also more infrastructure in Cuba than the government lets on: party insiders discuss the latest online articles on state television programs. At the University of Information Science, built on a former KGB listening post outside Havana, students go online to learn computer science and programming. The school released its own Ubuntu-based Linux operating system in 2013. That same year, government technicians activated a 1,150-mile fiber-optic seabed cable from Venezuela. And though few Cubans have seen any benefits from the cable, the high speed is there when the government wants it: during Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba in September, journalists at the Hotel Nacional press center measured download speeds faster than 64.06 megabits per second. Verizon made headlines when it announced US customers can access data while visiting Cuba, but a spokesperson confirmed to me that Verizon is piggybacking on existing equipment. Many Cubans don’t know cellular data exists, much less that their country already has the capacity for it.

Cubans are making the most of the limited access. On blogs and behind the scenes, scholars, students, journalists, artists, and activists have built most of the meager Cuban corner of the open internet that exists today. In September, I traveled to the island to meet with some of these people sketching out the internet’s future, and to learn where they think the internet might be headed.

Up a steep staircase in Centro Habana, in a cramped apartment overlooking a sea of rooftop water tanks, I met with two of the most prominent advocates for internet access in the country: Carlos Alberto Pérez, the 33-year-old proprietor of the snarky blog "La Chiringa de Cuba," and filmmaker Yaima Pardo, who was leaning back in a plastic chair, holding her nine-month pregnant belly. A gray laptop sat on the meticulously clean desk where Pardo edited the 2013 documentary Offline, next to a microphone sent to her by the Norwegian embassy to record a tribute to World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee. A welcome breeze blew through the open window. The scaffolded dome of the National Capitol loomed in the distance.

Americans often think that the internet carries with it the seeds of US-style capitalism and liberal democracy — there’s a reason President Obama spoke of "travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba" in the same breath in his December 17th speech announcing the renewal of relations. Cuba’s feared Interior Ministry, known simply as MINIT, sees it much the same way, pegging many internet proponents as enemies of the state. That’s easier to do when it comes to the most famous blogger dissident; Yoani Sánchez, who received a State Department award in 2011 from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and has met with Obama advisors at the White House. Sánchez, who was arrested for a day in 2012, is trolled online by a state-sponsored blogger under the mocking name "Yohandry," who reprints official state-press articles alongside screeds accusing her of being a CIA stooge.

Yet the state has a much harder time dismissing those who advocate for greater connectivity from the left of the Castro government, such as self-avowed "Marxist, feminist, and Pastafari" Yasmín S. Portales-Machado, or the anti-capitalist / gay rights activist Isbel Díaz Torres. Members of this group are as skeptical, if not more, of US-based internet corporations than they are of the Castros. Torres was the first of several to suggest I direct questions about internet surveillance to the NSA.

Pérez and Pardo were both very moderate in tone — both say their goal is to improve, not overthrow, the system. Still, in a country where so much is about state and party control, any conversation about information and access is bound to get political. "When I made the documentary, I was trying to avoid entering into any kind of political discourse. But it was inevitable," Pardo, who is 35, recalled. "I just hadn’t understood until that moment the kind of hyper-control that the state wanted to have." Her film features interviews with internet activists and dissidents, warning that Cuba will lose any advantage it has ever boasted in literacy if it doesn’t expand the internet to everyone — a swipe that invokes tenets of state propaganda.

Cuba feature lead

Pérez and Pardo were happy that the new hotspots had been built, but grumbled about the cost and the slow speeds. If the government wanted the internet to be a public utility — like housing, food, or health care — the activists say the regime would subsidize it, or give it away free. Both spoke openly about the dangers faced by those the government deems threats — prison, fines, permanent unemployment — but neither seemed too worried for themselves. Pérez pointed out that we were talking with the door and windows wide open, showing confidence while acknowledging the risks of being overheard.

There was less self-assurance outside of Havana, where surveillance is deeper, neighbors’ suspicions more acute. One of the only ways for a young Cuban in the provinces to express himself online is to work for the state-run media. One 20-something told me that when he tried to set up a blog, his editor at a state radio station told him it would need to focus on his "personal perspective in the Cuban Revolution." On Twitter, he was expected to spend at least part of his time trolling government critics. He gave up after a few weeks.

Many of those fighting for better internet access believe these restrictions are an exercise in political control: the Castros’ inner circle watched Glasnost precede the Soviet Union’s collapse and protesters use social media to overthrow Egypt and Tunisia’s governments in the Arab Spring, and decided that allowing access wasn’t worth the risk. If that’s the case, Cuba’s fellow Communist regimes in China and Vietnam could present an attractive way forward — they have become major internet providers in other countries while heavily censoring the web at home.

The Cuban government openly shares its fears about the kinds of political change the internet could bring. In February, Cuban First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, a 55-year-old party lifer rumored to have the inside track to become the country’s next leader, told a Havana conference on the internet, "The State will work to make this resource available, accessible, and affordable for everyone." The hotspots opened a few months later. The government also promised to get broadband internet into half of Cuban households by 2020. Yet in that same speech, Díaz-Canel attacked the US government for "aggression to ideologically subvert our youth." Washington "supports its mercenaries with media, money, classes, trips, exchanges, and technology," he said. "Its plans for espionage and for its people to pervert these technologies is well known."

That they are. In 2014, the Associated Press revealed that the US Agency for International Development had tried (and failed) to launch a Twitter-like messaging platform in Cuba called ZunZuneo which, unbeknownst to its users, would have been aimed at undermining the government. At the time, USAID contractor Alan Gross was languishing in a Cuban prison after getting caught trying (and, again, failing) to set up illegal satellite internet connections at Cuban synagogues. Gross was released on the day Havana and Washington announced the resumption of relations, after five years in prison, 100 pounds lighter and missing five teeth.

Yet while the officials, spies, and activists fight each other, most of the Cubans managing to get online for the first time seem wholly uninterested in politics, or even news. "All these people were arguing about the danger to Cuba’s identity, that concentrating the power of the internet with the state was necessary because it would get attacked on the internet," Pardo said. "And nothing like that has happened."

"Go down to La Rampa," Pérez agreed, referring to the city’s busiest hotspot, on a street connecting Vedado to the Malecón. "You aren’t going to find anyone listening to music on YouTube or studying Wikipedia or checking the weather. Everyone is just chatting."

Cuba Internet stairs

One of the most common misunderstandings about Cuba is that it’s somehow literally stuck in the past. ("If Cuba is trapped in the 1950s, the internet of Cuba is trapped in the 1990s," Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt wrote after he visited last year.) The cliché is tempting after watching mid-20th century cars go by, reading the fading Marxist-Leninist slogans along the highway, or visiting the withered colonial architecture in Havana’s tourist zones. In dusty towns of the Cuban interior, a taxi in 2015 may still take the form of a decidedly unromantic horse and buggy.

But if you look closer, that ’57 Chevy’s engine is probably made of newer parts, and behind that colonial façade sits a parabolic antenna that residents use to illegally intercept foreign TV channels beamed to the big tourist hotels. Even the horse-drawn buggy might be tricked out with a new Pioneer USB sound system. Cuba is not just changing now. It always has been.

That’s the best way to understand the internet in Cuba today: a jumble of half-measures and workarounds avoiding the state’s restrictions and taking advantage of meager offerings. The Cuban émigré blogger Ernesto Oroza calls this hacker tradition the "architecture of necessity … a physical model that combines the individual and their needs with the materials, technologies, limits, and legal and economic possibilities." Far from being frozen in some early revolutionary past, the Cubans I talked to were tapped in — far more interested in news about the Islamic State, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump than rehashing the Bay of Pigs. I didn’t hear many opinions on the 1967 execution of Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Bolivia, but there were plenty on the murder of Jon Snow at Castle Black (low sample size Cuban consensus: he’ll be back next season).

Much of the information comes in offline, through phone calls and visits to relatives abroad, pirated TV signals, and dribs and drabs that make it through the state-run media. But thousands are also watching Juego de Tronos shortly after it airs on HBO. They get it on the paquete semanal, or weekly package — a fresh terabyte of movies, TV shows, video games, phone apps, articles, and advertisements that arrives on the computers of kingpins in Havana every Monday, then proliferates across the country on portable hard drives.

I went down to a seaside neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital to see how this worked. A paquete distributor in his late 20s, who works as a researcher in a state medical lab, greeted me on the front porch of the one-story home he shares with his parents. The deal is simple: each week he pays $5 to download the paquete onto his portable hard drive from a distributor higher up the chain, then he charges $1 to 20 or so regular customers to download from him.

Cuba internet card

While a late-summer storm roared outside, the distributor took me back to his gaming-optimized desktop computer decorated with stickers from Ghostbusters and Futurama. He clicked on a folder innocuously labelled with that past Monday’s date. Inside were reams of files. He showed off a high-definition copy of the new Fantastic Four, some anime about anthropomorphized rabbits and wolves dressed up as knights, and Spanish trailers for the new Mad Max and Metal Gear Solid V video games. There were also tons of ads for things to do and buy on the popular Craigslist alternative, where, in a throwback to newspapers, phone numbers and street addresses replace email as the dominant mode of contact.

When Cubans get Metal Gear Solid, many will play it on the "Snet," networks of hidden routers and illegal computer-to-computer connections that allow users to play multiplayer games and chat locally without a government-sanctioned home connection. Around since at least the early 2000s, this giant LAN party connects thousands, if not tens of thousands of computers.

Paquete and Snet users know they are operating at the boundaries of state tolerance. The distributors generally stay anonymous ("They don’t have a problem with the paquete today, but who knows about tomorrow," the dealer I met with told me, explaining why he didn’t want to me to publish his name). They also openly boast of scrubbing their networks of potentially subversive material. That includes pornography and anything the government might interpret as pornography — including articles and websites for or about lesbians, gays, bisexuals, or transgender people. Above all, it means finding and banishing any kind of overt political speech.

The results are squeaky clean, apolitical entertainment machines so popular with the masses that many don’t seem to care about not being able to access the open internet. It makes some wonder if the government isn’t running the paquete and Snet itself.

Compared to the paquete, the new hotspots only reach a handful of people. So far, they also serve a very different purpose — too slow and expensive to watch movies or surf the classifieds, they are instead used mostly for chatting, often on balky video connections. The new Huwaei routers support only about 100 users at a time. To get online, users buy a paper card featuring a buxom woman in a lotus pose, blue lines representing connectivity flowing into her veins. Users scratch off a 12-digit username and 12-digit password that they type into a pop-up screen to get online. The cards officially cost $2 per hour, but to skip the long lines, many buy them on the black market, generally at a dollar-per-hour markup. In a country where the average household income hovers around $20 a month, that’s a fortune.

Despite all this, the hotspots I visited were always full. To defray the costs, some users share the prepaid cards. Others use a pirated version of an app called Connectify to turn their devices into mini-routers, allowing multiple connections at once.

That has inspired some more low-level entrepreneurship. When I walked into a hotspot in a working-class borough of the capital late one night, a man in a highlighter-yellow tank top came over to ask if I wanted to get online. He pointed to two card tables, side by side, each with a bank of laptops splitting a single wireless connection among three or four machines. "$1 an hour," he told me — half the government’s price. But I’d have to wait. The computers were all rented out.

Cuba selfie

As governments wrestle for control of the internet’s future and citizens start to find their way online, corporations are eagerly eyeing a new market. From a US boardroom, Cuba looks like a vast, open space of opportunity, a "greenfield" home to millions hungry for entertainment, communication, and information. The right strategy, the thinking goes, could mint money and public relations gold while providing Cubans with stuff they want or need — a "win-win," in that glorious Americanism — or as sociologist Ted Henken said of Airbnb’s expansion into Cuba, a "win-win-win-win."

The reality is more complicated. Netflix was one of the first companies to tout its jump into Cuba after the rapprochement was announced, but its stockholders weren’t fooled: without internet connections or international credit cards, few Cubans were going to be able to subscribe, even if they wanted to part with two-fifths of their monthly income to keep up with Orange Is the New Black. Airbnb had more success tapping into the existing system of state-licensed bed-and-breakfasts known as casas particulares, though that arrangement has its critics, too.

From a US boardroom, Cuba looks like a vast, open space of opportunity

But all that pales beside the potential windfalls for whoever gets to wire the country for its great telecommunications leap forward. Google appears to be campaigning hard for the gig. Since Schmidt’s visit last year to promote "a free and open internet," several Google delegations have landed in Havana. A party headed by Brett Perlmutter, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant who works for the think tank Google Ideas, and Breanna Zwart, a Google employee who specializes in emerging markets, came in June.

Cuban journalists told me about Mountain View emissaries meeting with culture officials to discuss digitizing Cuba’s national archives. Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at Dyn, an internet infrastructure and research company, said a Google staffer called to pump him for details about the submarine fiber-optic cable from Venezuela. That may suggest an extension of the company’s Project Link, which so far has been aimed at bringing cheap broadband access to five cities in Uganda and Ghana.

Google repeatedly refused to answer any questions or provide information about its Cuba initiatives.

Cuba guys internet

The rumors surrounding Google’s plans surged in July, when José Ramón Machado Ventura, a senior Cuban official, told the state newspaper Juventud Rebelde, "There are some that would like to give us [internet] for free, but they don’t do it with the goal of letting the Cuban people communicate, but rather to invade us and do the ideological work to succeed in a new conquest. We have to have internet, but our way." He didn’t specify who had made the offer.

US government delegations have also come to push for unspecified telecom deals. A State Department team led by Danny Sepulveda, a deputy assistant secretary of state with the title of "US coordinator for international communications and information policy ambassador," arrived in March. This month Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker met with her Cuban counterpart for a "Regulatory Dialogue," urging "President Castro and his government to make it easier for Cuban citizens to trade and travel more freely, to enjoy the fruits of their labor, to access the internet, and to be hired directly by foreign companies."

The US government is even pushing forward with its own internet infrastructure on the island: a fiber-optic cable running along the seabed from Florida to the US Navy base at Guantánamo Bay that could someday connect to the rest of the island as well.

"We have to have internet, but our way."

But Madory said he doubted Cuba would go for an offer from anyone in the United States to build extensive infrastructure on the island. "I think there is still very strong paranoia in Cuba, perhaps well placed, about using a US vendor," he said.

Another example Cuba could follow is Myanmar, whose oppressive regime put its entire telecom sector for up sale to the highest bidder. The winners, Norway’s Telenor and Qatar Telecom paid the government $500 million each last year in exchange for 15-year licenses. Telenor plans to sink in as much as another $1 billion to build its networks before it starts making a profit. If such a bidding process opened up in Cuba, US companies could be pitted against someone like Viettel, the telecom arm of the Vietnamese military, which took over Haiti’s state telephone company after the earthquake there in 2010.

For a Myanmar-style deal to work, though, Cuba would have to be willing to give up control of the internet through the state telecom monopoly, Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba SA, or ETECSA, which many observers think is unlikely. If it won’t do that, that leaves one more set of possibilities: a friendly company — or government — that comes in, builds infrastructure, and leaves it in the Cuban government’s hands.

Havana School rooom

While the White House puts on pressure and Silicon Valley firms make their case for building the Cuban internet, the real work is getting done by China. The fiber-optic submarine cable from Venezuela, the ALBA-1, was financed by Beijing and built by Alcatel-Lucent Shanghai Bell. Huawei installed the Wi-Fi hotspots and provided the supercharged routers for the international media during Pope Francis’ visit in September. Cuba might not even have to negotiate a deal from scratch if it chooses the tech giant from Shenzhen to wire the country: Larry Press, a Cal State-Dominguez Hills professor who closely watches the Cuban internet, reported in September that Havana awarded Huawei a contract to build a national fiber optic cable network back in 2000. (Huawei did not respond to requests for comment either).

If Chinese companies continue to be Cuba’s internet provider of choice, it’s easy to imagine a criollo rendition of Beijing’s "Great Firewall," with all the censorship, limited access, and surveillance that implies.

"Cuba wants to go from a model that basically doesn’t need censorship on the internet because there practically is no internet" to using the web as an instrument of control, Henken, the sociologist at Baruch College in New York, told me. "We tend to erroneously think of the internet in the West as having automatic tendencies in terms of freedom … [but] instead of having the internet change China, China changed the internet."

Back at the top-floor apartment in Centro Habana, the internet advocates were resigned to that future. As Pérez and Pardo noted, Cubans are already accustomed to using alternatives to blocked sites — Revolico instead of Craigslist, EcuRed instead of Wikipedia, IMO instead of Skype — in the same way Chinese users have embraced Sina Weibo in place of Facebook and Twitter. And besides, they assured me, they were already used to surveillance, censorship, and pressure to self-censor.

A few weeks later, Pérez’s site went down, mysteriously replaced with a message that said the account had been suspended.

The disappearance was a reminder that no one knows better than the Cuban bloggers how a public space can at once be a place for sharing and moneymaking, freedom and control. "I would prefer [the Chinese model] to what we have now," Pardo told me with a sigh. "With that, we could do a million things."

UPDATE: This story has been updated with new information about the disappearance of Carlos Alberto Pérez's blog.

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Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist. His book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, won the 2014 Overseas Press Club of America’s Cornelius Ryan Award and was a PEN Literary Awards finalist for nonfiction.

Edited by Josh Dzieza