As you now know,Obama has just gone to Cuba, the first US President to go there in many years. There is much to write about that visit including a wild run-up in rightwing outrage, especially over a photo taken of Obama with a painting of Che Guevara in the background.
One thing you will notice is that any article in the US or UK that discusses the Internet in Cuba will usually say that there is hardly any Internet in Cuba, that it is all restricted to the island and that hardly any Cubans have access to it anyway.
All reporting in the US and UK about Cuba is essentially propaganda, Cold War propaganda.
The war against Communism was one of the most serious wars that the capitalist class ever fought. If Communism won, everything they had, all their money, wealth assets and power, would be gone. The Communists and everyone and anyone associated with them, which in practice meant anyone on the Left at all, had to be defeated and not only that but destroyed. Anything was fair game in this fight to the death.
Mass propaganda was ubiquitous in the US during the Cold War because the capitalists thought that the threat of Communism was so great that all moral considerations had to go out the window and the ends justified the means. Yes, we say the ends justifies the means is immoral, but this is frankly the way that most humans operate. The ends justifies the means is the manner by which human life occurs and evolves, and it is just as present in modern civilization as it is in any primitive tribe.
“Anything to achieve our goal is ok,” is the human motto. In practice during the Cold War, this meant that an unbelievable amount of lying and distortion was allowed in coverage of the Cold War as long as it helped to defeat the Communists. This mass lying is still with us. No article about Cuba, North Korea, Belarus, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador or Argentina can be expected to tell anything near the truth.
The Cold War never ended because it was not just a war against the USSR. Even with no USSR, the Cold War had to go on. The Cold War needs to continue as long as there is socialism or a Left exists anywhere in the world. The Cold War was never really a war against the USSR. It was just sold to us that way. It was really a war against anything remotely leftwing from social liberalism through socialist all the way to Communism. The Cold War was 100% about economics and 0% about anything else.
By the Cavivache Media Team
The first things that come to mind are the lack of connection and its nonexistence when thinking of this equation. It’s true that a great number of Cubans have never connected to the Internet but in reality it is more nuanced then the (more often heard) statements that say, “there is no Internet in Cuba” or “people have no access to information in Cuba”. From informal networks to compilations that travel on flash drives, and a whole series of other alternatives, Cubans have known how to find solutions despite the economic difficulties and the inefficiencies of the institutions in charge of facilitating Internet connections.
In 2014, according to Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), the country had 271 Internet users for every thousand inhabitants, close to 27% of the population. It’s not clear if this percentage includes the users that are connected to the series of national networks that don’t have access to content beyond the .cu domain. The government gives these accounts to doctors, cultural workers and other professionals in diverse sectors. For years, outsmarting the proxies of these local networks became normal to users and there were even moments when there breaches and it was possible to navigate on the Internet.
In contrast to the previous data, other reports indicate that before the surge of navigation halls and Wi-Fi zones, connectivity to Internet on the island reached 5%, which is not a very trustworthy figure.
Regardless of the exactness of the previous data, on June 4, 2013, Cuba took a step towards a mayor access to Internet with the opening of 118 navigation halls in the country at the price of 4.50 CUC an hour (1 CUC is approximately worth 1.15 USD). Two years later on July 1, 2015, 35 Wi-Fi zones were inaugurated in different parts of the country, authorization was granted for Cuban users to connect to Wi-Fi from tourist centers, and the prices of connecting were brought down to 2.00 CUC an hour. All of these measures have helped considerably to increase the presence of Cubans on the Internet, despite not knowing too all of its capacities.
According to Mayra Arevich Marín, an engineer and president of Cuba’s Telecommunication’s Company (ETECSA) at the end of 2015 there were 339 navigation halls with 1,174 computers with which to connect. At the beginning of 2016, there were 65 public areas with Wi-Fi and they hoped to create the infrastructure to open 80 new public Wi-Fi hotspots. Arevich Marín declared that at an average, more the 150 thousand Cubans have access daily to the Internet through these means. She also added that by November 2015, there were 1.2 million Nauta e-mail accounts, an international e-mail service used on phones with data plans that serves as a useful variable because it does not require connecting to the internet.
In any case, the statistics of the number of users that connect using Wi-Fi will never be completely trustworthy since many people share their connection through their cellphones or using apps like Connectify that allow for several users to connect from a single account. It’s a service that is usually resold in Wi-Fi hotspots as the slowest of options, which most people don’t know is also, insecure, but is definitely cheaper.
Apart from this “pure Internet” several national platforms exist in Cuba that have been developed since the 1990s in order to organize and connect prioritized sectors for the country’s development. For example, more than forty thousand doctors connect from their homes to Infomed, a network dedicated to medicine, that is part of Cuba’s intranet that despite its problems makes quite a contribution to their field. Infomed has several services like e-mail, virtual libraries, download of ftp (file transfer protocol) archives, scientific blog platforms, and social participation groups. Overall it’s a community dedicated to medical scientific advancement.
Another web portal is Cubarte, which is focused on sharing cultural information and services by artists and cultural professionals. In 2013, there were eleven thousand accounts on this platform, that among its services, apart from e-mail service it also has websites, bulletins with news articles on culture and a calendar that is updated often and can work by text messages. Like Infomed, it is far from perfect but has been a useful tool, although it hasn’t been used to the fullest in the process of connecting and developing the cultural sector.
Tinkering with the Internet in Cuba
Many people use the IMO app to communicate with family and friends. Photo: Fernando Medina / Cachivache Media
When you visit parks, hotels and other public areas with Wi-Fi hotspots in Cuba, there is a recurring scene: people — many people — talking euphorically into the air, pointing a phone to their face and in the best of cases, connected to a pair of earphones. The cause of all this behavior is IMO, a free app for phones that is used to make video calls and that Cubans use to talk with family and friends abroad. There are no public statistics on the number of Cubans using IMO in our country but the usual scene we described gives an idea of its popularity.
María Isabel Domínguez García in her research on Cuban Youth: Challenges and Opportunities for Current Cuban Society, published in 2013 by the Group on Youth Studies and the Center for Psychological and Sociological Research, did a survey on information technology and communication in which young people in between the ages of 11 and 24 or 88,2% declared having used Facebook at some point.
A less conclusive data but that still demonstrates how familiar Cuban youth are with social media, is the number of likes on the pages of some of the main stars of international football. On a fan map published by Facebook, Cuba is the tenth country in giving likes to Lionel Messi, third for Iker Casillas, eighth for Andrés Iniesta, fourth for Gerard Piqué and twelfth among followers of David Villa. This doesn’t confirm that they are regular users, but does affirm the existence of at least a first contact between Cuban youth and the platform created by Mark Zuckerberg.
Google Trends offers more references to how Cubans use the Internet. For example, from 2011 to 2014, Univision’s reality show Belleza Latina was at the top of search hits for Cuba. The soap operas in season also had an important place as well as the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, The 2012 London Olympics and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In 2015, the year that navigating the web through the Wi-Fi hotspots exploded, the prize went to IMO, the video call app mentioned previously along with the login and exit pages for the Nauta accounts, which is another sign of the use of the Wi-Fi hotspots.
The Weekly Package
The informal consumption of audiovisuals has become common practice in Cuba. Photo: Fernando Medina / Cachivache Media
The Internet is not the only or even the most important source of information and connection for Cubans. In face of the impossibility of users to connect to the Internet, the development of new technologies in communications and information took a very particular path in Cuba in the field of entertainment. This phenomenon that was born in the era of Betamax and VHS tapes as an informal consumption of audiovisuals has been updated with the arrival of USB’s. In this world of informal consumers, the phenomenon known as the Weekly Package has become one of the most popular and best-structured variants in the country to combat the lack of connectivity.
Very succinctly, the Weekly Package is a compilation of information of 1 Terabyte that is regularly updated. Its distributors “emulate” the universe of content in the web, that just like on the Internet, you will find all types of materials: movies, shows, talent shows, TV series, soap operas from different countries, animated cartoons, YouTube videos, news, web pages that have been saved with national and international news. It comes with cellphone apps (iOS and Android), programs for different operating systems, videogames, documentaries (Cuban and foreign), programs from Cuban television, books, magazines, music, Cuban and foreign music videos, among other things.
The makeup of this content reproduces the usual patterns of diffusion in the entertainment industry: more than 60% of the products in the Weekly Package are from the US, with programs from the leading channels in the US like HBO, CNN, Cinemax, ESPN, Fox, ABC, CBS and Discovery. Despite its mimetic character in terms of cultural diversity, because of its wide scope the Weekly Package, has so many options that its ends up satisfying the needs of amusement for most people.
Access to this is quite simple. In its usual form, the whole terabyte of information cost 2 CUC, although in Havana, 70% of those surveyed for a thesis research project, declared never having paid for it at all. Prices fluctuate due to various factors, such as the distance that distributors must travel, how up to date the materials are, and how much information is bought since most people only have flash drives with capacities of in between 8 and 32 Gigabytes. They then select only the content they want to see.
According to numerous reports, the creation and distribution of the Weekly Package works through a nucleus of people who divide the tasks among themselves and take responsibility for getting the different materials generally downloaded from the Internet or captured through satellite antennas. Later a selection is made and the terabyte is prepared. These providers charge in between 100 and 400 CUC for their services every week. However there isn’t a single model, but several in which many people and music studios include their own content and change accordingly with their interests.
Many of the Weekly Package’s distributors are legally covered under a license for disc vendors, a general patent provided by the Cuban government to those distributing audiovisual materials. Despite being subject to copyright laws, its protection doesn’t seem to be a priority to the Island’s authorities.
According to different researchers, among the main motives for seeing the Weekly Package are the entertainment and the access to information. Even though Cuban television regularly shows movies from the US, many of which are blockbusters that have yet to come out on US channels, the Weekly Package is much faster to get and comes is higher definition. It also works as an offline version of Internet, where users select the materials they want and when they want to see them. A study from 2014 by the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television’s Center for Social Research revealed that less than 40% of people in Havana used the Weekly Package.
As of now, the Cuban government has created other alternatives such as The Backpack or the Educate Yourself, which try to offer alternative models of cultural consumption. Due to several issues that range from problems in the selection design to the presentation of the product itself, the result of these efforts have been a failure.
Mobile devices have become one of the main forms of digital consumption in Cuba. Photo: Fernando Medina / Cachivache Media
Other alternatives to being disconnected
Recently Cachivache Media wrote a piece about the Street Network (SNET), an informal and self-managed network that connects all the municipalities of Havana through wireless or by LAN. It extends itself from the municipalities of Bauta all the way to Cojimar (about 30 miles).
But SNET is not the only network of its kind in Cuba. Outside of Havana, many other municipalities also have informal and self-managed networks where alternative versions of social networks, game platforms, discussion forums, the usual ftp, as well as the Weekly Package and other diverse initiatives like specialized magazines and local information can be found.
Another option used by Cubans to talk and share content is Zapya. It’s an application that has become an offline space where people share contents of all sorts, especially applications that don’t have to be paid for. Zapya is also used to chat, a sort of social network where the user can decide to stay anonymous or not, share photos and talk about any theme. One of its most controversial uses has been its use for sexting and sexual hook-ups, which because of a lack of basic knowledge of cyber security, there have been cases of harassment and abuse.
The panorama just described is part of an increase in the last few years of a series of projects that focus on offering services and satisfying the need to take advantage of new technologies, adapted to the lack of connection on the Cuban scene. There are leading examples by Cuban entrepreneurs like Vistar and Play Off, magazines that are respectively dedicated to culture and sports. Suenacubano is a platform for sharing Cuban music and then there are mobile apps like ConoceCuba, a compilation of cultural interests, EcuMovil, a mobile version of the online Cuban encyclopedia Ecured. There is also AlaMesa, a restaurant guide and Ké hay pa’ hoy? Which is a cultural guide (these last two are available on Google Play).
Finally, are we connected or not?
Cuba has a sui generis reality where the lack of connection is not synonymous of the neither cultural nor informative isolation. Despite the scarce penetration of the internet, that keeps us isolated from important economic, scientific and cultural processes, Cubans have known how to find solutions in order to somehow stay connected to the world. Either through the Internet provided by the government or the different initiatives of several Cuban entrepreneurs, it has allowed for Cubans to stay in tune with what happens “abroad”.
As a result, the tastes of consumers on the Island aren’t very different from the rest of western culture. All the rumors, records and news from European football, whose games are shown frequently on Cuban TV, are lived with the same emotion as in any home on the Old Continent. In any cafeteria or taxi, the top hits from Billboard can be heard. Only five days after House of Cards 4th season came out on Netflix, it was already being shared on flash drives in Havana.
Yet there is much to be to done in making full use of the Internet’s tools and to domesticate or Cubanize this network of networks. In matters of culture and information, we have only a short delay, but just that. The idea of a blind and deaf Cuba, a sort of El Dorado that is waiting to be discovered and discovering of the world is very much far from reality.