Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Internet In Cuba: Strict Control And Excessive Prices

The Internet In Cuba: Strict Control And Excessive Prices / Iván García

Iván García, 30 January 2017 — Five or six abstract oil paintings are
tastelessly jumbled together in the living room of a house in the west
of Havana, next to a collection of laptops and ancient computers
waiting to be repaired. We can call the owner Reinaldo.

A clean-shaven chap, who has fixed computers, tablets and laptops for
twenty years and also, quietly, provided an internet service on the side.

"I have two options. Dial-up internet at 50 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC
– roughly $50 US) a month. And via ADSL at 130 CUC. The transmission
speed of the modem is between fifty and seventy kilobytes a second.
With ADSL, the speed is two megabytes. It has the advantage of being
free (i.e. unlimited), as it is rumoured that two MB connections will be
marketed by ETECSA, the government-owned telecoms company, at 115 cuc
for 30 hours," Reinaldo explains.

No-one is surprised by anything in Cuba. Clandestine businesses are
always two steps ahead of what the state comes up with. Many years
before the olive green people legalised private restaurants and
lodgings, people had been taking the chance of running such businesses

And something similar is happening with internet business. The spokesmen
for the ETECSA monopoly — the state run telephone and communications
company — strongly deny it.

When, on 4 June 2013, the government opened 118 internet rooms all over
the country, Tania Velázquez, an executive in the organisation,
announced that "by the middle of 2014, we will start to market the
internet for cellphones and, by December, at home."

It was a bluff. While we are waiting for ETECSA to get the internet for
cell phones started, what we have now is ETECSA's Nauta email for cell
phones, running on out-of-date 2G technology, too many technical
problems, and initially they were charging 1 CUC a MB.

Just over a month ago, they lowered the price to 1.50 CUC for five MB,
calling it Bolsa Nauta. But the service is dreadful. "You wait five or
six hours to send an email, and the message never leaves the outbox.
They are robbing you, as they sometimes charge your account without
having offered any service. My advice is to disconnect Nauta from your
cell phones as quickly as possible," says Marlén, who opened an account
two years ago.

Marketing the internet at home service is two years behind what Tania
Velázquez promised. Just after Christmas 2016, ETECSA started to provide
free internet via ADSL to two thousand families with fixed residential
phones around the Plaza Vieja, in Havana's colonial quarter, as a pilot,
until the month of March.

"The connection is better than the wifi hotspots. Although it sometimes
runs slowly. You need to have a conventional phone to receive the
internet service. It isn't true that you have to belong to the CDR, or
Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, or be working. I don't know
if dissidents will be able to opt for the service when they start to
sell it. Although the prices will be "thank you and goodnight."

An ETECSA engineer, working in an internet distribution centre in the
capital states that "the prices for internet at home are bollocks.
Saying that they will charge 30, 70 and 115 CUC, the dearest tariff, for
30 hours, and depending on the bandwidth, is unofficial. They are
looking at setting up a flat charge and also a charge per hour. The
prices will be high, but not what the foreign press claims, because an
hour at two MB would cost nearly three CUC, and users of half that would
prefer to connect to a wifi point. There will be various speed options.
The highest will be two MB," says the engineer.

The military dictatorship has designed a structure capable of
controlling the internet. Before the internet landed in the island,
where previously the finca rusa, a Russian-built electronic spying base,
known as the Base Lourdes, operated. Fidel Castro inaugurated the
University of Information Science on the San Antonio de los Baños
highway on 23 September 2002. In addition to exporting software, its
functions include the rigorous monitoring of internet traffic in the

The internet started to operate in Cuba in September 1996. One of the
first public internet rooms was located in the National Capitol
building, charging $5 an hour. The connection was painfully slow and was
not provided by ETECSA, but by CITMA, the present Ministry of Science,
Technology and Environment.

The internet was also offered in four and five star hotels, at between
$6 and $10 an hour. In the winter of 2011, the coaxial network on the
island was connected to a submarine cable, at a cost of $70 million, and
jointly planned with Venezuela and Jamaica.

"The cable was quite a story. It had everything. Embezzlement, poor work
quality, various company officials jumping ship. Leonardo, one of the
people implicated in the misappropriation of funds, stayed in
Panama. The Obama administration authorised a Florida-based company to
negotiate with ETECSA. The proposal was to renovate an old underwater
cable. The project cost about $18 million. But the government, citing
digital sovereignty, opted to do the cable with Venezuela. It is that
cable which is providing the present service," explains an engineer who
worked on the ALBA-1 project.

The Cuban secret services have tools for hacking into opposition
accounts and spying on the emails of the embassies in the island,
including the US one.

"You must not under-estimate the technical capacity of the
counter-intelligence. Almost nothing works in Cuba, but they have the
latest technology for their work. Since the time of the EICISOFT (Centre
of Robotics and Software) at the end of the '80's, the Ministry of the
Interior has had specialists in new technologies. Maybe they can't get
into Apple systems, but the rest is easy peasy. They now have advice
from Russia and China, which is amongst the best in the world when it
comes to hacking," says an ETECSA specialist who prefers to remain

According to our informant, "Nothing gets past them. They have a
complete arsenal of spy programs and an army of information analysts to
crack dissidents' accounts and keep an eye on social networks like
Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Everybody who travels the
information highway is under their microscope. Whenever ETECSA opens a
new internet service, the State Security monitoring tools are already in

For Cubans whose breakfast is just a coffee, account privacy doesn't
matter much. It's normal for people to lend their cellphones
to strangers. Or to give out their passwords to show how to work their
emails. "I don't care if the State Security is watching me. What
interests me is getting off with girls on Facebook, arranging to get
out with the help of workmates who have already got to the US, and
finding out stuff about CR7, as Cristiano Ronaldo is known, and Real
Madrid," says Saúl, undergraduate.

The thing is, in Cuba, the internet is, with few exceptions, a means of
communicating with your family "across the Pond" (i.e. in Florida). You
will see that when you go to any wifi hotspot. "Hey guys, look at the
new car Luisito's just bought," a kid shouts to a group of friends in
the Parque Córdoba hotspot in La Vibora.

"Look, what matters for most people is asking for money by email,
talking to family and friends by IMO, the Cuban equivalent to WhatsApp,
using the internet to read about famous artists and sport personalities,
and other unimportant stuff like that. Not serious media or websites
published abroad about Cuban issues," is the realistic view taken by
Carlos, a sociologist.

You can read periodicals from Florida, the New York Times in Spanish,
and dailies like El País and El Mundo, without any problems. But not
sites like Martí Noticias, Cubanet, Diario de Cuba, Cubaencuentro or

"But you can reach them with a simply proxy," says Reinaldo, who, as
well as repairing computers, sells internet service on the side. And he
takes the opportunity to explain the technical features of a gadget he
has for sale, which lets you connect to the internet via satellite,
without using ETECSA's servers.

How do such gadgets get to Cuba? I ask him. "Through the ports and
airports. The government controls the state economy and also the black
market", he tells me. And I believe it.

Photo: The wifi hotspot outside the old El Cerro Stadium is one of the
few where you can calmly and comfortably connect to the internet, due to
the park they put up because of the presence of Barack Obama at a
baseball game, when the US ex-president visited Havana on 20, 21 and
22nd of March, 2016. Taken by the New Herald.

Translated by GH

Source: The Internet In Cuba: Strict Control And Excessive Prices / Iván
García – Translating Cuba -

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