This week, doctors in Cuba made historic news when they became the first in the world to stop the transmission of HIV from pregnant women to their babies. This puzzle, taken on by the global medical community decades ago, was finally solved by Communist doctors on a small island in the Gulf of Mexico. Great news. But it's going to be a challenge for these doctors to share their methods and research: they have effectively no access to the Internet.
The doctors are not alone. Most Cubans have little if no access to the global communication structure that is online. Since the Internet was first run to Cuba in 1996, the government has kinked the pipeline, intentionally slowing the transit of information to a crawl. When Raul Castro took over for his uncle Fidel, the constraints on information relaxed. But even after the announcement earlier this year that the U.S. was restarting diplomatic relations (and announcement this week that embassies will open in each country), access to the World Wide Web has gotten no wider. Despite the fact that Castro represents a much friendlier brand of dictatorship, it's no wonder that Cuba is still behind.
The Truth about Cuba's Internet
There is a distinct difference between literal and living facts. There is literally access to most, if not all, of the Internet, and there is cell phone service, however limited. But the flow has been so hindered that most access is effectively curtailed. The Internet has been intentionally slowed for most Cubans so that it’s nearly impossible to use. Inflated costs are an added hurdle: 5% of Cuban households have access to the Internet all day, while 95% of Cubans are paying by the hour to access the internet at centralized, government owned locations.
By strangling access to the Internet, Cuba is actually far more efficient than China when it comes to restricting access to information. Where China must constantly quell attempts to subvert their government, Cuba disincentives usage of the entire tool. There’s no need to pick through the world news and block inappropriate articles one by one when the average citizen must wait hours in line for fewer than an hour or two a week on the Internet. And that hour is far less productive in Cuba than it is in the U.S. Serena Marshall, reporter for ABC, describes her time in Cuba and interacting with their Internet apparatus, pinpointing the problem through the uploading of a single photograph for her digital team. “The file was around 30 MB,” writes Marshall. “It took nearly an hour to upload it to Google Drive. When I returned home, that same file took less than five seconds to upload.” Users in Cuba become their own firewall, ignoring sites like YouTube that require day-long file downloads to watch a single video, opting instead for a few minutes on Facebook, or the ability to send a couple of emails.
Avoiding a Revolution by Constricting Access
One of the reasons for Cuba’s kind of isolationism is the potentially infectious nature of representative government. The Arab Spring saw an incredible amount of turmoil brought on by large groups’ abilities to communicate in real time. All political organizations require, truly, is the ability to communicate. When ideas spread, and spread quickly, they can take on their own power.
Starting in 2010, more than 15 countries throughout the Middle East and Africa have seen everything from protests to the overthrowing of multiple governments in a short period of time. These countries are far larger than Cuba, but they have what Cuba lacks—the ability to communicate. The whole world has watched while media coverage scrambles to keep up with tweets coming out of the hot zones of these conflicts. Protests and battles are planned over social media, texting, and phone calls, all made possible through portable communication. Each revolution has been encouraged by its neighbors, inspired by the previously impossible successes that lift the fog of doubt off the path to representative government. In Cuba, where the Internet is mostly state-centralized, incredibly expensive, time consuming to gain access to, and staggeringly slow, they needn’t worry about communication between their people. But it isn’t limited for everyone.
You Get Internet if the Government Likes You
Yoani Sanchez, a Cuban blogger that many describe as a dissident, frequently calls her home country "the Island of the disconnected." Both the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) have findings that would support Sanchez’ nickname for Cuba. Since 2006, the CPJ has named Cuba one of the ten most censored countries in the world, and the fourth worst country for bloggers. Cuba goes out of their way to support pro-government writers whose work will be hosted on local websites that are easily accessed by any users. Critics must find other places for their work that will be subject to the crawl of Cuba’s Internet access. The ITU has a special term for countries who are as limited as Cuba: “Least Connected Countries,” or LCCs. These are measured against every other country in the world, and Cuba is the only LCC in the Americas. LCCs are not named comparatively by region. Yes, Cuba is the worst offending LCC in the Americas, but its inclusion on this list isn’t to be representative of the Americas—it’s there because earns the distinction on the world stage.
Although this has been the status quo for nearly two decades, since the Internet first came to Cuba, this week there was a glimmer of hope. According to a leaked State Department document, the US hopes to help Cuba reach “no less than 50% of households with access to broadband Internet by 2020.” In her reporting for The Huffington Post, Sanchez explains that this is far less than what Cubans had planned for themselves, and over a much longer timeline. With the opening of Cuba’s borders, companies like Google, Verizon, and AT&T see the small country as a new cash cow, and they're all in the early stages of developing foundations for their services. It will happen. Change will come. The country requires updating to compete on the new international stage. But with access to the Internet will come a change in their politics. We’ve seen it before, and we will see it again. But until the communication floodgates open and the borders become more than lines in the ocean, there’s no way to know how the changes will take hold.