Status: Not Free
Obstacles to Access: 25 (0–25)
Limits on Content: 32 (0–35)
Violations of User Rights: 33 (0–40)
Total Score: 90 (0–100)
Despite the slight loosening of restrictions on the sale of computer and mobile-phone equipment in 2008, Cuba remains one of the world’s most repressive environments for the internet and information and communication technologies (ICTs). There is almost no access to internet applications other than e-mail, and surveillance is extensive. Nevertheless, a nascent community of bloggers has emerged on the island, creatively using online and offline means to express opinions and circulate information about Cuban society.
Cuba was connected to the internet for the first time in 1997, and the National Center for Automated Interchange of Information (CENIAI), the country’s first internet service provider (ISP), was established that year. However, the executive authorities continue to control the legal and institutional structures that decide who has access to the internet and how much access will be permitted.1
Obstacles to Access
Though the government has claimed that all Cubans have access to the internet, according to the ITU, only 1.3 million people – 11.5 percent – had access to the internet in 2008. 2 However, it should be noted that this number is also potentially over inflated as it includes those who had access to the Cuban intranet only, but not to the global internet. A closer estimate is that 240,000 – 2.1 percent – of the population had some level of access to the world wide web in 2008.3 Restrictions on access have been exacerbated by tight government control over related equipment. The sale of modems was banned in 2001, and the sale of computers and computer accessories to the public was banned in 2002. Exceptions could be authorized by the Ministry of Internal Commerce if the items in question were deemed to be “indispensable.” This policy changed in early 2008, when the government of President Raul Castro began allowing Cubans to buy personal computers. Individuals can now legally purchase a computer and connect to an ISP with a government permit. Nonetheless, high costs put both the internet and mobile phones beyond the reach of most of the population. A simple computer with a monitor averages around 722 convertible pesos (US$780) in retail stores, or at least 550 convertible pesos (US$600) on the black market.4 By comparison, the average monthly Cuban salary is approximately 16 convertible pesos (US$17).5 These computers are generally distributed by the state-run Copextel Corporation, which imports communications, computing, and other ICT equipment. An internet connection costs between 6 and 12 convertible pesos (US$9 and US$15) per hour.
According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Cuba had a mobile-phone penetration rate of only 2.9 percent (approximately 327,000 users) as of 2007. However, the government eased restrictions on mobile-phone purchases in March 2008, and reduced the sign-up fee by half, though it still represents three months of wages for the average worker. It is estimated that Cubans signed some 7,400 new contracts for mobile phones in the 10 days following the lifting of the ban, and according to the state-run newspaper Juventud Rebelde, an estimated 480,000 cellular lines were in use by year’s end.6 ETECSA, the state-controlled telecommunications company, predicts that there will be 1.4 million new mobile contracts over the next five years.7 Mobile phones do not include internet connections, but it is possible to send and receive international text messages with certain phones.
TTT he government divides access to web technology between the national intranet and the global internet; most Cubans only have access to the former, which consists of a national e-mail system, a Cuban encyclopedia, a pool of educational materials and open-access journals, Cuban websites, and foreign websites that are supportive of the Cuban government.8 Cubans can legally access the internet only through government-approved institutions, such as the approximately 600 Joven Clubs de La Computacion (Youth Computation Clubs) and points of access run by ETECSA; users are generally required to present identification to use computers at these sites.9 Many neighborhoods in the main cities of Havana and Santiago advertise “internet” access in ETECSA kiosks, but field research has found that the kiosks often lack computers. Instead they have public phones for local and international calls with prepaid phone cards. The government also claims that all schools have computer laboratories; in practice, however, internet access is usually prohibited for students or limited to e-mail and supervised activities on the national intranet.
Individuals who do access the internet face paralyzingly slow connections, and tests conducted on the island found that just two e-mails could be sent per hour using Yahoo! mail. Multimedia applications were inoperable. This was the case even at universities, where the connections are slightly better than at ETECSA access points.10 One segment of the population that enjoys approved access to the internet is the professional class of doctors, professors, and government officials. For example, 3,000 e-mail accounts had been issued to medical institutions by 2001, and facilities like hospitals, polyclinics, research institutions, and local doctors’ offices are linked via an online network called Infomed.11 However, even these users are typically restricted to e-mails and sites related to their activities. Beginning in 2007, the government systematically blocked core internet portal sites such as Yahoo!, MSN, and Hotmail. This ban was extended to blog platforms and blog commentary technology during certain periods in 2008. As a result, Cubans cannot access blogs written by their fellow citizens. Moreover, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) remains blocked in Cuba, with the exception of illegal points of connection in old Havana. Some social-networking platforms such as Facebook are accessible in university cybercafes.
There are only two ISPs, CENIAI Internet and ETECSA, and both are owned by the state. Cubacel, a subsidiary of ETECSA, is the only mobile-phone carrier. In 2000, the Ministry of Information Science and Communication was created to serve as the regulatory authority for the internet, and its Cuban Supervision and Control Agency oversees the development of internet-related technologies.12 In May 2008, Deputy Minister for Information Science and Communication Boris Moreno said “Cuba is not concerned with the individual connection of its citizens to the internet. We use the internet to defend the Revolution and the principles we believe in and have defended all these years.”13 The government argues that access restrictions are a direct consequence of the U.S. embargo, which prevents Cuba from connecting to underwater cables and forces it to use expensive Chinese and Venezuelan satellites instead.14 It has been estimated that the cost of laying a fiber-optic cable from Havana to Florida, to allow high-speed connectivity, would cost as little as $500,000.15 In the meantime, Cuba and Venezuela signed documents in 2006 for the purpose of building and operating a fiber-optic cable linking Cuba and Venezuela (as well as Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago) and amplifying Cuba’s internet connections by 2010.16 It remains unclear whether the Cuban government will truly allow widespread access once the infrastructural impediments are removed.
Limits on Content
Rather than engaging in the technically sophisticated blocking and filtering used by other repressive regimes such as China and Tunisia, Cuban authorities rely heavily on lack of technology and prohibitive costs to limit users’ access to information. The websites of foreign news outlets—including the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Le Monde, and the Nuevo Herald (a Miami-based Spanish-language daily)—and human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch remain largely accessible, though slow connection speeds impede access to the content on these sites.17 Sites and writings that are considered anti-Cuban or counterrevolutionary are restricted. These include many of the Cuban dissident sites based in the United States and abroad, and any documents containing criticism of the current system or mentioning dissidents, supply shortages, and other politically sensitive issues.18 Blogs written by Cubans residing in Cuba are also inaccessible. For example, sites such as cubanet.org, payolibre.com, bitacoracubana.com, cubadebate.com, and prolibertadprensa.blogspot.com cannot be accessed at the youth computer centers. It is a crime to contribute to international media that are not supportive of the government, a fact that has led to widespread self-censorship. Cuban blogs typically feature implicit or explicit elements of self-censorship and anonymity. Many of those working closely with ICTs are journalists who have been barred from official employment, and the prohibitive costs surrounding the technology represent a major obstacle for them. The majority of their work is done offline by hand, typewriter, or computer, then uploaded and published once or twice a week using a paid internet access card. For those contributing to international outlets, content can be dictated via costly international phone calls.
Despite all of these barriers, Cubans still connect to the internet through both legal and illegal points of access. Some are able to break through the infrastructural blockages by building their own antennas, using illegal dial-up connections, and developing blogs on foreign platforms. The underground economy of internet access also includes account sharing, in which authorized users sell access to those without an official account for one or two convertible pesos per hour. Some foreign embassies allow Cubans to use their facilities, but a number of people who have visited embassies for this purpose have reported police harassment. To date there have been no reported cases of Cuban activists using mobile phones or SMS (text messaging) to organize events or disseminate political information. However, there is a thriving improvisational system of “sneakernets,” in which USB keys, CDs, and DVDs are used to distribute material (articles, satirical cartoons, video clips) that has been downloaded from the internet.
The lack of a proper internet connection remains Cuban bloggers’ biggest challenge, according to Roger Trabas, cofounder of the Bloggers Cuba website. In September 2008, Trabas organized the first meeting—dubbed Blogging on Our Own—designed to bring together the island’s bloggers and those involved in online journalism.19 There is no exact count of blogs produced in Cuba, but the Cuban Journalists’ Union (UPEC) has reported a current total of 174. Examples include Yoani Sanchez’s famous blog Generación Y, which draws 26 percent of its readers from within Cuba, as well as sites like Retazos, Nueva Prensa, PayoLibre.com, Cubaencuentro.com, and Convivencia. Regional radio stations and magazines are also creating online versions, though these outlets are state-run and do not accept contributions from independent journalists. However, in a recent development, some of these sites have installed commentary tools that allow readers to provide feedback and foster discussion.
Cubans succeeded in mobilizing via the intranet in January 2007, following the appearance of Luis Pavon Tamayo on a television program honoring people who have made significant contributions to Cuban culture. Cuban artists and intellectuals spontaneously started an e-mail discussion to protest his appearance. Tamayo had formerly headed the National Culture Council and was widely viewed as responsible for a multiyear crackdown on cultural expression during the 1970s. The period, known as the Grey Five, saw Cuban artists and intellectuals censored, sent to labor camps, or driven into exile. The e-mail protest quickly drew the attention of the government, and Culture Minister Abel Prieto met with 20 of those involved to discuss their concerns.20 Prieto initially refused to apologize for Tamayo’s appearance, but in the face of a growing online movement he reconsidered and issued an apology. He said the appearance—as well as the subsequent appearances of two other leading figures in the 1970s crackdown, Armando Quesada and Jorge Serguera—had been an “error,” and explained that “today the leadership of this country regards that period—which was fortunately brief—with great disapproval.”21
Violations of Users’ Rights
The legal structure in Cuba is not favorable to internet freedom. There is no clear constitutional guarantee of internet freedom, and the constitution explicitly subordinates freedom of speech to the objectives of socialist society.22 Freedom of cultural expression is guaranteed only if the expression is not contrary to the Revolution.23 The penal code and Law 88 set penalties ranging from a few months to 20 years in prison for any activities that are considered a “potential risk,” “disturbing the peace,” a “precriminal danger to society,” “counterrevolutionary,” or “against the national independence or economy.”24
Cuba is one of the few countries to have issued laws and regulations explicitly restricting and outlawing certain online activities. In 1996, the government passed Decree-Law 209, known as Access from the Republic of Cuba to the Global Computer Network, which states that the internet cannot be used “in violation of Cuban society’s moral principles or the country’s laws,” and that e-mail messages must not “jeopardize national security.”25 In 2007, Resolution 127 on network security banned the spreading of information via public data-transmission networks that is against the social interest, norms of good behavior, the integrity of people, or national security. The decree requires access providers to install controls that will enable them to detect and prevent the proscribed activities, and to report them to the relevant authorities.
From a regulatory perspective, Resolution 56/1999 provides that all materials intended for publication or dissemination on the internet must first be approved by the National Registry of Serial Publications. Moreover, Resolution 92/2003 prohibits e-mail and other ICT service providers from granting access to individuals who are not approved by the government, and requires that they enable only domestic chat services, not international ones. Entities that violate these regulations can have their authorization to provide access suspended or revoked.
Despite constitutional provisions that protect various forms of communication, and portions of the penal code that set penalties for the violation of the secrecy of communications, the privacy of users is frequently violated in practice. Tools of content surveillance and control are pervasive, from public access points and universities to government offices. Delivery of e-mail messages is consistently delayed, and it is not unusual for a message to arrive without its attachments. The phenomenon is known to occur in hotel cybercafes used by both tourists and locals.
The new administration of Raul Castro has continued its predecessor’s repressive practices with respect to independent journalism, indirectly affecting the blogging community as well. These practices include the imposition of fines, searches, and the confiscation of money and equipment. There have been a few cases in which online journalists were arrested and punished for their work, most notably the imprisonment of two correspondents of CubaNet. One, Oscar Sanchez Madan, was sentenced to four years in prison in April 2007 for “precriminal social danger,” and the other was sentenced to seven years in November 2005 for “subversive propaganda.”26 Still, bloggers have not been subject to anything akin to the Black Spring of 2003, in which 27 journalists were arrested on grounds that they were “agents of the American enemy.”27
Prominent bloggers do face a wide range of other forms of harassment, intimidation, and restrictions on their rights. Yoani Sanchez and her husband Reynaldo Escobar (a fellow blogger) were summoned for questioning in December 2008, reprimanded, and informed that their right to travel had been restricted, meaning they would be unable to attend a two-day blogging workshop in the western part of the island.28 Other individuals planning to attend the event were also summoned for questioning and pressured to cancel;29 as a result, the meeting of 20 bloggers was reportedly held online to avoid the risk of arrest.30 In May 2008, the government refused to issue Sanchez a travel visa that would have allowed her to receive the Ortega y Gasset prize for digital journalism in Spain.31
1 Ben Corbett, This is Cuba: an outlaw culture survives, Westview Press, 2002,
2 Internet World Stats, http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats10.htm#spanish, Accessed March 20, 2009.
4 “Cubans queue for computers as PC ban lifted, but web still outlawed,” Irish Examiner, May 5, 2008.
5 “Mobile phone use booms in Cuba following easing of restrictions,” Agence France-Presse, April 24, 2008.
7 “Mobile phone use booms in Cuba following easing of restrictions,” Agence France-Presse, April 24, 2008.
10 ETECSA: Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A.
13 “In Raul Castro’s reforms in Cuba, internet remains restricted,” Agence-France-Presse, May 17, 2008, http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5gbs2d7rh33vYKZ6hp3xAwhA4BXvQ, Accessed March 20, 2009.
14 For instance, Government sources cite the cost of 4 million US$/yr to connect to the Internet through these satellites. From this, local sources affirm that 850K US$/yr are just to connect a local association of artists and writers.
15 “Cuba to get high-speed Internet in 2010,” Techweb, July 17, 2008
19 “Cuba: More Bloggers are Firing Off Thoughts From the Island,” Inter Press Service, October 6, 2008.
20 “Cuban writers angered by resurfacing of censor,” January 16, 2007, http://www.caribbeannetnews.com/cgi-script/csArticles/articles/000051/005155.htm , Accessed March 20, 2009.
21 “Artists’ congress marks more changes in Cuba,” April 5, 2008, http://www2.canada.com/vancouversun/news/story.html?id=c97b6387-8824-4198-8910-9cc9b06ac8c6, Accessed March 20, 2009. and Arturo Gracía Hernàndez, “Interview with Abel Prieto, Cuban Minister of Culture,” www.embacu.cubaminrex.cu/Portals/7/Interview.doc , Accessed March 20, 2009.
25 Cuba – Telecoms Market Overview & Statistics 2008.
26 Freedom of the Press, Cuba 2008, http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=251&year=2008 , Accessed March 12, 2009.
28 “Cuba v. the Bloggers,” PoliBlog, December 6, 2008.
29 Global Voices Online, Cuba Government Officials Tell Bloggers to Cancel Planned Meeting, December 6, 2008, http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/2008/12/06/cuba-government-officials-tell-bloggers-to-cancel-planned-meeting/ , Accessed March 20, 2009.
30 Mother Jones, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2008/12/cubas-blogger-crackdown, Accessed March 20, 2009.
31 “Cuba refuses to give blogger visa to collect prize,” Agence France Press, May 6, 2008.