Under the Castro Regime, everything in Cuba is closely monitored, especially the Internet. According to Carlos Ponce of the international watchdog group Freedom House, only about five percent of Cuban residents have unrestricted access to the web. Of those five percent, most work for the government or are part of the Cuban elite.
One major barrier to greater access is the cost of getting online, which, Ponce says, can eat up a large portion of the average Cuban’s monthly salary. The other is the fear of government spying on everything from emails to phone calls.
“If you want to talk with somebody in the island, you have to find a secure line,” he says. “Sometimes they don't want to talk because it's too expensive to use the cell phones, and they know that somebody's going to listen.”
At the same time, the government’s push for universal education has led to a nearly 100 percent literacy rate — and a country full of smart, motivated people with few outlets for expression and little access to the outside world.
Yoani Sanchez is a well-known Cuban blogger and advocate for freedom of expression. She says there’s a thirst for technology on the island, which has lead to some ingenious solutions. She built her first computer out of scrap parts. “And I remember a friend of mine had given me something that was useless — this was a machine for purposes of plucking hair from your legs. And I traded that in the black market for a microprocessor.”
Sanchez says there’s a thriving black market for electronics in Cuba, as well as a large illegal network of WiFi connections and ethernet cables snaking from house to house. There’s also something known as the Sneakernet, a system of passing information from person to person through flash drives and pen drives. Sanchez says this has been a lifeline for many.
This opening of relations between the US and Cuba has many hoping that things like the Sneakernet will become obsolete once widespread, unfettered Internet access is available. Freedom House’s Carlos Ponce sees the possible infusion of new technology into the country as a good development — as long as it’s paired with a loosening of government restrictions on that technology. “It is positive to have better technologies,” he says. “Or to find a way with satellites, or with other ways to have access to better Internet connections in Cuba. ... But I don't think that's the government approach right now.”
Yet the momentum of change is palpable for people like 26-year-old Raul Moas of the Miami-based organization Roots of Hope. Since 2009, his organization has distributed more than 12,000 pieces of electronics to young people on the island including refurbished laptops, USB sticks, cell phones and tablets. And they did it legally. As Moas explains, what Cuba needs now is an evolution, not another revolution.
“Our goal is not a political one,” he says. “It’s not regime change in Cuba. It’s not to bring down government. Not at all. Our goal and status is to empower people, to empower generations, so that they can define what their country’s future should look like.”
That said, once they’ve distributed the electronics, they don’t monitor how the technology is used. Maos points to “the package” — essentially a collection of digital media: TV shows, music, digital magazines, offline copies of websites including all of Wikipedia — uncensored material that comes in to the island through travelers or illegal satellite dishes. All of this is bought and sold on the black market and distributed via flash drive. Moas says it’s this Cuban ingenuity that will drive change on the island.
“Anything we can do to contribute to that, to having Cubans feel like they have a voice, they’re not just listeners, but rather they can be active contributors and participants in a conversation about the nation’s future, is a good thing,” he says.
Moas says with each new connection, each new conversation, and each new voice willing to speak out, there is a greater likelihood that change will finally come to a government whose policies have been stagnant for decades.