The art of creating internet without any internet

In Cuba it is forbidden for citizens to have their own internet connection. If you want to read your e-mail or surf the net, you are directed to use public internet connections in internet cafés, universities or internet hubs. All to facilitate the regime’s monitoring. Clive Rudd Fernandez who is one of the founder of the Cuban internet network, La Cubanada, writes about internet censorship and freedom of speech in Cuba. 

May 6 2014 Text: Clive Rudd Fernandez

As of the date of writing of this blog entry (April 1, 2014) Cuba has the worst internet penetration in the western hemisphere. Various independent organizations for human rights such as Journalists Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have published evidences to support this claim.

A paper published by Reporters Without Borders entitled ”Going online in Cuba: internet under surveillance” concluded that “the internet in Cuba is among the most tightly controlled in the world”. The Cuban government has repeatedly tried to justify its restrictions with the same rhetoric that it has used since the beginning of the Revolution in 1959; “We are in a situation of a virtual war with the United States and the information is an strategic weapon in that war”.

The Cuban regime has developed methods and capabilities to control the media and it uses it for its own propaganda purposes that not only has proved very effective in Cuba but it has also tried to export it to other Latin American countries such as Nicaragua, Ecuador and Venezuela in different degrees and forms.

Censorship and history of violations of freedom of expression in Cuba
This control and use of media is not something that is a new phenomenon in Cuba. It dates from the beginning of the Revolution itself in the decade of the 1960.

At the time Cuba had a great variety of media, including radio and TV stations, printed press and other independent media that frequently transmitted programs in favor of the party that Fidel Castro, leader of the revolution belonged to.

During the first decade of the revolution many intellectuals, journalists and ordinary citizens began to produce and broadcast media and arts expressions debating and discussing the merits and de-merits of the new revolution. This had a blunt and unexpected response from the leadership of the revolution in an event that has now passed to the history of Cuba as the point when all media would be fully controlled and censored by the government.

That moment was marked by an infamous speech from Fidel Castro, and was coined as Fidel Castro’s “words” to the intellectuals. He said “all within the Revolution outside the Revolution, nothing”.

From that point on (June 30, 1961) the Cuban media, the arts and all forms of communication has been strictly controlled and censored by the government.

The arrival of the internet and the Cuban regime reactions
Around the 1990s with the spread of the internet as a new communication channel in the world, the Cuban government put in place measures to avoid at all cost that Cubans could have independent and uncensored access to this new media outlet.

The actions ranged from legal ones such as banning the entry into the country of any GPS, or internet capable device, to technical measures to restrict any local wifi or internet connections from contacting networks outside the country.

In June 1996, the government passed decree 209 “Access from the Republic of Cuba to the Global Computer Network”. It stated that the internet couldn’t be used “in violation of Cuban society’s moral principles or the country’s laws” and that e-mail messages must not be used to “jeopardize national security.” In Cuba speaking publicly against its leaders or the Revolution is considered both amoral and a threat to national security.

Also the government banned private internet connections for all citizens. As documented in several occasions by Reporter Without Borders, “to visit websites or check email, Cubans have to use public access points such as internet cafes, universities and “Youth computing centers” where it is easier to monitor their activity. Then, the Cuban police have installed software on all computers in internet cafes and in big hotels that triggers an alert message when “subversive” key-words are noticed. Lastly self-censorship in Cuba is a very effective mechanism of control; you could get a prison sentence for writing a few ‘counter-revolutionary’ articles for foreign websites or connecting to the internet privately.

However, the regime faced a very difficult situation. The cash-strapped government needed to increase the revenues from the telecommunication sector. Also, the tourism industry demanded the internet as a commodity that was expected on the island.

It is with these objectives in mind that the Cuban government started a $70 million project to connect the island to the outside web (Venezuela) via an undersea fiber optic cable.  The government conducted this project in absolute silence, but from the second week of January 2013 the U.S. company Renesys, which monitors internet traffic, noted that the fiber optic cable between Cuba and Venezuela was active. As always, the official media was silent and many TV and radio programs continue to show “the internet as a conglomeration of violence, pornography and false information that the Cubans don’t need”, as one local blogger noted.

The Cuban bloggers phenomenon and ways they circumvent government censorship
As a response to the absolute control and censorship of the information that the Cuban government has exerted on the island, actions from outside and inside the country have been launched to denounce and mitigate the government’s control on the media.

A US citizen working for USAID was imprisoned with a 15 years sentence for bringing internet Capable devices for the Jewish community in Cuba, so they could connect independently and uncensored to the internet.

The Cuban Civil Society has also conducted various campaigns inside and outside the country denouncing the absolute control and censorship of the internet in Cuba.

In 2003, the government launched a crackdown on independent bloggers known as the black spring. 75 dissidents were imprisoned including 29 journalists, as well as librarians, human rights activists, and democracy activists, on the basis that they were acting as agents of the United States by accepting aid from the US government. Amnesty International, after studding the case, declared all 75 as prisoners of conscience. All 75 dissidents were eventually released, most of whom were exiled to Spain starting in 2010.

Bloggers and independent journalists have continued to create ways to do what they call “internet without internet”. They use social media via short messages (sms) from mobile phones without internet. They also use the internet connection available for tourist in hotels to post multiple blog entries in one connection and they also use portable hard drives and USBs to exchange information from hand to hand around the island. And finally they rely on the diaspora to post the information for them. They call friends and family and dictate over the phone blog posts that they submit online.

What to expect in the in the coming years
As the tourists and the telecommunication sector continue to provide more and more revenues to the government, it has been forced to open more doors that were previously closed to the population in the country.

It was only in 2008 that Cubans were allowed for the first time to own and use mobile phones. Currently the Cuban government makes around 300 million USD in revenues a year from that sector only.

Even today, it is very restricted and controlled to bring portable computer to the country, but nowadays every smartphone is a powerful computer and the government can’t develop its tourist sector forbidding smartphones entering the island.

As the technology evolves and becomes more and more portable and affordable we will continue see how independent and underground wifi and close intra-nets will proliferate. These networks exchanges content not controlled by the government and in some cases they could degenerate into criminal activities due to their underground nature that they are forced to exist in.

The pattern that we foresee with the internet is very similar to the one we have seen in other markets and sectors such as currency and apparel in Cuba. First the government tries to exert absolute control over the production and distribution of the material/product, as a consequence a very strong and developed underground/black market develops in the country, then the government in an attempt to control or eliminate this black market tries to lift some of the prohibitions but maintains absolute discretion on the content. This pattern is already backfiring with the internet because the government lacks the experience and knowledge on the technology to release that media in a controlled way.

I believe that in the next few years we should expect to see how the most censored and controlled internet environment in the western hemisphere wakes up and rises from the prison cell that has been forced to be for more than fifteen years and we have started to see some indications of this renascence with an incredible surge on independent bloggers from the island and I for once, am very exited to be around and to be able to see it and be part of it.