The Internet Dealers of Cuba
In Havana, the internet is dealt as if it were a drug.
Image: David Osit for Motherboard
My eyes are scanning the masses at a crowded park in downtown Havana. I know what I need, and I think I know how to get it. A dreadlocked Cuban is perched on a ledge precisely so he can spot people who are fiending like me. I give him a nod, and he beckons me over.
"Tarjeta?" he asks.
"A cuanto?" I respond. I slide him a three peso bill, he flips open his wallet, revealing a dozen shrink-wrapped green paper cards, the object that's eluded me for days. He slips me one, I open it, scratch off the password code with a coin, and pull out my smartphone. I ignore various security messages, swear away any semblance of privacy, and tell Google to PROCEED ANYWAY. It's a ritual I know well by now.
Moments later, my phone springs to life, vibrating for the first time in a week. Connecting me to the world. I've gotten my fix. This is how you get on the internet in Cuba.
Over the last several months, Cuba's authoritarian government has been installing wifi hotspots in carefully monitored plazas around the country, making high-speed internet access outside of high-priced hotels designed for foreign dignitaries and European tourists possible for the first time in the island's history. These hotspots have become a symbol of Cuba's newfound openness as the United States and Cuba begin to play ball again—the supposed result of the Castro brothers, in their old age, becoming a bit more moderate.
The hotspots have allowed Skyping families to reconnect for the first time in years, and let young Cubans open their first Facebook accounts, see their first memes, and finally learn about how the world outside their island sees them. The communist regime has said this is progress for a country in which roughly 5 percent of people have access to the internet, according to Freedom House, a human rights nonprofit.
Cuba's government puts the number at 25 percent, but that number refers to the number of people who are able to access Cuba's intranet, not the open web. In speaking with hundreds of Cubans, it's obvious the 25 percent number isn't remotely close to being accurate—I didn't meet one single Cuban who had internet access in their homes during the three weeks I was there. Throughout the course of this week, we'll be running a series of stories looking at the different ways Cubans spread information, both online and off.
It's true the hotspots are better than nothing, but, in many ways, they shouldn't even be looked at as a symbolic opening of Cuba's notoriously closed government.
"35 wireless hotspots. That's nothing in a country of 11 million people. Could you imagine if in Manhattan you could only access the internet at 35 hotspots? That's insane," Jose Luis Martinez, communications director at the Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, told me. "They're all censored and monitored and controlled by the government, so it's not that significant of an opening at all."
Like nearly everything else in Cuba, all internet access on the island is wholly controlled by the communist government. Whether you are accessing the "public" wifi through a hotspot, connecting in a hotel, or using one of the handful of government-owned computer labs, you must use a scratch card issued by the Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A. (ETECSA), which is also the only cell phone and telephone company on the island.
ETECSA was formerly a collaboration between the Cuban government and Telecom Italia, but became wholly owned by the Cuban government in 2011, when Telecom Italia sold its stake back to Cuba. ETECSA is now tasked with installing and operating the wifi hotspots, selling cell phone and landline plans (there is no mobile internet in Cuba), selling internet scratch cards directly to users, operating a small number of computer labs (some of which have internet access), and managing a Cuba-only set of email addresses.
Because ETECSA offers so many important services, lines at ETECSA stores are unruly, disorganized, long, and slow moving. Like nearly every other logistical task in the country, using a hotspot is a huge pain in the ass.
Want to take an intercity bus? Better head to the bus station a day or two early, stand in a line for two hours in order to buy a ticket, then be prepared to stand in an even longer one when you check in hours before your bus leaves.
Want to get on the internet? Get in line at one of the giant blue ETECSA stores and be prepared to spend 10 percent of your monthly salary on a $2, one-hour scratch card. And be prepared to wait. That is, of course, if ETECSA actually has any of the cards in stock, or has the means to activate them, neither of which is a given. In the very touristy beach town of Varadero, I was unable to buy a card for two days—cards couldn't be activated at the ETECSA and every hotel I checked had sold out of their supplies.
ETECSA stores, for the record, are rarely located close to the wifi hotspots. There are ETECSA kiosks located throughout the country, including some next to public wifi areas. I did not, however, see a single kiosk that was actually open. It is also possible to buy the cards in certain hotels at a markup, though supplies were limited in most hotels I went to, also.
The inconvenience is "another way of limiting the amount of time people spend on the internet," Martinez said.
"Finding these cards is hard and expensive and it's why the Cuban black market gets ahold of these things. It puts Cubans in a constant day-to-day survival mode," he said. "If you're heading halfway across town to get access, you've got less time to read outside news and perspective. It's very intentional and gives Cubans very little time to think about and formulate what they're going to do when they actually do connect."
Eduardo, the 26-year-old who I bought a card from, makes a living on these fringes of the Cuban economy. Eduardo agreed to talk about his business with me on the condition I did not use his last name, as reselling ETECSA cards is illegal.
In many ways, dealing the internet in Cuba is a lot like dealing drugs. Eduardo is low on the operation's totem pole. Every day, he gets a new supply of cards from his boss, who buys the cards 500 at a time. (The Cuban government tracks who purchases cards and in what quantities, so the higher ups presumably have an ETECSA contact or use a series of people to purchase the cards.)
Other internet dealers go into business for themselves, buying an extra card here or there when they can and using the sales to subsidize their internet use. As far as I can tell, there are no turf wars: The cards are in such low supply that everyone wishes more people would sell. When Eduardo wasn't available or around, I would ask around—there was always a teenager who had an extra card or two. Alternatively, resourceful Cubans have begun selling portions of their bandwidth using an app called Connectify, which splits one smartphone's connection into a separate wifi network that can be shared. Buy one card for $2, sell three Connectify connections for a buck each, and you've made a dollar.
For every sale, Eduardo earns about a quarter, although he's occasionally able to jack the price up when selling cards to tourists who don't know any better. As such, Eduardo rarely uses his own supply to go on the internet, it's too expensive. He's got a Facebook, and a smartphone sent to him by a sister who lives in Italy, but it rarely connects to the internet. Instead, like most Cubans, he downloads new apps and music (Eduardo is particularly into Lil Wayne and Drake) from small businesses that get masses of data from the United States smuggled in on flash drives and external hard drives—a phenomenon known as the paquete, or package.
Eduardo has no formal job. He's been able to survive by spending most of his life taking on odd jobs on the edges of Cuba's black market economy. He's never even had money to travel throughout Cuba, yet, at one point during our conversation, he pulls out his smartphone, flicks through a few pictures, and shows me an image of him wearing a wool hat in what is clearly downtown Moscow.
"Last year I met a Russian woman who paid me $50 to be a clothes mule for her," he told me. "I took two suitcases of clothes to Moscow, stayed there for a week and came home. It was a lot of money so it was definitely worth it. The girls there. Wow," he added, mindlessly flicking through selfies of him dancing with women in a Russian nightclub.
For the last month, he's been slinging the internet. The day I met him, Eduardo had sold enough cards to pay the $2 cover charge at the Fabrica de Arte, a brand new cosmopolitan discoteca and art gallery in Havana's up-and-coming Vedado neighborhood. I told him his new job reminded me very much of the ones drug dealers do in the States. The comparison caused him to pull down his shirt, revealing a new tattoo on his chest that reads "Smoke Weed Every Day."
Before heading to the club, we stopped by his house, a one room, concrete-floored apartment in a noisy building in old Havana. Aside from a fan, a lamp, and a gas stove, it had no technology to speak of. He pulled a joint out of an old drawer.
"To have the internet in your house? That's a dream. That doesn't happen. It's not possible," he said. Lighting up the joint, he kept talking. "This, this is what I have right now, and I feel good. Smoke. Weed. Every. Day."
Editor's note: Additional photos from this report were shot as part of the Photos from Beyond program, in partnership with LG—click to see more photos from this series.