Black Markets and Secret Thumb Drives:
In 2007, it was illegal to purchase a PC in Cuba. Now Cubans use a variety of crafty solutions to get online. How did we get here? Will Fenton travels to Havana to find out.
In 2009, Alan Gross faced 15 years in prison for setting up a Wi-Fi network in Cuba. Today I can sit on a bench in Havana with a Materva soda and a bag of chiviricos (fried dough) and surf the New York Times website using a government-issued navigation card.
Seven years ago, Gross traveled to Cuba under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development and created three satellite Internet networks via Jewish synagogues in Havana, Santiago, and Camagüey. He was arrested, and served more than five years in prison before he was released through a prisoner exchange. That date—December 17, 2014—wasn't just the day that Gross returned to the United States; it was also the day the Obama Administration announced it would begin to normalize relations after more than 50 years. Alan Gross was the linchpin in this so-called "Cuban thaw."
When he created his underground networks, Gross used a Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) terminal about the size of a notebook. He positioned the terminal so it faced south toward a satellite, and nudged the panel until it could send a signal to the satellite that reflected down to a teleport. Connection established. For Gross, it was a moment of transcendence. "When you lock onto the satellite, you've lit a candle," he said in an interview with PCMag. "It's a feeling of elation. After I did it the first time, that's all I wanted to do. Go around the world lighting candles."
In 2009, lighting candles in Cuba was deemed a threat to the "integrity of the state." Today, that very state sells Internet access. Cuban president Raúl Castro's approach to reform translates to "without haste, without pause." Some Cubans use it to praise initiatives, others use it ironically to critique the pace of reforms. The existence of a private rental market, family-run kitchens, and growing Internet access suggests that change is coming, though the pace of that change can feel uneven.
Cuba's Internet access remains notoriously poor. According to Freedom House, Cuban Internet penetration is somewhere between 5 and 30 percent, about half that of Russia. However, since 2007, when it was illegal to purchase a computer, the government has connected to a Venezuelan fiber-optic cable (ALBA-1), opened dozens of Internet cafes and Wi-Fi hotspots, cracked the door to foreign telecoms, and announced a pilot for residential broadband.
"I think there's a leak in the bucket that's going to get bigger and bigger, and they're never going to be able to fix it like they did in the past because Cubanos are getting a taste of something they've only had a whiff of previously," Gross argued.
I traveled to Cuba as a tourist to find out for myself. In my eight days on the island, I saw firsthand how ordinary Cubans jailbreak the World Wide Web using a combination of hacked apps, Wi-Fi extenders, and cached websites traded on hard drives. This is how Cuba gets online.
On one street in Miramar, a residential district of Havana, I counted seven cell phone workshops—private businesses that sell and service smartphones. Inside one store, several children were jailbreaking iPhones, a mother was downloading bootleg apps onto an Android device, and a father was soldering a new chipset into an aging smartphone.
These workshops look nothing like a typical Sprint or Verizon store in the U.S.; most of the phones for sale were two or three years old. A Samsung Galaxy S4 sold for 220 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), or $220 U.S., while an unlocked Blu Dash was about 100 CUC.
Just about everyone I met in Cuba had a smartphone. Given that Cubacel is effectively the only provider, it has little incentive to offer affordable plans. Last year, Cubacel announced a rate of 1 CUC per megabyte, but that is out of reach for most residents, particularly those who rely on a state salary of 25 or 30 CUC per month.
Given the extraordinary expense, Cubans largely eschew data and rely instead on the more than 65 Wi-Fi hotspots located across the country.
One such hotspot in Central Havana might best be described as a block party. Most of the "park" is paved, and people duck under sparsely planted trees and golf umbrellas to escape the sun. Even in the early morning, all the benches are occupied. Some visitors even reserve seats for friends by plunking down backpacks. By early evening, people tote fold-up chairs and beers. Several teenagers lean against buildings, balancing laptops on knees. A group sits in a circle on the ground. An entrepreneur takes advantage of the crowds, selling snacks.
Millennials own this park, and while they don't fit into our hipster aesthetic, they possess all the tech you might expect of NYU undergrads, including smartphones, tablets, and MacBooks.
I asked one teenager where she got her iPad Air, and she said she had a "friend" in Miami. This is commonplace. Although many Cubans purchase phones and tablets at cell phone repair shops, many procure their devices through the States. In Miami, there's a thriving market for "mules," individuals whose sole profession is to transport technology to and from Cuba via charter flights.
To connect to a hotspot, you need a navigation (nav) card, available via Cuba's government-run telecom carrier, ETECSA, which provides an hour of Internet access for 2 CUC. Every ETECSA office I visited had a line out the door, and one ran out of official tickets, prompting workers to use folded printouts.
Not surprisingly, a nav card black market has emerged. The process is simple: Take a seat on a bench, look around furtively, and within minutes one or two vendors (they often compete) will sidle up to you and ask, "You want Internet?" Give them 3 CUC and they'll slip you a nav card. The most conspicuous part of the transaction is that these unofficial vendors tend to carry nav cards in plastic shopping bags, which makes the entire transaction feel like an inept drug deal.
The downside is that these nav cards cannot be easily shared among devices, and the network often becomes sluggish when too many people connect. I noticed several visitors throw up their hands in frustration.
One of the reasons for the congestion is that many Cubans use their phones as hotspots via the Connectify app, which local repair shops can install on phones. Those who live within a few blocks of a hotspot tend to own repeaters so they can connect to and extend connections. I stayed in two casas particulares (private houses) in Havana: Both were in proximity of a Wi-Fi hotspot, both hosts owned repeaters, and both hosts complained that they couldn't get online after 10 a.m.—there were just too many simultaneous connections.
The Cuban government opened Internet cafés, though, compared with the Wi-Fi hotspots, they're inadequate. In addition to requiring users to sign in to computers, which puts them at risk of surveillance, the government-run cafés simply can't keep up with the demand for Internet access. As of 2013, the cafes had just 473 PCs, or one computer for every 24,800 Cubanos.
Earlier this year, the Castro government announced—and quickly scaled back—a program for residential broadband in Old Havana. Hiram Centelles, a cofounder of the popular Cuban classified platform Revolico, is skeptical.
"They're talking about expanding Internet to specific areas in Havana," he told me via Skype. "I have no expectations. In two or three years it might have some impact."
Centelles, who currently lives in Madrid, was more optimistic about the prospects of the hotspots. "The government is doing this quickly because it's cheaper," he added. "And the people are using these hotspots in very creative ways."
Some of the most creative modes of "Internet" access, in fact, don't even require an Internet connection.
The embargo precludes any real enforcement of U.S. copyright in Cuba. You see this when you visit a cell phone repair shop with a homespun Apple logo. You watch it when a proprietor downloads hundreds of apps onto a jailbroken iPhone. And you experience it at "CD and DVD" stores, where you can purchase copies of any American movie, TV show, or album at staggeringly low prices.
This is what Cuba's top blogger and dissident, Yoani Sánchez, calls "the Internet without Internet." However, there's another permutation of exchange, what you might call last week's Internet, in a box.
Perhaps the most peculiar way that ordinary Cubans connect with the outside world is through "El Paquete," or "The Package," a cache of weekly materials from the Internet that circulates on hard drives. A couple of subscribers, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that their entire office goes in on one Package for about 2 CUC. Every Monday, a delivery man drops off the drive, they download whatever they want onto their computers, and send The Package to the next subscribers when the delivery man returns six hours later.
The subscribers I met allowed me to take a look at one such Package. Content was neatly categorized in folders such as "Games" (where I found ROMs and emulators for Mario Galaxy), "Humor" (YouTube video files), "Fashion" (clips from video blogs), and "Reality" (the latest episodes of everything from American Idol to The Tonight Show). Cubans can listen to Adele's latest album, read last week's issue of The Economist, browse the classifieds, or watch a surprisingly large cache of Korean soap operas.
It should come as little surprise, then, that Cuban entrepreneurs and businesses use The Package as they would the Internet. Instead of posting songs to SoundCloud or YouTube, Cuban artists circulate albums via The Package.
Although Revolico is accessible through a labyrinth of proxy sites, Centelles suspects that thousands of Cubans access listings via The Package. He considers Package compilers "friends," not competitors; so much so that he hired a sales force that works on the ground helping "offline" customers promote premium listings online.
Robin Pedraja's Vistar Magazine also circulates through an unofficial iPhone app available in The Package and through various cell phone repair shops. He does so not to escape censorship, but to expand access. In fact, in contrast to Centelles and Sánchez, who have had their sites blocked, Pedraja describes a "new" largely harmonious relationship with government officials.
"They don't kill ideas anymore," Pedraja said. When the Office of Media contacts him, it's not to harass him, but to learn from him. "They care about us because we represent the voice of a new generation," he added.
Not everyone shares Pedraja's optimism. While popular sites like Facebook and nytimes.com are accessible, services like Skype, WhatsApp, and YouTube are blocked. More surprising is the sense that Cubans don't know why some sites just "don't work."
Since Revolico launched in 2007, the Cuban government has repeatedly blocked the Craigslist-style site, and has "yet to offer any explanation," Centelles said.
Together with friend and partner Carlos Peña, Centelles has tried numerous workarounds, from changing IP addresses hourly to creating new domains, tactics that worked to a degree. "The government got tired of blocking our domains," Centelles explained. "When they realized that it was a game of cat and mouse, they gave up."
Still, the main site, Revolico.com, is inaccessible in Cuba. It gets 8 million page views each month, largely from abroad. Centelles's main goal is to get it unblocked there in order to grow and better compete with rivals like Port La Livre and Cubisima.
"Cubans use Revolico as a verb, even when they're using another site," he said.
Investigative journalists face greater challenges. Sánchez, who has seen her blog, Generation Y, blocked inside of Cuba, pointed to a government-run propaganda initiative, Operation Truth, to discredit critics and promote the government's plans.
In my experience, the surveillance state exerts itself implicitly and explicitly. I found it exceedingly difficult to coordinate with contacts in advance of my visit because, as one put it, "In Cuba, you never know who's listening."
Given the inchoate state of Internet infrastructure in Cuba, the sophistication of surveillance tools is likely overestimated; nevertheless, I understand Cubans' trepidation given the government interference. You feel it not just on the Internet, but also on the city streets. For example, when I was walking along the Malecón, Havana's popular waterfront promenade, a police officer reprimanded me for taking a photo of the Nico oil refinery, even though you can see its flames from almost anywhere in Havana.
It's tempting to assume that Cuba is a despotic state in which citizens are quarantined from the outside world—early accounts from emigrants support such a reading. However, the Cuba I visited didn't tell such a simple story. Despite woefully inadequate broadband infrastructure and a paranoid central authority, the Revolution has bestowed gifts, including a strong social pact, universal health care, and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, unlimited access to higher education.
Although few commercial opportunities await graduates, Cubans often acquire advanced degrees that they put into practice through a growing freelance economy. In fact, Cuba spends about 10 percent of its central budget on education, compared with around 2 percent in the United States, according to UNESCO. Cuba may not have a Harvard or a Princeton, but the public universities do offer degrees in engineering, programming, and computer science. It seemed as if everyone I met had an advanced degree.
My first host, Dania, is pursuing a PhD in Computer Systems. Her mother works as television news journalist, her father as a surgeon. Her sister, a journalist, married a man with a PhD in Information Systems. Contrary to the stereotype that Cubans are trapped at home, Dania has family in the Netherlands and Italy.
To get a better sense of what higher education looks like Cuba, I visited the University of Havana, the neoclassical architecture of which conveys much of the grandeur one might expect from a prestigious American university. In contrast to the noisy streets outside, the campus felt like an oasis: Students chatted on benches, lounged under trees, and sunbathed on steps. Nevertheless, there was a great deal of activity. Contractors were renovating several buildings, including the Aula Magna building (below), which has hosted many important scientists and political statesmen, including Jimmy Carter in 2002 and, reportedly, President Obama this week.
The university's CS program graduates around 100 majors per year and has grown so much that Math and Computer Science now occupy what was once the General Sciences building, one of the largest and most beautiful structures on campus.
The problem is that there's more supply than demand, something Centelles saw with his graduating class at Cujae, Havana's main engineering and science university. "Many ended up working in low-level or non-technical positions, which is really a shame," he told me.
Centelles emigrated to Spain after he completed his engineering degree. "I had to ask for permission to leave before graduating," Centelles said. "Then I left."
Typically, graduates conduct "social work" in university departments, research institutes, and government software enterprises, which provides guaranteed, though not lucrative, state employment. After two years, graduates can freely pursue other positions including private work outside of Cuba. Some University of Havana students have landed jobs at Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.
However, the students I spoke with admitted that limited Web access posed the greatest impediment to finding work. Though university students receive Internet access, data usage is capped between 300MB and 800MB per month. Connections are fast by Cuban standards—26Mbps—though they pale in comparison to U.S. broadband.
In the case of the University of Havana, administrators are working to improve the Wi-Fi network, though it's still not sufficient for teleconferencing. During the day, the university even constrains access to Facebook to free up bandwidth.
Many Cubans finish their degrees and seek a second—or third—job far afield. If you own a car, you operate a taxi or a rideshare. If you can cook, you run a paladar, a family-run kitchen. And, if you have a spare room, you open a casa particular. Even these well-established marketplaces—which data back to the early 1990s—are being cracked open as a Web-savvy generation of Cubans embraces the Internet.
Perhaps the most significant game-changer for tourism is Airbnb. The platform can deposit greenbacks directly into Cuban hosts' bank accounts, and enable Americans to reserve rooms for as little as 20 or 30 CUC per night—a bargain compared with traditional hotels, which can cost upwards of 200 or 300 CUC per night.
Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, who was named a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship (PAGE) last year and is among the handful of U.S. CEOs traveling to Cuba this week, tweeted that approximately 4,000 of the estimated 8,000 casas particulares now use Airbnb; 1,700 guests will use Airbnb this week alone. "In the past year, Americans from all 50 states have visited Cuba on @Airbnb," he wrote, adding that Airbnb estimates 10-20 percent of all U.S. travelers to Cuba in 2016 have stayed with Airbnb hosts. Starting April 2, in fact, Airbnb will begin serving guests from around the world.
Unfortunately, all that availability may be moot if Cubans cannot access online reservations. For example, after Dania couldn't connect to the Internet for three days she lost reservations and had her account suspended.
"Cuba has two parallel economies: one with the state and one with private business," said Bernardo Romero (pictured below), the founder of the hardware and software company Ingenius. "In private business, no one can live off $30. In a family, perhaps one person will work for the state. Everyone else works in some kind of private business."
As one of Cuba's growing class of cuentapropistas, or self-employed entrepreneurs, Romero sometimes benefits from Cuban particularities. For example, Ingenius creates software for tracking payments in the country's two currencies—the CUC and the traditional peso.
Others straddle the line between the public and private economies, like Syncware founders Adriana Sigüenza and Manuel Bouza, who serve private Cuban companies as well as clients owned either partially or fully by the state. Although Cuban law precludes the company from working directly with foreign businesses, Syncware acts as a "bridge" to foreign investors. Yes, it develops software, sets up Microsoft technology, and offers IT support, but it also helps businesses scale up operations by developing business plans, deploying CRM software, and designing business process management and enterprise architecture.
While Romero, Sigüenza, and Bouza take advantage of Cuba's bifurcated economy, others struggle in a country that does not have enough jobs for its highly educated residents.
"A cab driver shouldn't be a former nuclear engineer," said Tomas Bilbao, managing director at Avila Strategies and advisor to the Policy Council at Engage Cuba.
Consider my host Dania, who runs a bed-and-breakfast despite her advanced degree, or Centelles, who left the country entirely.
Still, Centelles remains hopeful. "Supply continues to outstrip demand, but it's changing," he explained. "After the December 17 announcement, a lot of Americans are trying to get access to this kind of labor."
Centelles sees a marked increase in private companies specializing in outsourcing. These intermediaries typically pay newly minted computer science graduates between 200-500 CUC per month. If these kinds of arrangements are agreeable to graduates, they're far from ideal for the state—unless it aspires to become a low-wage outsourcing center.
Perhaps the most formidable barrier is the embargo. Sigüenza, for example, cannot negotiate with Microsoft, which means that Syncware, and its clients, overpay for products and services. Meanwhile, Centelles incorporated Revolico in Spain to collect Google AdSense revenue.
Short of lifting the embargo, Bilbao argues that the U.S. needs to lower banks' risk calculations. The sooner Google and Visa can operate in Cuba, the sooner Cubans can collect compensation for their labor. As long as the embargo remains in place, Cubans will struggle to move money into and out of their country. As any American tourist knows, most U.S. banks do not operate inside Cuba. (One noteworthy exception is Stonegate Bank, which announced last year that it would open a corresponding bank account in Cuba.) The status quo may inconvenience visitors—I took cash out in advance because I knew that my debit card wouldn't work—but it harms ordinary Cubans.
Incorporating businesses is a challenge, as well. Although the government offers more than 200 categories of employment under its lineamientos, or economic guidelines, about three-quarters of those categories do not serve skilled workers, especially in tech, where Bilbao argues that the government needs to create new categories of employment.
This, too, is not an academic exercise for Cubans. Neither Ingenius nor Syncware could be incorporated as IT consultancy businesses. Instead, founders applied for two licenses (Computer Programming and Electrical Repairs) through which they use a loophole to conduct consulting.
Finally, while Bilbao commended the government for expanding access via the Wi-Fi hotspots, he noted that without a clearheaded understanding of infrastructural shortcomings, the government and private sector partners won't be able to make smart investments.
The Cubans who have stayed in Cuba, and the expats who have recommitted to their country since the U.S. reopened diplomatic relations in 2014, appear willing to endure these burdens. It's a testament to their pride, as well as a daily demonstration of their ingenuity and indefatigable spirit.
"I had the opportunity to leave Cuba and develop a profession elsewhere," Romero explained. "I chose to live in Cuba, to develop my business in Cuba, to start my family in Cuba. And, in a few years, I think I will be better off in Cuba."
Alan Gross agreed, though he suspects it might take more than a few years.
"I absolutely support reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba," he told PCMag. "If we had diplomatic relations, I might not have had to forfeit five years of my life. We have constructive engagement for a reason."
Still, "I think it will take years before we have normalized relations because Cuba does not exist in a normalized state."
When Castro describes his reforms as "without haste but without pause," he intentionally or unintentionally cites an American lineage. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in a famous 1841 essay, "Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events."
A decade before he founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party, exiled Cuban dissident José Martí penned his now-widely anthologized eulogy to Emerson. Martí claimed Emerson made "idealism human," and as Martí himself gained an almost mythical status within Cuba, so too did many of the attributes he assigned Emerson. Castro's reforms recast Emerson's vision, which, after Martí's hagiography, have come to suffuse Cuba's revolutionary ethos.
If there is something of Emerson's history in Castro's refrain, then there is also something of Emerson's idealism alive in Cuba. It can be glimpsed in the bootstrapped networks, hotspots, and hardware that ordinary Cubans use to connect with the outside world. You can see it in Cubans who refuse to incorporate businesses elsewhere, the students who pursue advanced degrees despite enduringly grim job prospects, and the entrepreneurs who start businesses despite untold practical, technical, and legal challenges.
In 2009, the networks that Gross created were deemed a threat to the "integrity of the state." Today, they are provided by the state. If the curvaceous automobiles of the 1950s epitomized Cuba under the embargo, today it is the Wi-Fi–equipped public park where countless Cubans gather, with lawn chairs and laptops, and wait to light their candles.
Top Photo Credit: Alan Gross. Check out the slideshow above for more scenes from Havana.