“Some people won’t like reading this,” warned Carlos Alberto Pérez, author of the blog “The Kite of Cuba,” in one of his entries published on May 15, 2014. The post denounced a massive fraud in Cuba’s college entrance exams. According to Pérez, the Spanish and math exams had been sold and were in the hands of students weeks prior to the exams. Despite numerous complaints by parents and students to the Ministry of Education, the exams weren’t scrapped.
One day before the blog post was published, the deputy minister of education had praised the exam results in the state media. The Cuban educational system offers free and universal access to all levels and is considered one of the major achievements of the Cuban revolution. Given the state of affairs, “the Cuban press decided to stay quiet” in an attempt at hiding what could be considered a failure of the education system, recalls Pérez.
However, for the blogger, “an issue as sensitive as this should be denounced at whatever cost. There was not much to think about, every hour counted toward changing the facts and that is how it happened,” Pérez said in an interview. The appearance of the article on the Internet, in addition to the complaints, prompted a series of investigations that resulted in the arrest of eight people involved in the sale and leaking of the exams. In addition, all students were required to take the mathematics exam again.
As of 2014, there has been a big increase in the quantity and a marked improvement in the quality of websites dedicated to the debate and discussion of issues related to the public interest in Cuba. The expansion of the blogosphere, made up of more than 2,900 blogs based not only in Cuba but in Cuban communities in the U.S., Spain, and other countries, has diversified agendas and ways of telling stories, and led to the establishment of alliances.
In Cuba, the traditional free blogging platforms and the social networking sites hosted on the Internet are combined with homemade solutions like the “packet of the week”—a varied ensemble of information and entertainment programs that is distributed via hard drives with up to 500 GB of space—and the “Street Net”—mesh networks developed among friends and neighbors that span multiple neighborhoods—in what could be considered a sui generis ecosystem of consumption and exchange of information.
The most recent statistics provided by Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information, for the year 2013, reflect that only 26 percent of the Cuban population had access to an Internet service or a home network, which provides e-mail and permits the use of websites based in the country, one of the lowest percentages in Latin America or the Caribbean. The survey also identified the existence of only 90 computers for every 1,000 inhabitants. Since 2010, the use of mobile telephones has increased notably as a result of discounts and policies that allow consumers in the U.S. and elsewhere to buy prepaid cellphone plans for residents of Cuba.
The politics of Internet access in Cuba privileges free usage in universities and research centers, but limits individual use to public access points with very high prices in comparison to the average income of citizens. One hour of Internet browsing costs $4.50 and only 60 cents if it is reduced to domestic-only navigation.
The distinctive elements of the Cuban blogosphere include the visibility of issues scarcely addressed in the national or international media, from perspectives that question national policies and introduce new subjects to the national dialogue. On occasion, the blogs have denounced certain policies and pressured the government to act on issues of public interest. The social relationships formed on the Internet sometimes carry over to the physical world and result in collective action aimed at improving people’s lives.
The constant exchange among citizens that reside outside and those that live on the island has led to a realization that bloggers hold some values in common. However, there is no denying the intense political polarization that continues to dominate. Like-minded individuals tend to interact with each other while having little contact with those they disagree with. What hasn’t changed are the virulent clashes between supporters of the current political system and those who favor the reinstatement of capitalism in Cuba.
Networks on the edge of legality
In June of 2014, various blogs and media outlets reported on the dismantling of informal Wi-Fi networks in Havana by Cuban authorities. These handmade networks are not connected to the Internet and they function through devices that multiply the wireless signal. The devices are bought on the black market for prices that reach up to $230. The networks are used mainly to play games and to share television programs and movies.
According to Fidel Alejandro Rodríguez, professor and researcher at the University of Havana, “The popularization of this network of networks—known as Street Net or Snet—with hanging cables and handmade antennas has achieved multiple neighborhood connectivity circuits. It is a diffuse entity with decentralized technology that is spread out over a large space, but it has a complex organization of roles and functions, with layers of responsibility and hierarchy articulated spontaneously, but sufficient enough to keep connected an entire city with efficient infrastructure.”
The funding and sustainability of neighborhood networks depends on crowdfunding the cost. Rodríguez notes that the most popular portal of the network currently has more than 7,000 registered users. The site gives access to multiplayer videogames and allows file sharing and the downloading of video and international television programs. It is further complemented by discussion forums devoted to various themes.
It was in one of these forums where Isabel, a Cuban stomatologist with more than 20 years of experience, found out how much of a salary increase she would be getting. “When I finished the housework and making lunch for my 6-year-old daughter, I wasn’t able to leave to buy the newspaper. In the afternoon, when my oldest son arrived home from school, he connected to the network and showed me the table [of salary increases] published in the newspaper.” That day, one of the most active forums was discussing a wage increase for health care professionals and debating the need of this increase to expand to other professional sectors, especially because the average monthly salary of state workers does not exceed $25.
However, these discussion forums avoid directly addressing political issues. “The moderators of the site warn that it is prohibited to discuss politics or religion,” recalls Fidel Alejandro Rodríguez. Despite this restriction, these themes appear frequently in discussion forums associated with other current event topics.
To date, it is unknown if authorities will continue dismantling Wi-Fi networks that include several neighborhoods of Havana and locations in other provinces.
Though the government now allows more people to voice their opinions online, it wants to ensure that the values of the Cuban revolution remain intact. It can be difficult for bloggers to know which subjects remain off-limits and some bloggers have faced sanctions. Yet the government’s increased tolerance of dissent in recent years should not be ignored. Bloggers and the government are learning how to deal with each other, a process that will continue in the coming years.