The 2015 Cuban Internet revolution

Daniela Hernandez

Following the announcement of the thawing of the U.S. embargo on the island country, Cuban technology—and residents' creative hacks for dealing with the lack of tech—have been in the news. Among other changes to the relationship between the countries, American telecom companies will finally be able to set up shop.

Until 2008, owning a computer was illegal. Right now, only roughly a quarter of the country's residents can access the web, according to the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations agency that oversees information technologies around the world. But that doesn't mean Cuba's internet is anything like ours.  What little access Cubans have is super limited. The government censors information, and getting online is too expensive for most. Plus, it's super slow. The mobile web is practically nonexistent.


So what will life online look like in Cuba in the future?

An unusual sharing economy

Cubans prepare the weekly package on flash drives. Photo: AFP/Getty Images.

Cubans already have a sort of sharing economy for information. The Guardian and NPR have recently reported that they get access to TV shows like Breaking Bad, Vampire Diaries, Walking Dead, and The Mentalist with "El Paquete Semanal."

Every Friday, the Weekly Package makes its way through Havana through a network of sellers that deliver external hard drives and memory sticks to buyers. Suppliers download around a terabyte worth of  American, Brazilian, Korean and Japanese TV shows and content from some 500 magazines, which they distribute to customers for as much as $17 a pop.


It sounds a lot like an offline, international mashup of Hulu, digital magazine subscriptions and Postmates, an app-based delivery service that's cropping up in cities across the U.S.

As the internet—and especially the mobile internet—gains a hold in Cuba, services like these will (almost certainly) morph and start to give way to the web.


“I guess my business will be badly affected by the new announcement between Cuba and the US,” Jorge Fernandez, a Weekly Package provider, told The Guardian. “I want change too. I just hope it will take several years."

That will most likely be the case. Even with competition among newly established providers, the internet may be out of reach for many Cubans for a while. For example, in Mexico, which has a stronger economy than Cuba, less than half of people are online, according to the ITU. Many still get their fill of films and TV shows on DVDs sold at street markets by a network of counterfeit providers. (Of course, the richest man in the world may have something to do with that.)


So there may be a way for people like Fernandez to co-exist with emerging e-commerce.

Fast and free online marketplaces


Cubans may not have Amazon or Google Express to deliver groceries or books, but they do have Spanish for commotion, the site, which is hosted in Spain, is a kind of Craigslist-style marketplace, where people sell things like computer parts, modems, furniture, immigration services, loans, and sweets.

Just a month after it launched in December 2007, the site had more than 330,000 page views, according to the New York Times. A year later, page views topped 1.3 million.


One of the two twenty-somethings who started Revolico told the Times they had to constantly outsmart the government's censorship tactics. The government is so restrictive, in fact, that Reporters Without Borders named Cuba an Internet Enemy. (Some Cubans have even resorted to buying or renting passwords from the privileged few who have government clearance or to access the web more freely.)

The Revolico coders also had to build the page to work with Cuba's glacial internet speeds. Many of those with internet access are on dialup, and there's only one major underwater internet cable connecting the island to the web via Venezuela and Jamaica (see map above). It's owned by a telecom owned by the Venezuelan government. There aren't any cables yet connecting Cuba to the U.S. or other Latin American countries.


This, too, will likely change. And when it does, it will help bring Cubans a faster and hopefully less censored internet, where online marketplaces like Revolico can really take off.

Open-source software

Cuba is a fan of open-source software. In 2009, Reuters reported the government had launched its own breed of the Linux operating system dubbed Nova. The thing was supposed to help boot evil U.S.-owned Microsoft off government-owned computers.


The intent of the government wasn't exactly to open up the world's web tools to the masses — Linux actually made it easier to tweak the code to its own liking.  But the move toward open-source may have primed Cuba to be a place where Microsoft Windows isn't the dominant OS. It'll be interesting to see whether Cubans stick to Linux or gravitate toward something else like Windows, ChromeOS or Mac OS.

Google Maps and Crowdsourcing


Thanks to Google Street View, we can explore places like the Grand Canyon and cities around the world.

But Havana is a dark spot on the Google Street View universe. It's one of the last urban areas on earth where this feature doesn’t currently exist. (Tehran and Baghdad are two others.) Try dropping the little orange humanoid onto Google’s map of Havana, and he promptly flies back to his home on the lower right hand corner of the screen.


When we asked, Google wouldn’t say whether it had any plans to send its Street View cars down the roads of Old Havana, but it’s probably just a matter of time.

Mapping doesn't end with Google. There are several other crowd-sourced map initiatives around the globe that allow city dwellers to update and improve local maps.


In Brazil, for example, people living in Rio de Janeiro's favelas mapped the twisted roads in these often-dangerous, low-income areas. That effort was bolstered by the rise in mobile devices there. In September, Google and Microsoft took notice and joined forces with local groups to map favelas out, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Right now, only about 18 percent of Cubans own cellphones—far fewer than most sub-Saharan African countries. With less restrictions, Cubans are going to buy a lot more cellphones. And as the mobile web makes its way through the country, they'll finally get to enjoy the pleasures of selfie-taking and arguing on Twitter.


Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.

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