The state of the Internet in Cuba, January 2011

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Table , Monthly international email traffic in 1995.

CENIAI established their first persistent, 64 kbps Internet Protocol link in September 1996 (Appendix 4). They were very proud and happy to be on the Internet, but the Internet was no longer under the radar. There was debate over the pros and cons and how to exploit and control it and also who would control it, and those favoring control over access prevailed

In June, 1996, the Executive Committee of the Cuban Council of Ministers issued Decree 209 regulating the use and development of information networks and Internet services within Cuba.49 The decree established an inter-ministerial commission with responsibility for all matters relating to access from the Republic of Cuba, the information in the computer networks of global reach. The commission was to be chaired by the Minister of Metallurgical Industry and Electronics and include Ministries of Science, Technology and Environment, Communications, Interior, Revolutionary Armed Forces and Justice. Many interests were represented.
It appears that power was consolidated in January 2000, when Decree Law 204 created the current Ministry of Informatics and Communications (MIC) with control over Information technology, the electronics industry, telecommunications, broadcasting, radio spectrum and the postal service – traditional media and computer networks.
The MIC is responsible for computerization of society, control and supervision, legislative framework, and ICT security.50 User and technician training are included within computerization of society mission. The Ministry also certifies radio equipment and license data networks (including WiFi LANs). They are also responsible for legislation and policy for all media, including the Internet, and for computer security. (However, their Web site lists only one security organization, Segurmática, makers of anti-virus software).
The MIC Web site lists key strategic goals for 2012, which gives us some insight into their priorities:

  • Obtaining external long and medium term credit to finance capital investments and short term credit for current trade

  • Forming economic partnerships with foreigners to provide capital, technology and marketing distribution in selected areas.

  • Flexible handling of the global finance system to ensure good terms without undermining the National Economy.

  • Strengthening and expansion of strategic partnership with China and other countries that are sources of technology and political-economic integration in the framework of ALBA.

  • Ranking and assuring projects financially using the cyclic MIC system of research-production-marketing-technical services.

  • Strengthening university and technological education related to the IC sector and post-graduate training on the MIC system.

  • Fostering an atmosphere conducive to the development of ethical values and prevention of transgressions.

  • Developing work and salary systems that encourage high productivity.

  • Reorganizing based on the MIC strategy.

It is noteworthy that the first five have to do with global finance and foreign partnerships, with China singled out as a strategic partner. One is focused on technology education and another on financial and job incentives to increase productivity. This is reminiscent Deng Xiaoping's “radical pragmatism” during the 1980s, when China greatly expanded direct foreign investment and substituted the slogan "getting rich is glorious" for "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

The character of the Web site is also indicative of their level of sophistication and the values of the Ministry. It is definitely “Web 1.0” with little information and no interaction. It is a poorly designed online brochure.
Drilling down, we discover that one must apply to establish a WiFi network (Appendix 5). Rather than apply online, one is expected to print out a Word form and fill it in. The form also contains what is probably an inadvertent technical error in that it refers to the 2456 – 2482 MHz frequency band, whereas the standard low frequency WiFi band is 2412-2484 MHz.51 They do not even mention the 5GHz WiFi band – that may be an oversight or it may be illegal.
The fact that one is required to apply to set up a WiFi network is startling. The success of WiFi in other nations was due to its being an open standard in a license free spectrum band. The industry has thrived and WiFi has become an important part of our communication infrastructure because one can walk into a store, buy a low cost access point, and set it up at home or work. In Cuba it seems that one must fill in a form stating the make and model of every WiFi access point.
One could conclude that this micro management is a draconian attempt to control access and freedom, but I think it is more likely a reflection of a sort of “bureaucratic Alzheimer’s disease.” It is reminiscent of Cuba’s recent decision to privatize 500,000 government jobs, in which they spell out the 178 permitted occupations -- babysitting, shoe shinning, clothes washing, etc.52 Regardless of the explanation, it is discouraging.
The appointment of Ramiro Valdés Menendez as Minister of Informatics and Communications on August 31 2006 also provides information about the organization. Valdés was born in 1932 and fought in the Cuban Revolution. He has held high office, including Minister of the Interior and the head of Copextel, which assembles and imports electronic equipment.53 He also has close ties with Venezuela, chairing a committee on that countries electricity crisis.54
Valdés is generally painted as an Internet hard liner, based on quotes from a speech at the 2007 Informatica Conference:55
These technologies constitute one of the tools for global extermination, as despite the known risks that they incur, they are also necessary to continue to advance down the path of development….The wild horse of the new technologies could and must be controlled, and Info-communications must be used to serve peace and development.
A good portion of the talk is politically correct attack on the US, blaming the blockade for the sorry state of the Cuban Internet, claiming that the US, along with Google, Microsoft and Bill Gates, is at cyber war with Cuba, conducting Internet surveillance and blocking access to Cuban material. He says the U. S. used the still mysterious 9/11 attack as a pretext for its cyber war (my italics). He also holds the rich nations, led by the US, for the existence and attempted cover up of the digital divide.
These quotes form only a small bit of anecdotal evidence, but they, along with his age, background in the revolution and the Interior Ministry, indicate that the Internet will remain relatively closed as long as he remains in power.56
Valdés made other points which may be telling. He stated that the Cuban Internet will not be financed and centered on consumerism, but will give priority to socially valuable applications in health, education, culture and science, and that they will invest substantially in technology infrastructure and human capital. It remains to be seen if they can afford to and do make those investments and whether they can find a way to finance the development of the Internet without commercialization.57
We do not know what the recent replacement of Valdés as MIC minister foreshadows.58 The new minister, Medardo Díaz Toledo, had previously been head of the communications division of the Armed Forces Ministry (The Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces). Valdés is now the vice president over the MIC and the ministries of Basic Industry and Construction. Medardo Diaz is younger than Valdés, and was trained as a communication engineer. Perhaps this reflects a decision to modernize the Internet and other communication infrastructure within Cuba or it may be an expansion of Valdés’ power and an endorsement of the status quo. It could also be an indication that the role of the armed forces is expanding. We really have no idea at this point, but it future developments are worth watching.
The Dictator’s Dilemma
In the early days of the Internet, we assumed that free access to this many-to-many medium would lead to a flowering of transparency and citizen journalism, which would inevitably lead to enhanced democracy. This view was bolstered by what was perhaps the first example of Internet citizen journalism during the 1991 Soviet coup attempt, when all Russian media except Usenet news groups were shut down by the authorities.59 60 61
This led to our simplified notion of what we called the “dictator's dilemma.”62 The Internet would become critical infrastructure in economic development and improving quality of life, but would tend to undermine the government and change the culture. That assumption still has supporters, but it has also been challenged. Let’s look at the Cuban view of the dictator’s dilemma at the time the Internet was just being established
As long as Cuban data networking consisted only of asynchronous UUCP connectivity and connectivity to Soviet information via X.25 links, it remained under the radar, and a small community of networking technicians and supporters formed. But, when faced with the possibility of connection to the incipient Internet, which was growing rapidly and allowed for persistent IP connectivity, networking came under scrutiny. The positions of two leaders, Carlos Lage and Raul Castro, exemplify the debate at that time.
At the Fifth Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba in 1997, Carlos Lage, Secretary of the Executive Council of Ministers, spoke of the growing importance of computer-based communications, pointing out that "one telex can cost twelve dollars [whereas] the same message costs 75 cents in the form of a fax and 3 cents via the Internet," and he expressed confidence that "in spite of our blockaded circumstances, we are in a relatively good position [to face the challenges of such scientific and technological changes], due to the educational and scientific work developed by the revolution."
Raul Castro was aware NGOs were seen as potentially subversive. In March, 1996 he stated:
[T]he enemy does not conceal its intention to use some of the so-called non-governmental organizations (NGOs) established in Cuba in recent times, as a Trojan horse to foment division and subversion here, and the theoretical cover they give them is to present them as members of civil society ...There are also many NGOs throughout the world that are not enemies of the people; many of them encourage solidarity with Cuba, respecting its independence, its national identity and its socialist path. ... But we would be extremely stupid if we pretended not to see the manipulation that is being carried out through other supposed NGOs whose only aim is to enslave our country once again and turn it into something akin to an even more dependent Puerto Rico.
In the same speech he refers to the Soviet experience with NGOs, citing his reading of an analysis by Gillian Gunn:
Glasnost gave rise to a proliferation of Soviet NGOs, and the Moscow press stated in 1988 that some 40,000 clubs and associations had been set up. The close ties between Havana and Moscow at that time exposed Cuban intellectuals to many of these groups, which supported such things as religious freedom, popular culture, environmental protection and socioeconomic reform.
Castro continued, speaking of press freedom in general, stating that "The glasnost which undermined the USSR and other socialist countries consisted in handing over the mass media, one by one, to the enemies of socialism." It is noteworthy that these remarks were presented at the same Plenum as Carlos Lage's call for increased use of networks.
Castro and others were also acutely aware of section 209 of the Helms-Burton act, which authorizes the President "to furnish assistance and provide other support for individuals and independent non-governmental organizations to support democracy-building efforts for Cuba," and provides for "not less than $5,000,000 of the voluntary contributions of the United States to the Organization of American States solely for the purposes of the special fund."
Castro and his allies evidently won the debate.63 The Internet was to be controlled. The remaining question was who would control it. In retrospect, I suspect that the ensuing power struggles and bureaucracy did more to stunt the growth of the Cuban Internet than fear of political and cultural instability.
With 20-20 hindsight, we have a more nuanced view of the dictator’s dilemma today. This is due in no small part to the experience of the Chinese, who are now working with the Cubans. How might we qualify our early, naïve concept of the dictator’s dilemma?
For one thing, it has become clear that the Internet can be used by dictators as well as democrats, as Secretary of State Clinton pointed out in a speech on Chinese control of the Internet.64
Amid this unprecedented surge in connectivity, we must also recognize that these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing. These tools are also being exploited to undermine human progress and political rights. Just as steel can be used to build hospitals or machine guns, or nuclear power can either energize a city or destroy it, modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or for ill. The same networks that help organize movements for freedom also enable al-Qaida to spew hatred and incite violence against the innocent. And technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights.
There are numerous examples of terrorists and governments using the Internet for ill. For example, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades militants use Google Earth to prepare their attacks (Figure 6).

Figure 6, Al-Aqsa uses Google Earth to plan missile launches.

Internet surveillance is also common.65 Shane and Lehren report that Wikileaks has disclosed an American Embassy cable from Beijing showing that China’s Politburo directed the intrusion into Google’s computer systems, and that the Google hacking was part of a coordinated campaign of computer sabotage carried out by government operatives, private security experts and Internet outlaws recruited by the Chinese government. Cables said they have broken into American government computers and those of Western allies, the Dalai Lama and American businesses since 2002.66

As mentioned above, the Cuban government has not closed classified advertising sites even though illegal goods and services are sometimes advertised there, but that is not to say they are not watching them carefully. The same may be said of the flowering of the Cuban cultural and political blogosphere. There is a thriving, often anti-government blogging community.67 The blogs are often available in both English and Spanish, so they are accessible to those in and out of Cuba, and probably under government surveillance.

Why does the government let these activities continue? They may consider them a source of intelligence, providing a window into the informal Internet community and its activity. The government may realize that classified sites provide a valuable service and improve the efficiency of the economy and the quality of life. If the black market would go on with or without them, the impact of shutting them down would be marginal. They may fear potential public reaction to a crackdown. We suspect that Cuban bloggers and users of classified advertising sites are on the average relatively young, innovative and technically skillful, and perhaps therefore valued by the regime more than they are feared. We can only speculate.

In addition to actively using the Internet and conducting Internet surveillance, virtually all governments ban the publication of material they deem culturally or politically unsuitable, and dictatorships commonly attempt to block access to material published by others.
Other critics of the dictator’s dilemma hypothesis question the efficacy of the Internet as a force for democracy. Take the widely publicized role of Twitter during the protests following the 2009 Iranian election. Did Twitter make a difference? Supporters such as Huffington68, Stone69, and Shirky70 answer "yes" in discussing the role and importance of Twitter during the protests. They also go beyond Iran, citing other examples of the impact of the use of Twitter and other Internet services in support of democracy and transparency.
However, writers like Gladwell71 and Efrandiari72 offer a more conservative view of the power of the Internet. Efrandiari points out that a year after the widely publicized use of Twitter during the Iranian election protests, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remained firmly in power and that many of those using Twitter during the protests were in fact outside Iran. Gladwell contrasts the use of the Internet with the civil rights struggle in the United States, arguing that the Net does not provide hierarchical organization or the sustained commitment in the face of risk that is necessary to bring about change.
But, perhaps the most effective governor of the democratizing influence of the Internet is indifference. University of Cambridge foreign policy expert, Stefan Halper states that “given a choice between market democracy and its freedoms and market authoritarianism and its high growth, stability, improved living standards, and limits on expression -- a majority of the developing world and many middle-sized non Western powers prefer the authoritarian model.”73
As James Fallows74 points out, the "great firewall" of China blocks content using four basic techniques:

  • remove domain name from the DNS

  • block specified IP addresses

  • block URLs with suspicious words in them

  • scan a returned document and block it if banned words are found (creating unpredictability since one document from a site may be blocked while other passes)

These are all rather easily defeated using a proxy server or VPN, email may be encrypted using a specialized service or a secure link to a Web based email service like, and voice communication using Skype is also encrypted. But, most Chinese users are not willing to put up with the inconvenience, response delay, and possible risk of discovery to bother with such measures.

Many are not even motivated to do so. A 2007 survey found that over 80% of respondents think the internet should be managed or controlled (for pornography and other culturally sensitive material as well as politics), and almost 85% say they think the government should be responsible for doing it.75 Today's Chinese are free by their historical standards, and they have many sources of information other than the Internet. Compared to a developed nation, relatively few Chinese are Internet users, and many of those who are, are doing well so support the government.
At the end of the day, the conservatives prevailed at the time the Cuban Internet was born. They opted for a small Internet effort with tight control over content and access. Of course perceived political threat was not the only factor. The U. S. embargo eliminated the possibility for an undersea cable link to Cuba, forcing them to depend upon relatively slow and expensive satellite links to the outside world. Furthermore, Cuban economy had been hard hit by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the loss of Warsaw Pact trade. They would have had a difficult financing investment in the Internet regardless of their assessment of the risks and benefits.
User training, the Youth Computer Clubs
Trained, demanding user are a key component of widely disbursed internet running sophisticated applications, and the Youth Computer Clubs (YCCs) are a uniquely Cuban training organization.
Thirty two YCCs were established in 1987. At that time, there was no Internet connectivity, but the clubs offered computer games and classes on productivity software and programming. In 2009, there were 607 YCCs, 138 outside of main towns and 39 in mountainous regions.7677 The YCCs had 3,208 teachers and 8,626 computers, and had produced 2.25 million course graduates since their founding.78
The emphasis on the YCCs was attested to by the fact that they were given a large, well-maintained building, which had been the Sears department store in Havana prior to the revolution, as their headquarters. Fidel Castro spoke at the headquarters opening and the walls feature pictures of that event and a framed note saying "I envy you" on the wall (Figure 7).79

Figure 7, Fidel Castro’s autograph at the dedication of YCC headquarters.

Training is the primary function of the YCCs. They offer classes aimed at users on Windows, Linux, Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, Web design, introductory programming, etc. Each club has its own schedule of classes and offerings80

The YCC offerings are reminiscent of a U. S. junior college five to ten years ago – an IT literacy curriculum that we have characterized as “second generation.”81 We distintuish that from the current third genreation, which focuses on the Internet rather than the PC as a platform for developing and delivering applications. An Internet-based, third generation curriculum is not feasible at the YCCs because of their slow or non-existent connectivity.
The YCCs have a central Web site,82 and fourteen of the provincial YCCs have their own Web sites.83 These all adbere to the same general format, although the content is not uniform. The central site is typical in that it has links to image and video collections, an online library (literature), software downloads, discussion forums, FAQs, links to the YCC magazine, etc.
A few anecdotal observations arose while skimming several YCC Web sites. The central site has links to perhaps fifty or one hundred books and roughly the same number of software downloads. This is a sad reminder of Cuba’s disconnection from the world, where we take access to millions of online books, programs and Internet services for granted. The YCC Web sites are reminiscent of those of the early 1990s. I discovered only one Web service – a site for sending electronic postcards.84 The simplicity of this offering – with just a handful of still images -- stands in stark contrast to the varied and sophisticated video greeting cards that are commonplace on the Interent today.
Internet technicians – university computer science
University education is valuable both for developing trained demanding users and a community of qualified Internet application and networking technicians and the results are encouraging. Cuba has a 100 percent literacy rate and, as we see in Appendix 6, their tertiary education expenditure and enrollment rates are the highest among the Latin American and Caribbean nations classified by the World Bank as upper-middle income. As shown in Table 11, Cuba is well above average for those nations.85

Expenditure per student (% of GDP per capita)

Enrollment (% gross)

Enrollment, female (% gross)

Enrollment, male (% gross)






Average of others




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