Cuba: Growing Internet Access Is About Money Not Freedom
People used social media to help organize the large, anti-government protests that took place on the island last July. And yet, unlike their counterparts in China, Cuban authorities are loath to prohibit access to such sites. Do the math.
Mobile phones, as the former Facebook executive Antonio García Martínez writes in his blog The Pull Request, were illegal in Cuba until 2008. Even after that, it took another decade before people were allowed to connect those phones to the internet. And more recently, on July 11 — when people held large protests (organized in large part online) — Cuban authorities blocked the internet for several hours.
Overall, however, internet access is finally available in Cuba, albeit with some limitations — for two reasons. The first is the expensive. An Amnesty International report titled Cuba's Internet Paradoxreveals that the connection cost, as of 2017, was $1.50 per hour, a tremendous amount for people where the average monthly wage is roughly $25.
The other reason is censorship. The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) reports that in Cuba, web pages that criticize the government, discuss human rights or share techniques for evading censorship are blocked. The state telecommunications firm likewise censors text messages containing the words "democracy" or "hunger strike."
In Cuba, disrupting the internet comes at a steep price
The answer may come down to money, as shown by open-source database Yugabyte, which found that by cutting off the internet in July, even for just a few hours, the Cuban government lost some $13 million.
The reason is that internet access in Cuba is controlled by a state monopoly, the Cuba Telecommunications Company (ETECSA). And as shown by the hourly access rate, the company abuses its monopoly. A good part of ETECSA's revenue comes from cellphones and internet accounts paid by Cubans abroad to keep in touch with relatives on the island, and when the connection is cut, so is the revenue stream.
Emilio Morales, the head of Havana Consulting, which provides market information on Cuba, says the Cuban government's monthly earnings from Wi-Fi and mobile data are some $80 million. The internet is also used for remittances to the island, which are an important source of hard currency used to pay for food and medicine.
Cuban government's relative tolerance of the internet and social media, when compared with China, should not therefore be construed as a liberalizing step. Instead, it's yet another, and particularly blatant, sign of the shortcomings that have characterized Cuba's economy for decades.
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