The Current State of the Internet in Cuba
In terms of telecommunications, Cuba is rated 125th out of 166 countries in the world. Until 2012, Cuba was connected to the Internet via old, Russian satellites—this made the connection slow and limited the amount of data that could be sent into and out of Cuba. However, in 2013 Cuba activated a fiber optic cable connected to Venezuela. This improved the speed of the Internet and the amount of data that can be exchanged.
Internet access is limited to state-owned telecommunication offices (known as Etecsa) and state-owned hotels. At present, there are 118 Etecsa offices in Cuba. Wi-Fi is offered in some places, but it’s definitely not ubiquitous. Incredibly, Cuban citizens have only been permitted to own personal computers since 2008. Aside from a few choice individuals (including government officials, academics, and doctors), most Cubans are not allowed to have Internet in their home.
The cost of using the Internet is prohibitively expensive for most Cubans. At an Etecsa office, it costs CUC4.50 for one hour of access to the international Internet network, and is CUC1.50 for access to the Intranet and email. Most Cubans receive a monthly salary around CUC20 (about $20), making it nearly impossible for them to afford regular access to the Internet.
Furthermore, what Cubans can access online is also limited to government approved websites. This is largely because the government fears that complete freedom to share and access information could lead to political instability. In 2012, 25 percent of the Cuban population had access to the Internet, but only 5 percent had access to the free, open Internet.
There are two free Wi-Fi hotspots in Cuba. One is at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana—many Cubans, however, are fearful of using the Internet here because of the political implications of doing so. The other Wi-Fi hotspot is at an artist’s studio in Havana. The artist, who goes by the name Kcho, is allowed an Internet connection because he is a world-famous artist. In 2014, he installed wireless routers and shared the connection with the public. Crowds of people stand outside the walls of his studio using the Internet throughout the day and night.
In 2013, Cuba’s government said that Wi-Fi would soon be permitted for all Cubans, and that the country’s citizens would be allowed full access to the Internet. It seems unlikely that will come to pass anytime soon. However, as relations improve between the U.S. and Cuba, there is potential for change to come to the country’s Internet infrastructure. President Obama has said that telecommunications technology and services would be some of the first exemptions to the embargo on Cuba. There is a push to have 50 percent of Cuban households connected to the Internet by 2020. The next step to opening up the Internet in Cuba will involve increasing the availability of connections and reducing the price of the Internet.
Despite all of the negative implications of limited Internet access in Cuba, there is a silver lining. Because Cubans can’t access the Internet from their cell phones, they are more engaged and social when in public. It’s rare to see locals immersed in their own devices when they’re socializing with friends and neighbors. Instead, what you see is conversation and laughter. The arrival of wide scale Internet access in Cuba could change the social fabric of this country.
Using the Internet
As a traveler in Cuba, your options for using the Internet are limited. Etecsa offices offer one route—these small offices are scattered throughout the country and offer a place for both Cubans and foreigners to get online. The offices are simple, and typically have only a handful of computers that are available for use (although offices in larger cities usually have more computers). To get online, you’ll need to present your passport and buy a prepaid Internet card. Your passport number will be recorded, as will the number of your Internet card. For this reason, it’s safe to assume that all of your Internet use (including emails) is recorded. Anonymous use of the Internet is impossible in Cuba.
At upscale tourist hotels, you may be able to access the Internet using Etecsa’s system. These hotels often have Wi-Fi, and it’s not uncommon to see crowds of foreigners huddled over their phones and iPads in the hotel lobby. The cost of using the Internet here is usually higher (around CUC6–10 per hour), and you may be required to buy something from the bar. A handful of hotels are equipped with Wi-Fi and dataports in their rooms.