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Cuba’s Internet Revolution Faces Economic and Political Realities

The new White House approach could help Cubans gain access to the Internet—but the question is whether the regime will play ball.

Easy access to the Internet is an important tool in economic and political development.

Cubans could be about to enjoy vastly improved access to communications technology under proposed normalization of relations with the United States, which will permit companies to import telecom infrastructure and expertise. But economic and political obstacles still need to be overcome for cheap, open Internet access to become a reality.

While the White House wants to remove trade restrictions on sending telecom gear and other technology to the country, it’s not yet clear what the regime of Raúl Castro, which strictly controls Internet access, will do.

“Castro has not committed to anything other than the prisoner swap and allowing a U.S. embassy on the island,” says Coco Fusco, a visiting associate professor in the Comparative Media Studies/Writing program at MIT, who visits Cuba frequently and has done research on Cuba’s blogosphere. “No concrete promises have been made. We have to wait and see what the Cuban government actually decides to allow.”

Even basic Internet services could transform daily life in Cuba. Right now, other than at certain workplaces, only elites can easily get online. At government-sanctioned cyber-cafés, connecting to websites outside Cuba costs at least $5 an hour—a hefty price in a nation where the average monthly wage is $20. And in some cases users have been asked to sign agreements not to use their Web activities to do anything that might harm “public security.”

Those aren’t the only restrictions. If Cubans want to tweet or make other social media posting using their mobile phones–which don’t have Internet access–they must use an international phone number at a cost of about $1 per message, says Fusco. Plus, “the Cuban government has a monopoly on telecommunications service and can charge ridiculous rates for international and cell-phone service.”

The new policies could provide indirect technological help by making it easier for Cubans to afford things like mobile phones. The White House wants to authorize American credit card usage in Cuba, allow more travel into the country, and loosen policies on cash remittances, all of which could put more cash in people’s pockets.

“Common things like computers, mobile phones, and thumb drives are not easy to find in Cuba, and people want them,” says Ellery Roberts Biddle, editor of Global Voices Advocacy, who studies the politics of Internet use in Cuba (see “Cuba’s New Internet Service Is Also No Bed of Roses”). Having more money will be a huge help, she says: right now, Cubans often share information by passing around storage devices and plugging them into whatever old PCs they have access to.

Cuba’s electronic isolation can easily be seen in its fiber Internet connections. Whereas the Dominican Republic, nearby, has five fiber-optic cables landing on the coastline, Cuba has only one, financed by the Venezuelan government.

It’s an open question whether Cuba will build out public infrastructure and allow increased investment by U.S. and global technology companies and telecoms. “But if this does in fact occur, it will be interesting to see if they pursue a mobile-first model instead of investing in fiber deployment,” says David Belson, senior director of industry and data intelligence at Akamai, the Web-optimization company. Either way, such changes would require not just a relaxation of Cuban restrictions on Internet content, but also economic growth to support the new infrastructure and ensure that people have enough money to pay for service.

Even if Cuba’s dictatorship does pursue new communications technology, it might include means to help maintain control over the Internet, a strategy adopted by other repressive regimes. Several use American-made technology to filter and spy on their populations (see “Regimes Use U.S. Tech to Censor Citizens, Study Finds”).

For now, restrictions on communication technologies represent an “internal blockade,” says Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College in New York City and author of a book about  Cuban entrepreneurial policy. “Even as the external embargo crumbles, the internal embargo remains,” he says.

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