Cuba's Few (Controlled) Hotspots Are Hardly an "Opening"

Monday, August 24, 2015
Excerpt from "The Internet Dealers of Cuba" in Motherboard:

It’s true the hotspots are better than nothing, but, in many ways, they shouldn’t even be looked at as a symbolic opening of Cuba’s notoriously closed government.

“35 wireless hotspots. That’s nothing in a country of 11 million people. Could you imagine if in Manhattan you could only access the internet at 35 hotspots? That’s insane,” Jose Luis Martinez, communications director at the Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, told me. “They’re all censored and monitored and controlled by the government, so it’s not that significant of an opening at all.”

Like nearly everything else in Cuba, all internet access on the island is wholly controlled by the communist government. Whether you are accessing the “public” wifi through a hotspot, connecting in a hotel, or using one of the handful of government-owned computer labs, you must use a scratch card issued by the Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A. (ETECSA), which is also the only cell phone and telephone company on the island.

ETECSA was formerly a collaboration between the Cuban government and Telecom Italia, but became wholly owned by the Cuban government in 2011, when Telecom Italia sold its stake back to Cuba. ETECSA is now tasked with installing and operating the wifi hotspots, selling cell phone and landline plans (there is no mobile internet in Cuba), selling internet scratch cards directly to users, operating a small number of computer labs (some of which have internet access), and managing a Cuba-only set of email addresses.

Because ETECSA offers so many important services, lines at ETECSA stores are unruly, disorganized, long, and slow moving. Like nearly every other logistical task in the country, using a hotspot is a huge pain in the ass.

Want to get on the internet? Get in line at one of the giant blue ETECSA stores and be prepared to spend 10 percent of your monthly salary on a $2, one-hour scratch card. And be prepared to wait. That is, of course, if ETECSA actually has any of the cards in stock, or has the means to activate them, neither of which is a given. In the very touristy beach town of Varadero, I was unable to buy a card for two days—cards couldn’t be activated at the ETECSA and every hotel I checked had sold out of their supplies.

ETECSA stores, for the record, are rarely located close to the wifi hotspots. There are ETECSA kiosks located throughout the country, including some next to public wifi areas. I did not, however, see a single kiosk that was actually open. It is also possible to buy the cards in certain hotels at a markup, though supplies were limited in most hotels I went to, also.

The inconvenience is “another way of limiting the amount of time people spend on the internet,” Martinez said.

“Finding these cards is hard and expensive and it’s why the Cuban black market gets ahold of these things. It puts Cubans in a constant day-to-day survival mode,” he said. “If you’re heading halfway across town to get access, you’ve got less time to read outside news and perspective. It’s very intentional and gives Cubans very little time to think about and formulate what they’re going to do when they actually do connect.”