On December 6, 2018, ordinary Cuban citizens got internet service. It arrived almost 30 years after the rest of the developed world. About six million people in the country of 11 million now use the internet and social networks. That access could impact Cuban life in more ways than just information convenience.
On the streets of Havana, brightly painted 1950s cars cruise alongside horse-drawn carriages. Tourists snap photos of many-hued buildings while waiting for government-approved guides in the quaint Plaza de San Francisco. But in the land that time forgot, things are changing.
Juan, a tour guide, at first praises the “glorious revolution” of 1953. He extols Cuban life. But before the three-hour tour ends, his speeches include spur-of-the-moment criticisms ranging from education to economics.
The tour group saw long lines outside a phone store. “It’s for SIM cards [necessary for internet service],” Juan reported. “They don’t have enough, so people must wait in line.” There isn’t enough of a lot of things in Cuba: shampoo, toothpaste, clean water . . . data. A single gigabyte costs $15. That’s a fortune for the average Cuban citizen, who earns just $20 monthly.
When the World Wide Web arrived in the 1990s, Cuba accused the United States of blocking access to underwater internet cables. The country didn’t have internet access at all until 2011. In 2015, Cubans finally could use mobile phones to access state-run email accounts. But they had to connect to the internet at government wi-fi spots. University professor Claudia Cuevas remembers using park wi-fi zones “once a week to communicate with your family.” Juan recalls doing school research outdoors in all sorts of weather.
Critics say the government resisted giving Cubans internet access because communist leaders feared a free flow of information. The government says it was fighting U.S. efforts to undermine communism.
Today, Cubans with smartphones air long-suppressed grievances on social media. Cubans are posting photos of filthy bathrooms and food shortages. They complain about hospital services. Citizens finally have power to drag one of the world’s least-connected countries into the digital age.
Mijail Ramirez tweeted about being evicted from his damaged home after a January tornado. A week later, he claims the government changed its mind and agreed to help him rebuild. Could Cuban officials be responding to the damage in order to do damage control for communism’s public image?
Alberto Cabrera helped developed a ride-hailing app for the vintage American cars in Havana. “Life has changed,” he says, referring to locals using the internet on their mobile phones.
Cubans may hope for more change as they can now show the world the uglier side of life under communism.