What it's like to use the Internet in Cuba

The American education system tends to limit its focus on Cuba to the Bay of Pigs, and a general handwave towards the vaguely-defined evils of communism and Castro.

The reality of Cuban life since JFK is much more complicated — and I think, for that reason, much more interesting, and thus worth learning more about. The country's universal healthcare system, for example, is largely fantastic. Their public internet access is less so, as I recently learned in this excellent Ars Technica article:

Jaime Santos-Menéndez, a Havana-based documentary filmmaker, has often lacked the money to pay for Wi-Fi cards, and so, like most Cubans, he came up with a workaround. For years, Santos-Menéndez relied on his mother, a state-employed biochemist, to receive messages for him at her office via her government email account. Friends were instructed to email his mother's work account, she downloaded the messages to a USB drive, and she gave it all to Santos-Menéndez to view on his home computer. He would then respond to messages, load his outgoing emails onto the USB drive, and rely on his mother to send them from her office the next day.


According to the International Telecommunications Union, only 58 percent of Cubans had Internet access in 2018 and only 18 percent of the population had home-based Internet access. Home-based Internet has slowly expanded, however, and OnCuba reported in January 2019 that there were 70,400 home-based Internet subscribers across 115 of Cuba's 168 municipalities.

Estimating Internet access in Cuba, however, is more complicated than it would be in other countries because of how "access" is defined. Professor Henken, the Cuba expert, notes that "official Cuban government statistics may overestimate access because they include Cubans who may only have connectivity at a university or who only may have access to certain websites." At the same time, Henken notes that "official reports may underestimate Internet penetration because they're not counting people who are downloading information online and then sharing it offline." This offline sharing occurs via wireless file sharing apps and USB drives, both of which are extremely popular in Cuba.

It's a very cyberpunk situation — but, like the Cuban culture of classic cars, the necessity forces people to make do as best they can.

How Cubans make island Internet work for them [Cassandra Brooklyn / Ars Technica]

Image: Pedro Szekely / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)