Posted by Sam Kellogg — MA candidate in Media, Culture, and Communications at NYU. This post was written in the summer of 2017, based on research funded by the Tinker Grant.
On paper, and according to many observers, the Cuban Internet is many years behind the times, behind the curve. In a formal sense, and according to a linear development model in which countries must develop one step after another along a set path, this is true. Infrastructure is certainly lacking, though this is changing—new fiber-optic cables have been laid in Habana Vieja and new public (though not free—see my previous blog post) wifi hotspots and Internet cafes have been opened across the island. The reasons for the lack in infrastructural development are multiple and layered: government hesitance to adopt the Internet is certainly part of it, though the long-term effects of the US economic blockade have inarguably been devastating to Cuba’s ability to build a robust web architecture, particularly because so much of the Internet’s global development (in terms of physical infrastructure but also in terms of intellectual property, patents, and standards) has been dominated by the United States. There isn’t time to go into further detail here, but regardless of the reasons for Cuba’s relatively slow Internet adoption, what I like to call the “back in time” narrative can be summed up well borrowing the words of a friend of mine, a well-respected Cuban. He told me that Cuba’s Internet infrastructure is about “twenty years behind,” pointing out that the public wifi hotspot model is fundamentally the same one used by other Latin American countries like Perú a couple decades ago. Larry Press has written astutely from this perspective, arguing that Cuba might be able to leapfrog development stages in order to catch up with the rest of the world.
Poster art in Clandestina: “Welcome to Prehistory!”
While this modal developmental model could be useful when comparing countries on a macro scale, it is limited if we want to understand what’s happening on the ground in Cuba. I would argue that the changes that the Internet has already wrought in Cuban society can hardly be appreciated if we stay at a high level, and argue instead for a ‘thicker’ approach of social and cultural change. From a hardware perspective, the antennas that the Cuban telecom company ETECSA is using in public wifi parks, mostly from Chinese technology giant Huawei, are fast and functional, and while the scratch-off, single-use login card system I described in my last blog post might seem antiquated, the system sits within a line of tried and true models for selling pre-paid access time going back to phone cards in the 1970’s. As a Cuban blogger and independent journalist I spoke with put it, “at least it’s something,” and compared with five years ago when access in cities was almost exclusively through expensive tourist hotels, the difference is almost night and day. Beyond that, though, the Internet and technology that Cubans use to connect is unrecognizable from those of 1997, and it is this fact that makes Cuba’s integration into the global internet at this moment so difficult to understand using linear development models.