The future of the internet in Cuba
By Alejandra Alvarez
The past few months have shown incredible changes in relations between the United States and Cuba. When the news broke of President Obama’s intention to lift the American trade embargo on Cuba, several Cuban-Americans believed the announcement to be a long overdue step in the right direction, moving the countries toward friendlier negotiations and a potentially normalized relationship. However, the news also produced resentment and a genuine sense of betrayal toward the Obama administration within some members of the Cuban-American community. Many of these people believe the announcement represents a certain American naïveté concerning the true nature and backwardness of the Castro regime.
The world is holding its breath in anticipation of the ongoing diplomatic negotiations and what the ensuing years will bring for US-Cuban interactions. Yet one American franchise has elected to get a head start on investing in the island’s impending financial value should positive relations between the two countries come to fruition. This franchise is none other than Netflix. Random, right? I agree.
In February of this year, shortly after Obama’s embargo notice, Netflix announced its plans to extend streaming services to Cuba. Whether or not Netflix was aware at the time of the sketchiness that is the Cubans’ unknown television consumption—an incredible irony emerges from the purported launch by Netflix of a service that almost no Cuban has the technology to access, let alone the financial capacity for subscription.
Those who are familiar with the technological reality on the island know that Cubans do not experience television in any comparable way to Americans. Here in the United States, our access to television, film, and video is relatively unlimited thanks to the Internet. On the flipside, Internet access in Cuba is severely limited. As Cuban blogger Yasmin S. Portales-Machado and Cuba scholar Ted Henken explain in Vulture, most Cubans rely on “The Packet” to acquire their weekly fix of film and television entertainment. The Packet is essentially a flash drive upon which distributors, otherwise known as “producers,” compile trending television episodes and Hollywood movies for circulation in both Cuba’s most populated cities and most remote towns. Circulation of these flash drives is illegal, as its producers, who evidently do have web access, rip the content off of the Internet. Each flash drive costs about five dollars, the equivalent of an average Cuban citizen’s weekly salary.
The Packet is enormously popular—some distributors have up to hundreds of clients, all anxious to keep up with anything from Game of Thrones to their favorite foreign soap opera. Its popularity is also illustrative of the reality that Cuban citizens cannot enjoy free access to the Internet like Americans can—they must conduct the exchange of online entertainment illegally, independent of the strict parameters imposed by the regime upon their relationship with technology.
“An incredible irony emerges from the purported launch by Netflix of a service that almost no Cuban has the technology to access, let alone the financial capacity for subscription.”
In addition to such covert methods of entertainment distribution as The Packet, Cuban people have founded and implemented several creative ways of getting their own content—be that blog posts, tweets, or articles—out into the World Wide Web. Cuban blogger Reyner Aguero describes his steps for tweeting without detection using the cellular service, Cubacel. The process entails sending the tweet’s content in an MMS text message to a Gmail inbox, which has its setup enabled by IFTTT (i.e. the computerized glue that holds cell phone, email, and Twitter together in this chain of information exchange). Due to IFTTT’s wiring, servers are tricked into identifying the message as Twitter compatible and thus, post it to the user’s respective account.
Perhaps the most ingenious demonstration of the lengths Cubans have gone to attain the right to Internet access is represented by the creation of SNet, aka StreetNet. A story by the Associated Press describes how a small community of Cuban youths constructed a network of computers—around 9,000 in total—that operates using private and hidden antennas and Ethernet cables set up across the city of Havana. Though this network remains limited as it is disconnected from the global internet, it still enables these individuals to connect with people and share files cheaply and without detection. However, the broader problem remains: Only about 5% of the island has unmediated access to the real Internet and, according to Mashable, this percentage is primarily comprised of government officials, professionals, or journalists who can afford the access either because they have the money or because they are on the regime’s good side.
So how will Netflix, among other burgeoning global technologies, be able to have any sort of success in Cuba given the fact that Internet is unavailable to most of the island—reserved as a luxury for mainly only tourists to enjoy—and a Netflix monthly subscription costs far more than most Cubans are able to afford? Portales-Machado anWd Henken asked a collection of Cubans ranging in profession and race how they perceived Netflix would impact the island, if at all. Most commended Netflix on its commitment to quality and ability to expose viewers to new perspectives via the media it provides. However, all were in agreement that there would be no groundbreaking impact brought about by the introduction of Netflix to Cuba, at least not in the foreseeable future, for the simple reason that most Cubans cannot access the internet. No WiFi, no Netflix.
Cubans have a long history of improvising and making do under extremely difficult circumstances and with limited resources. The aforementioned solutions they use to connect with the outside world and access and share entertainment are only the latest examples. Yes, comparatively speaking, their relationship with technology is nothing like the one Americans have and it would be nice to offer them the same Internet experiences we enjoy—but this only works in theory. Critics of Netflix’s recent move to conduct business with Cuba call it insensitive, ignorant, even selfish. They believe it reflects a lack of understanding about the conditions in Cuba, and that it is merely a publicity stunt. Netflix has defended itself by saying it sees potential in Cuba’s financial future, and they only wish to be one of the first to invest in it. Putting both of these perspectives aside, the business venture is implausible in today’s Cuba. Until conditions on the island change, unmediated access to the online world for Cubans will remain a dream just out of reach.