By Julio César Álvarez
On February 1, Cuban blogger Katherin Valerino Casanova shared a video on Facebook of protests in Havana’s Regla neighbourhood angrily against government officials touring areas affected by the recent devastating tornado.
It was the first video shared on social media in Cuba in real time that showed people protesting against the government, and quickly went viral.
Valerino Casanova was able to report from the scene thanks to the introduction of 3G internet to Cuba in December 2018. In just a few months, it has transformed the way many journalists work, allowing information and images to be shared in real time both within Cuba and abroad.
One female journalist working with the independent Palenque Vision news agency – who asked not to be identified – said that 3G was having a significant impact on Cuba’s media landscape.
“For me as a journalist it’s essential because I’m always informed and it’s much easier to share breaking news with the world,” she continued. “Now I can constantly share comments and information with my followers about the current situation in the country. Now people inside and outside of Cuba can find out what’s happening in real time.”
But it’s an opportunity not without risk. On January 27, a few days before Valerino Casanova shared her video, journalist Augusto César San Martín also snapped a shot of the tornado devastation in Havana. He instantly shared it with his editor at CubaNet News, thanks to his mobile data connection.
“It was my first report with 3G,” he said.
San Martín knew he was taking a risk. As an independent journalist, if caught by the police or state security he would be detained and have his phone confiscated. Indeed, a few months later the Cuban authorities raided his home and confiscating San Martín’s work equipment, including his phone – deemed an illegal communication device.
According to the Cuban Association for Freedom of the Press (APLP), between January 2018 and January 2019 there were 120 attacks against media workers. These included the confiscation of work equipment, short term arrests, threatening journalists with jail, limiting their ability to travel internationally and coercing journalists’ landlords to evict them. Cuba ranks 169 out of the 179 counties classified in the Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
And while 3G provides new opportunities, improved access to internet in Cuba also comes with risks. There is very little knowledge of cyber-security, and experts say that journalists and activists generally leave themselves vulnerable to attacks such as malware and phishing.
They also fail to protect their accounts or devices with safe passwords or two-step authentication, and communicate via text rather than using encrypted messaging or Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to connect to the Internet.
This means that hacks are frequent and the government takes advantage of such breaches by spreading misinformation from hacked accounts.
“A culture of digital security is non-existent,” said an expert on the island, who asked to remain anonymous. “The majority of users in Cuba do not know what digital security is. In Cuba the majority of devices connected to the internet are unprotected.
“All of this could be prevented by creating the habit of implementing a few security measures when using devices and surfing the net,” the expert said.
Nonetheless, 3G has proved very popular among the general public. Cuban telecom company ETECSA reported that in the first 40 days after it introduced it on December 6, 2018, they sold mobile phones with 3G technology to 1.8 million users.
More than five million people are registered to connect to the internet, although there there is no data as to how frequently they go online.
Cuban connectivity depends on the Alba-1 fibre optic cable, a 70 million dollar project that runs for 1,000 miles from Venezuela, providing internet to Cuba and Jamaica since January 2013. Before this, Cuba’s limited connection was via satellite.
In late March, ETECSA and Google signed a memorandum of understanding to negotiate an internet traffic exchange service to improve the quality of access in Cuba.
However, both parties stated that there was no timeline and it will only happen “when technical conditions permit”.
The Cuban government can also control the flow of information by cutting the internet entirely or drastically reducing connection speeds. For instance, on February 23 and 2, when the country held a referendum to ratify its new constitution, there was almost no connectivity in Cuba.
Many independent digital outlets, like Tremenda Nota, were inaccessible to their Cuban audience, while other media were blocked including 14ymedio, CubaNet, CiberCuba and Diario de Cuba.
3G also remains very expensive compared to, for instance, the public wifi available in parks for one CUC an hour.
A four-gigabyte data package costs 30 CUC (34 US dollars), according to data from the National Statistics Office (ONEI). The average monthly salary in Cuba is 767 CUP (30.68 dollars).
Some journalists and bloggers say that they simply cannot afford data packages to support the kind of work they need to do.
“3G is very expensive. It’s not efficient for sending videos or quality photos,” said Alejandro Hernández Cepero, a reporter for CubaNet News,” adding, “I’m carrying on the old-fashioned way—sitting in the park.”