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Will better relations with U.S. mean an easing of censorship in Cuba?

June 17, 2015 at 8:10 PM EST
Cuba has one of the lowest rates of Internet connectivity in the Western Hemisphere. In this installment of our continuing series “Cuban Evolution,” Jeffrey Brown looks at Cuban access to the Internet, the effect it has on people’s lives and whether access will change with improved Cuban-American relations.
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GWEN IFILL: Now to Cuba.

Tonight, we look at the country’s poor access to the Internet, the prospects for improvement, and what it means for the state of free speech on the island.

It’s the next chapter in Jeffrey Brown’s series this week on the Cuban Evolution.

JEFFREY BROWN: Classic cars, colonial buildings, whiling away hours on Havana’s famous ocean stretch, the Malecon. For, decades Cuba has felt removed from the forward march of time, a sense that’s only grown more pronounced in the age of information.

In an ever more connected world, it’s a strange feeling to take a short flight from Miami and find that this, other than in a few spots, is essentially useless. It’s a sense of isolation that’s not lost on people we talk to here.

MAN (through translator): We’re missing out on everything, actually. It’s impossible to live without communicating, and I don’t know how we can continue like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Cuban government says that 25 percent of its citizens have Internet access. Watchdog groups like Freedom House put the number able to link to a free and open Internet far lower, at around 5 percent.

Either way, it’s one of the lowest rates in the Western Hemisphere.

WOMAN (through translator): When I first heard about this place, I was really surprised.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is perhaps Cuba’s only free Wi-Fi cafe, opened in a quiet Havana neighborhood earlier this year by Alexis Leiva Machado, a renowned Cuban artist better known as Kcho. He’s personally close to the Castro brothers.

Former President Fidel even made a rare public appearance last year to attend the opening of his cultural center. That might explain why Kcho’s allowed to offer this space as a kind of art project. It’s not clear how long it will continue, but young Cubans are packing the place while it lasts.

MAN (through translator): I’m here to get in touch with my girlfriend and get some school stuff worked out. I come here to get some information for that.

WOMAN (through translator): I come here to get online to know about my friends, get in touch with my family, and I would love if I could do this somewhere else too.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why doesn’t anyone have a Wi-Fi connection at home?

WOMAN (through translator): I don’t know. The state, maybe?

RAUL MOAS, Executive Director, Roots of Hope: The Internet in Cuba is very much a luxury for those who can afford it today, in 2015.

JEFFREY BROWN: Raul Moas is executive director of Roots of Hope, a Miami-based nonprofit with branches around the U.S., including in Washington, D.C., where he spoke to us.

His group has been working to increase Cubans’ access to technology, sending cell phones, laptops and thumb drives to Cuba since 2008, when Raul Castro began easing restrictions on these consumer devices.

RAUL MOAS: When Cuba legalized the use of cell phones in 2008, they really priced out the majority of the market. So one cell phone would cost around 100 CUC, $100. That’s five to six months’ wages for any average person on the island.

So, unless you had family in the diaspora that was able to send you a remittance for that amount, the average Cuban wasn’t able to buy that.

JEFFREY BROWN: After years of painfully slow dial up service via satellite, in 2013, underground fiberoptic cables laid to Venezuela were switched on, allowing Cuba broadband access.

Yet, today, that access is spotty at best, and far too expensive. Cubans can visit 150 or so state-owned telecom centers, where they can pay relatively little to send e-mail and access Cuba’s internal network, its intranet. They must pay much more to reach the global Internet, which they can also do at tourist hotels, where it’s even more expensive, around $10 an hour, in a country where the average Cuban earns between $14 and $22 a month.

MAN (through translator): I don’t have a budget to be paying for the Internet at the prices we have at any other place.

MAN (through translator): It should change soon, because we are talking to our new friends in the U.S., the Americans, and hopefully we’re going to get there soon and there’s going to be some progress on this.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s the hope, anyway, that, with the new talks, there will be an easing of restrictions for U.S. telecoms doing business here, and new Wi-Fi spots will spring up.

Raul Moas of Roots of Hope says he thinks more of that will come, along with cheaper services, little by little.

RAUL MOAS: Raul Castro takes a very cautionary approach to the reforms he’s implemented, particularly around the economy and economic reforms around small businesses. So, you open up small businesses in some sectors to some extent with very high taxes, and then, once you see the train hasn’t derailed completely, and they’re still in power, you open up a little bit more.

And I think the same thing is happening with the Internet. They recognize the need for Cuba to be connected to the globalized economy, but they’re taking it piecemeal, day by day.

JEFFREY BROWN: But how much of an opening? The government still controls mass media, like television, radio and Granma, the official paper of the Communist Party.

JOSEPH GONZALEZ, Professor, Appalachian State University: My impression from talking to my Cuban friends is that they are more than just a little bit cynical. They continue to be cynical about what they read in the newspapers, and especially what they see on television.

JEFFREY BROWN: Joseph Gonzalez, a professor at Appalachian State University who’s been coming to Cuba for years, does see people speaking more freely here, including expressing open distrust of state media.

JOSEPH GONZALEZ: At the same time, I have also heard from some of my colleagues at the University of Havana who have official connections that political change is not on the horizon. This is about as far as it’s going to go. They want to see economic change, but they’re — the government as a whole, and the Communist Party in particular, is not interested in significant political change.

MANUEL MONS, Somos Mas (through translator): And for that reason, the government limits the arrival of the Internet in Cuba.

JEFFREY BROWN: Manuel Mons is a 26-year-old blogger and part of a Cuban reform movement called Somos Mas, We Are More.

MANUEL MONS (through translator): The government doesn’t want the Internet in Cuba. The government is afraid of having the Internet in Cuba. The government is afraid of the day that people will actually have true access to the Internet.

JEFFREY BROWN: He and other bloggers, like Yoani Sanchez of 14ymedio, touted as Cuba’s first independent digital news site, must send articles abroad via e-mail to be published.

Inside Cuba, their sites are blocked. To reach a Cuban audience, they deliver articles person to person on what’s known as the packet, external drives that contain articles, TV shows and movies, a kind of offline Netflix.

MANUEL MONS (through translator): I think the Internet is fundamental for this change to happen, and the quicker the Internet comes, the quicker the changes in Cuba will come.

The majority of young people want a change in Cuba. The majority of young people are against the government. But the majority of young people prefers to keep quiet out of fear.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re not afraid?

MANUEL MONS (through translator): No, not at all. I think the government is more afraid of me than I am of them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mons says more young people must confront their fears and the state, demanding change.

Reporting from Havana and Washington, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey’s Cuba coverage continues tomorrow, with a look at the booming art market and how it reflects a changing attitude toward small business.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, artists here are positively entrepreneurial. Adrian Fernandez and his partners were able to create this upscale studio after new laws made it possible to buy and sell property.

They now sell their work directly to consumers, mostly abroad, avoiding government-run galleries and reaping their own profits.

MAN: We deal directly with the people that reach us here. We connect directly.

GWEN IFILL: Behind every good reporting trip, especially abroad, is a good fixer.

These are the men and the women who live and work in the country who help reporters like Jeff gain access to the people you see in our stories. In Havana, that was Josue Lopez. Online, he gives us a guided tour of Havana from a local’s perspective. It’s a new series we’re calling The Fixer’s Guide, and you can find that on our home page.

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