Black Markets and Secret Thumb Drives: How Cubans Get Online – PC Magazine

Black Markets and Secret Thumb Drives:

How Cubans

Get Online

by William Fenton

In 2007, it was illegal to purchase a PC in Cuba. Now Cubans use a variety of crafty solutions to Grab online. How did we Grab here? Will certainly Fenton travels to Havana to locate out.

In 2009, Alan Gross faced 15 years in prison for setting up a Wi-Fi network in Cuba. Today I can easily sit on a bench in Havana along with a Materva soda and a bag of chiviricos (fried dough) and surf the New York Times website using a government-issued navigation card.

Seven years ago, Gross traveled to Cuba under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for Worldwide Development and made three satellite Internet networks via Jewish synagogues in Havana, Santiago, and Camagüey. He was arrested, and served more compared to 5 years in prison prior to he was released through a prisoner exchange. That date—December 17, 2014—wasn’t simply the day that Gross returned to the United States; it was likewise the day the Obama Administration announced it would certainly start to normalize relations after more compared to 50 years. Alan Gross was the linchpin in this so-called “Cuban thaw.”

When he made his underground networks, Gross used a Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) terminal about the size of a notebook. He positioned the terminal so it faced south toward a satellite, and nudged the panel until it could send a signal to the satellite that reflected down to a teleport. Connection established. For Gross, it was a moment of transcendence. “When you lock onto the satellite, you’ve lit a candle,” he said in an interview along with PCMag. “It’s a feeling of elation. After I did it the very first time, that’s all I wanted to do. Go around the globe lighting candles.”

Havana Cuba 2016

In 2009, lighting candles in Cuba was deemed a threat to the “integrity of the state.” Today, that quite state sells Internet access. Cuban president Raúl Castro’s approach to reform translates to “without haste, without pause.” Some Cubans use it to praise initiatives, others use it ironically to critique the pace of reforms. The existence of a private rental market, family-run kitchens, and growing Internet access suggests that modification is coming, though the pace of that modification can easily feel uneven.

Cuba’s Internet access remains notoriously poor. According to Freedom House, Cuban Internet penetration is somewhere between 5 and 30 percent, about half that of Russia. However, since 2007, when it was illegal to purchase a computer, the government has actually connected to a Venezuelan fiber-optic cable (ALBA-1), opened dozens of Internet cafes and Wi-Fi hotspots, cracked the door to foreign telecoms, and announced a pilot for residential broadband.

“I believe there’s a leak in the bucket that’s going to Grab bigger and bigger, and they’re never going to have the ability to fix it like they did in the past because Cubanos are getting a taste of something they’ve only had a whiff of previously,” Gross argued.

I traveled to Cuba as a tourist to locate out for myself. In my eight days on the island, I saw firsthand how ordinary Cubans jailbreak the globe Wide Web using a combination of hacked apps, Wi-Fi extenders, and cached websites traded on hard drives. This is how Cuba gets online.

“You Want Internet?”


On one street in Miramar, a residential district of Havana, I counted seven cell phone workshops—private businesses that sell and service smartphones. Inside one store, several children were jailbreaking iPhones, a mother was downloading bootleg apps onto an Android device, and a father was soldering a Brand-new chipset in to an aging smartphone.

These workshops look nothing like a typical Sprint or Verizon store in the U.S.; most of the phones for sale were two or three years old. A Samsung Galaxy S4 sold for 220 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), or $220 U.S., while an unlocked Blu Dash was about 100 CUC.

Just about everyone I met in Cuba had a smartphone. Given that Cubacel is effectively the only provider, it has actually little incentive to offer affordable plans. Last year, Cubacel announced a rate of 1 CUC per megabyte, however that is from reach for most residents, particularly those who rely on a state salary of 25 or 30 CUC per month.

Given the extraordinary expense, Cubans largely eschew data and rely instead on the more compared to 65 Wi-Fi hotspots located across the country.


One such hotspot in Central Havana might finest be described as a block party. Most of the “park” is paved, and individuals duck under sparsely planted trees and golf umbrellas to escape the sun. Even in the early morning, all the benches are occupied. Some visitors even reserve seats for friends by plunking down backpacks. By early evening, individuals tote fold-up chairs and beers. Several teenagers lean versus buildings, balancing laptops on knees. A group sits in a circle on the ground. An entrepreneur takes advantage of the crowds, selling snacks.

Millennials own this park, and while they don’t fit in to our hipster aesthetic, they possess all the tech you might expect of NYU undergrads, including smartphones, tablets, and MacBooks.

I asked one teenager where she got her iPad Air, and she said she had a “friend” in Miami. This is commonplace. Even though numerous Cubans purchase phones and tablets at cell phone repair shops, numerous procure their devices through the States. In Miami, there’s a thriving market for “mules,” people whose sole job is to transport technology to and from Cuba via charter flights.


To connect to a hotspot, you need a navigation (nav) card, available via Cuba’s government-run telecom carrier, ETECSA, which provides an hour of Internet access for 2 CUC. Every ETECSA office I visited had a line out the door, and one ran from official tickets, prompting workers to use folded printouts.


Not surprisingly, a nav card black market has actually emerged. The process is simple: Take a seat on a bench, look around furtively, and within minutes one or two vendors (they often compete) Will certainly sidle up to you and ask, “You want Internet?” Offer them 3 CUC and they’ll slip you a nav card. The most conspicuous portion of the transaction is that these unofficial vendors tend to carry nav cards in plastic shopping bags, which makes the entire transaction feel like an inept drug deal.

The downside is that these nav cards cannot be easily shared among devices, and the network often becomes sluggish when too numerous individuals connect. I noticed several visitors throw up their hands in frustration.


One of the reasons for the congestion is that numerous Cubans use their phones as hotspots via the Connectify app, which local repair shops can easily install on phones. Those that live within a few blocks of a hotspot tend to own repeaters so they can easily connect to and extend connections. I stayed in two casas particulares (private houses) in Havana: Both were in proximity of a Wi-Fi hotspot, both hosts owned repeaters, and both hosts complained that they couldn’t Grab online after 10 a.m.—there were simply too numerous simultaneous connections.

The Cuban government opened Internet cafés, though, compared along with the Wi-Fi hotspots, they’re inadequate. In addition to requiring users to sign in to computers, which puts them at risk of surveillance, the government-run cafés merely can’t keep up along with the demand for Internet access. As of 2013, the cafes had simply 473 PCs, or one computer for each 24,800 Cubanos.

Women in Park

The Internet Without the Internet

Earlier this year, the Castro government announced—and quickly scaled back—a program for residential broadband in Old Havana. Hiram Centelles, a cofounder of the popular Cuban classified platform Revolico, is skeptical.

“They’re talking about expanding Internet to individual areas in Havana,” he told me via Skype. “I have actually no expectations. In two or three years it might have actually some impact.”

Centelles, that currently lives in Madrid, was more optimistic about the prospects of the hotspots. “The government is doing this quickly because it’s cheaper,” he added. “And the individuals are using these hotspots in quite creative ways.”

Some of the most creative modes of “Internet” access, in fact, don’t even require an Internet connection.

The embargo precludes any real enforcement of U.S. copyright in Cuba. You see this when you visit a cell phone repair shop along with a homespun Apple logo. You watch it when a proprietor downloads hundreds of apps onto a jailbroken iPhone. And you experience it at “CD and DVD” stores, where you can easily purchase copies of any American movie, TV show, or album at staggeringly reasonable prices.

USB Taxi

This is just what Cuba’s top blogger and dissident, Yoani Sánchez, calls “the Internet without Internet.” However, there’s yet another permutation of exchange, just what you might call last week’s Internet, in a box.

Perhaps the most peculiar means that ordinary Cubans connect along with the outside globe is through “El Paquete,” or “The Package,” a cache of weekly contents from the Internet that circulates on hard drives. A couple of subscribers, that asked to remain anonymous, told me that their entire office goes in on one Package for about 2 CUC. Every Monday, a delivery man drops off the drive, they download whatever they want onto their computers, and send The Package to the next subscribers when the delivery man returns 6 hours later.

The subscribers I met allowed me to take a consider one such Package. Content was neatly categorized in folders such as “Games” (where I found ROMs and emulators for Mario Galaxy), “Humor” (YouTube video files), “Fashion” (clips from video blogs), and “Reality” (the latest episodes of everything from American Idol to The Tonight Show). Cubans can easily listen to Adele’s latest album, read last week’s issue of The Economist, browse the classifieds, or watch a surprisingly large cache of Korean soap operas.


It need to come as little surprise, then, that Cuban entrepreneurs and businesses use The Package as they would certainly the Internet. As opposed to posting songs to SoundCloud or YouTube, Cuban artists circulate albums via The Package.

Although Revolico is accessible through a labyrinth of proxy sites, Centelles suspects that thousands of Cubans access listings via The Package. He considers Package compilers “friends,” not competitors; so much so that he hired a sales force that works on the ground helping “offline” customers promote premium listings online.

Robin Pedraja’s Vistar Magazine likewise circulates through an unofficial iPhone app available in The Package and through various cell phone repair shops. He does so not to escape censorship, however to expand access. In fact, in contrast to Centelles and Sánchez, that have actually had their sites blocked, Pedraja describes a “new” largely harmonious partnership along with government officials.

“They don’t kill ideas anymore,” Pedraja said. When the Office of Media contacts him, it’s not to harass him, however to learn from him. “They care about us because we represent the voice of a Brand-new generation,” he added.

“In Cuba, You Never Know Who’s Listening”

Not everyone shares Pedraja’s optimism. While popular sites like Facebook and are accessible, services like Skype, WhatsApp, and YouTube are blocked. More surprising is the sense that Cubans don’t know why some sites simply “don’t work.”

Since Revolico launched in 2007, the Cuban government has actually repeatedly blocked the Craigslist-style site, and has actually “yet to offer any explanation,” Centelles said.

Revolico Ad

Together along with friend and partner Carlos Peña, Centelles has actually tried lots of workarounds, from changing IP addresses hourly to producing Brand-new domains, tactics that worked to a degree. “The government got tired of blocking our domains,” Centelles explained. “When they realized that it was a game of cat and mouse, they gave up.”

Still, the main site,, is inaccessible in Cuba. It gets 8 million page views each month, largely from abroad. Centelles’s main goal is to Grab it unblocked there in order to grow and much better compete along with rivals like Port La Livre and Cubisima.

“Cubans use Revolico as a verb, even when they’re using yet another site,” he said.

Investigative journalists face greater challenges. Sánchez, that has actually seen her blog, Generation Y, blocked inside of Cuba, pointed to a government-run propaganda initiative, Operation Truth, to discredit critics and promote the government’s plans.

In my experience, the surveillance state exerts itself implicitly and explicitly. I found it exceedingly difficult to coordinate along with contacts ahead of time of my visit because, as one put it, “In Cuba, you never know who’s listening.”

Given the inchoate state of Internet infrastructure in Cuba, the sophistication of surveillance tools is most likely overestimated; nevertheless, I understand Cubans’ trepidation given the government interference. You feel it not simply on the Internet, however likewise on the city streets. For example, when I was walking along the Malecón, Havana’s popular waterfront promenade, a police officer reprimanded me for taking an image of the Nico oil refinery, despite the fact that you can easily see its flames from almost anywhere in Havana.

Cuba Oil Refinery

“Then I Left”

It’s tempting to assume that Cuba is a despotic state in which citizens are quarantined from the outside world—early accounts from emigrants support such a reading. However, the Cuba I visited didn’t tell such a simple story. Despite woefully inadequate broadband infrastructure and a paranoid central authority, the Revolution has actually bestowed gifts, including a strong social pact, universal health care, and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, unlimited access to higher education.

Although few commercial opportunities await graduates, Cubans often acquire advanced degrees that they put in to practice through a growing freelance economy. In fact, Cuba spends about 10 percent of its central budget on education, compared along with around 2 percent in the United States, according to UNESCO. Cuba may not have actually a Harvard or a Princeton, however the public universities do offer degrees in engineering, programming, and computer science. It seemed as if everyone I met had an advanced degree.


My very first host, Dania, is pursuing a PhD in Computer Systems. Her mother works as television news journalist, her father as a surgeon. Her sister, a journalist, married a man along with a PhD in Article Systems. Contrary to the stereotype that Cubans are trapped at home, Dania has actually family in the Netherlands and Italy.

To Grab a much better sense of just what higher education looks like Cuba, I visited the University of Havana, the neoclassical architecture of which conveys much of the grandeur one might expect from a prestigious American university. In contrast to the noisy streets outside, the campus felt like an oasis: Students chatted on benches, lounged under trees, and sunbathed on steps. Nevertheless, there was a wonderful deal of activity. Contractors were renovating several buildings, including the Aula Magna building (below), which has actually hosted numerous important scientists and political statesmen, including Jimmy Carter in 2002 and, reportedly, President Obama this week.


The university’s CS program graduates around 100 majors per year and has actually grown so much that Math and Computer Science now occupy just what was once the General Sciences building, one of the largest and most beautiful structures on campus.

The problem is that there’s more supply compared to demand, something Centelles saw along with his graduating class at Cujae, Havana’s main engineering and science university. “numerous ended up working in low-level or non-technical positions, which is really a shame,” he told me.

Centelles emigrated to Spain after he completed his engineering degree. “I had to ask for permission to leave prior to graduating,” Centelles said. “Then I left.”

Typically, graduates conduct “social work” in university departments, research institutes, and government software enterprises, which provides guaranteed, though not lucrative, state employment. After two years, graduates can easily freely pursue various other positions including private job outside of Cuba. Some University of Havana students have actually landed jobs at Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.

However, the students I spoke along with confessed that limited Web access posed the greatest impediment to finding work. Though university students receive Internet access, data usage is capped between 300MB and 800MB per month. Connections are fast by Cuban standards—26Mbps—though they pale in comparison to U.S. broadband.

In the case of the University of Havana, administrators are working to improve the Wi-Fi network, though it’s still not sufficient for teleconferencing. During the day, the university even constrains access to Facebook to free up bandwidth.


“Cuba has actually Two Parallel Economies”

Many Cubans complete their degrees and seek a second—or third—job far afield. If you own a car, you operate a taxi or a rideshare. If you can easily cook, you run a paladar, a family-run kitchen. And, if you have actually a spare room, you open a casa particular. Even these well-established marketplaces—which data back to the early 1990s—are being cracked open as a Web-savvy generation of Cubans embraces the Internet.

Perhaps the most substantial game-changer for tourism is Airbnb. The platform can easily deposit greenbacks directly in to Cuban hosts’ bank accounts, and allow Americans to reserve rooms for as little as 20 or 30 CUC per night—a bargain compared along with traditional hotels, which can easily cost upwards of 200 or 300 CUC per night.

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, that was named a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship (PAGE) last year and is among the handful of U.S. CEOs taking a trip to Cuba this week, tweeted that approximately 4,000 of the estimated 8,000 casas particulares now use Airbnb; 1,700 guests Will certainly use Airbnb this week alone. “In the past year, Americans from all 50 states have actually visited Cuba on @Airbnb,” he wrote, adding that Airbnb estimates 10-20 percent of all U.S. travelers to Cuba in 2016 have actually stayed along with Airbnb hosts. Starting April 2, in fact, Airbnb Will certainly begin serving guests from around the world.

Unfortunately, all that availability could be moot if Cubans cannot access online reservations. For example, after Dania couldn’t connect to the Internet for three days she lost reservations and had her account suspended.

“Cuba has actually two parallel economies: one along with the state and one along with private business,” said Bernardo Romero (pictured below), the founder of the hardware and software company Ingenius. “In private business, no one can easily live off $30. In a family, perhaps one person Will certainly job for the state. Everyone else works in some kind of private business.”


As one of Cuba’s growing class of cuentapropistas, or self-employed entrepreneurs, Romero sometimes benefits from Cuban particularities. For example, Ingenius creates software for tracking payments in the country’s two currencies—the CUC and the traditional peso.

Others straddle the line between the public and private economies, like Syncware founders Adriana Sigüenza and Manuel Bouza, that serve private Cuban companies as well as clients owned either partially or fully by the state. Even though Cuban law precludes the company from working directly along with foreign businesses, Syncware acts as a “bridge” to foreign investors. Yes, it develops software, sets up Microsoft technology, and offers IT support, however it likewise helps businesses scale up operations by creating business plans, deploying CRM software, and designing business process management and enterprise architecture.

“A Cab Driver Shouldn’t Be a Former Nuclear Engineer”

While Romero, Sigüenza, and Bouza take advantage of Cuba’s bifurcated economy, others struggle in a country that does not have actually enough jobs for its highly educated residents.

“A cab driver shouldn’t be a former nuclear engineer,” said Tomas Bilbao, managing director at Avila Strategies and advisor to the Policy Council at Engage Cuba.

Consider my host Dania, that runs a bed-and-breakfast despite her advanced degree, or Centelles, that left the country entirely.

Still, Centelles remains hopeful. “Supply continues to outstrip demand, however it’s changing,” he explained. “After the December 17 announcement, a lot of Americans are attempting to Grab access to this kind of labor.”

Centelles sees a marked increase in private companies specializing in outsourcing. These intermediaries typically pay newly minted computer science graduates between 200-500 CUC per month. If these kinds of arrangements are agreeable to graduates, they’re far from ideal for the state—unless it aspires to become a low-wage outsourcing center.

Perhaps the most formidable barrier is the embargo. Sigüenza, for example, cannot negotiate along with Microsoft, which means that Syncware, and its clients, overpay for products and services. Meanwhile, Centelles incorporated Revolico in Spain to collect Google AdSense revenue.


Short of lifting the embargo, Bilbao argues that the U.S. must lower banks’ risk calculations. The sooner Google and Visa can easily operate in Cuba, the sooner Cubans can easily collect compensation for their labor. As long as the embargo remains in place, Cubans Will certainly struggle to move money in to and from their country. As any American tourist knows, most U.S. banks do not operate inside Cuba. (One noteworthy exception is Stonegate Bank, which announced last year that it would certainly open a corresponding bank account in Cuba.) The status quo may inconvenience visitors—I took cash out ahead of time because I knew that my debit card wouldn’t work—however it harms ordinary Cubans.

Incorporating businesses is a challenge, as well. Even though the government offers more compared to 200 categories of employment under its lineamientos, or economic guidelines, about three-quarters of those categories do not serve skilled workers, especially in tech, where Bilbao argues that the government must make Brand-new categories of employment.

This, too, is not an academic exercise for Cubans. Neither Ingenius nor Syncware could be incorporated as IT consultancy businesses. Instead, founders applied for two licenses (Computer Programming and Electrical Repairs) through which they use a loophole to conduct consulting.

Havana Cuba 2016

Finally, while Bilbao commended the government for expanding access via the Wi-Fi hotspots, he noted that without a clearheaded understanding of infrastructural shortcomings, the government and private sector partners won’t have the ability to make smart investments.

The Cubans that have actually stayed in Cuba, and the expats that have actually recommitted to their country since the U.S. reopened diplomatic relations in 2014, appear willing to endure these burdens. It’s a testament to their pride, as well as a day-to-day demonstration of their ingenuity and indefatigable spirit.

“I had the opportunity to leave Cuba and Produce a job elsewhere,” Romero explained. “I chose to live in Cuba, to Produce my business in Cuba, to start my family in Cuba. And, in a few years, I believe I Will certainly be much better off in Cuba.”

Alan Gross agreed, though he suspects it might take more compared to a few years.

“I absolutely support reestablishing diplomatic relations along with Cuba,” he told PCMag. “If we had diplomatic relations, I might not have actually had to forfeit 5 years of my life. We have actually constructive engagement for a reason.”

Still, “I believe it Will certainly take years prior to we have actually normalized relations because Cuba does not exist in a normalized state.”

“Without Hurry, Without Rest”

When Castro describes his reforms as “without haste however without pause,” he intentionally or unintentionally cites an American lineage. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in a famous 1841 essay, “Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events.”

A decade prior to he founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party, exiled Cuban dissident José Martí penned his now-widely anthologized eulogy to Emerson. Martí claimed Emerson made “idealism human,” and as Martí themselves gained an almost mythical status within Cuba, so too did numerous of the attributes he assigned Emerson. Castro’s reforms recast Emerson’s vision, which, after Martí’s hagiography, have actually come to suffuse Cuba’s revolutionary ethos.

Havana Cuba 2016

If there is something of Emerson’s history in Castro’s refrain, then there is likewise something of Emerson’s idealism alive in Cuba. It can easily be glimpsed in the bootstrapped networks, hotspots, and hardware that ordinary Cubans use to connect along with the outside world. You can easily see it in Cubans that refuse to incorporate businesses elsewhere, the students that pursue advanced degrees despite enduringly grim job prospects, and the entrepreneurs that start businesses despite untold practical, technical, and legal challenges.

In 2009, the networks that Gross made were deemed a threat to the “integrity of the state.” Today, they are provided by the state. If the curvaceous automobiles of the 1950s epitomized Cuba under the embargo, today it is the Wi-Fi–equipped public park where countless Cubans gather, along with lawn chairs and laptops, and wait to light their candles.

Top Photo Credit: Alan Gross. Check out the slideshow above for more scenes from Havana.

Subscribe to receive free email updates:

0 Response to "Black Markets and Secret Thumb Drives: How Cubans Get Online – PC Magazine"