In the past year, Cuba’s communist government has finally granted its citizens mobile internet access and legalized WiFi in their homes and businesses. The media are now fond of saying the island is getting wired for the first time ever.
But in reality, Cubans have had their own online platform for most of this century. Now, Cubans like Denisse Delgado are worried the state is taking it away.
“I remember when I was very young, I was probably 14 years old – people in Cuba were connected,” says Delgado, a visiting scholar at Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute. “I remember I was excited because I got access to a chat room!”
More than a decade ago, Delgado was a teenager in Havana discovering an underground Cuban internet platform, or rather intranet platform, called the Street Network – SNET.
At first Delgado used SNET’s chat rooms just to find new friends and hangout spots.
“But over time I saw the evolution of this virtual space,” she says. “It was surprising to see the creativity of the people generate something that was not controlled by the state.”
Cubans could plug into SNET if they could get hold of prohibited computer equipment like WiFi repeaters. It was jury-rigged to be sure. And it wasn’t connected to the web, per se. Still, an estimated 50,000 people use it today. They can download and share media, music, software and especially video games smuggled onto the island. (SNET was largely conceived about 15 years ago by Cuban gamers.)
Pornography and politics were off bounds. But Delgado says SNET users like her hooked up with SNET because it let them speak their minds.
“It was academic freedom,” she says – which meant a lot to her because she was an aspiring sociologist in a society where ideas are strictly controlled. Delgado saw that while SNET was officially illegal, it was unofficially tolerated – and she leveraged it.
“It opened my mind to different opinions or viewpoints about social problems or issues,” she says. “For SNET I used to make a questionnaire – ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’”
Delgado is now getting her Ph.D. in the U.S. She plans to stay here. But like SNET users back in Cuba, she fears the Cuban regime is now trying to erase that freedom she fondly remembers.
That’s because this month the regime put SNET under the control of the Communications Ministry’s Joven Club de Computación, or Young Computer Club. The government said SNET’s bandwidth exceeded legal limits for private networks. SNET organizers and fans protested in front of the ministry – and several say they were later harassed or detained.
Ernesto de Armas, 24, tweeted after one protest that “state security came to my house and took me away in a patrol car. They…falsely accused me and threatened to jail me, just because I was defending SNET. I’m not hurting anybody.”
The Cuban government says activists like De Armas are exaggerating. Pablo Julio Pla Feria, a top Communications Ministry official, told Cuban state TV the regime doesn’t want to shut SNET down – that it just wants to “improve SNET for the benefit of Cuban society.”
Here’s what that really means, according to several SNET users in Cuba who spoke to WLRN by phone:
Now that the Cuban government itself is selling WiFi network access to Cubans, it doesn’t want to compete with a private platform like SNET that has nationwide reach. Delgado says the regime in fact probably wants to co-opt the ingenuous platform.
“They want SNET people to be collaborators or to work for the state,” she says, “because the government has wireless infrastructure that is actually older and less sophisticated than SNET’s.”
And Delgado thinks SNET poses a more primal threat to the Cuban state – as one unidentified SNET activist put it in a video from one protest this month posted on YouTube:
“Falta de control.” Meaning: the regime fears it’s losing control in Cuban cyberspace.
Ever since the Cuban regime began loosening internet restrictions last December, grassroots social media activism has indeed been growing, especially this summer.
“With the impact of internet there is a new culture of speaking out,” says Delgado. “People are getting more used to debate – especially young people. SNET is a space where people can also organize themselves.”
As a result, the SNET takeover may be the first sign of a regime crackdown on internet freedom. But SNET users say it won’t be easy to put that cyber-genie back in the bottle.
“I think it’s not possible to make disappear this kind of virtual spaces,” says Delgado. “Cubans are creative. There are going to be new independent communications spaces that people will create.”
Which might help explain why Cuba’s government waited so long to connect the island to the internet in the first place.