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Cuba’s Walled Garden

The United States government no longer bans tourists from visiting Cuba. American commercial flights to Havana resumed this week for the first time in more than a half-century.

Most Cuban people are thrilled. Their isolation from their estranged American neighbors has finally drawn to a close. A certain kind of American tourist is also excited but wants to get down there in a hurry, enough to prompt Natalie Morales to write an op-ed with a rather blunt title: Please Stop Saying You Want to Go to Cuba Before It’s Ruined.

Americans who sport Che Guevara T-shirts can rest assured that Cuba is still as oppressive and backward as ever.

A tiny percentage of Cubans have cell phones now, but text messages that contain words like “democracy,” “protest” and “human rights” are being swallowed up by the state. If you send a text with one of those words or phrases in it, your phone will say the message was sent, but it goes straight into the bit bucket. Your intended recipient will never see it. 

The Spanish-language blog 14ymedio first reported this, and Reuters reporters confirmed it by sending test messages from their own phones.

“We always thought texts were vanishing because the provider is so incompetent, then we decided to check using words that bothered the government,” Eliecer Avila, the leader of the dissident group Somos Mas, said to Reuters. “We discovered not just us, but the entire country is being censored. It just shows how insecure and paranoid the government is.”

Cuba is one of the least free countries in the entire world, and it’s among the least connected to the Internet. Most citizens have no access to the worldwide web whatsoever for a number of reasons.

First, they’re too poor to purchase the hardware. That’s not going to change any time soon. The last thing the regime wants is everyday citizens dialing up the Wall Street Journal every morning before heading down to the ration card line. That’s why, In 2009, the state sentenced USAID employee Alan Gross to fifteen years in prison for carrying computer equipment into the country and setting up broadband networks for Cuba’s Jewish community.

Those who do have laptops, smart phones and tablets only managed to acquire them because their relatives who escaped bought them in Florida. The government doesn’t mind too much since only a handful of wi-fi hotspots even exist, and using them is prohibitively expensive for just about everybody.

The Castro government is under relentless pressure from both inside and outside the country to lighten up, so it promises to boost access to the Internet by creating 35 wi-fi hotspots around the country. Stop for a second and ponder that sentence. Think about all it implies and you’ll understand why Cuba is so far behind almost every other country on earth and why, Castro propaganda to the contrary, it is not because of the US embargo.

There are more than 35 wi-fi hotspots within a one-minute walk of my house. Counting my own, there are 13 within range of my home office. (I just counted them.) All of these hotspots are private. None are provided by the government.

If I had to rely on a government hotspot, zero would be within range of my home office. God only knows how far I’d have to walk, drive or fly to find one.

I’d have to walk, drive or fly even farther if I had to rely on a government that deliberately keeps me ignorant and poor to protect its own ass. That’s what the Cuban government is doing. Why else censor text messages? Why else ban every newspaper and magazine in the world except the handful published by the local Communist Party? Why else ban commercial billboards to make room for billboards that browbeat citizens with soul-crushing slogans like “Socialism or Death”?

And why else make it virtually impossible for normal people to use the Internet in the first place?

The United States has a minimum wage. Cuba has a maximum wage, and it’s just 20 dollars a month. Cubans are required by law to be poor. Prosperity is a crime. And when I visited the island in 2013, it cost 15 dollars an hour access the Internet on a shared dial-up connection in a hotel lobby. It goes without saying that nobody who ekes out a meager existence on the state-imposed maximum wage and a ration card could afford that. Those hotspots were strictly for tourists.

The government recently dropped the price to $2.25 an hour. That sounds almost reasonable, except for two things. It’s still vastly more expensive than using the Internet in America—which is free at most public hotspots and only costs a few dozen dollars per month to use at home. Cuba’s new “low” price still costs more than ten percent of a person’s monthly salary, and that’s just to use the Internet for an hour.

The average monthly salary in the United States is a little under 4,000 dollars. How often would you use the Internet if the government required you to pay 400 dollars an hour? Probably not very often.

Even if you do manage to get onto the Internet in Cuba, you won’t get very far. Forget watching the news on CNN. Loading even a simple text-only site takes forever with Cuba’s deliberately excruciating download speeds. At the Hotel Habana Libre, I burned through 20 dollars in Internet costs just to open my inbox in Gmail. I would have spent the entire day and hundreds of dollars if I wanted to read and answer a half dozen messages.

It’s no secret that the Cuban government wants to adopt the Chinese model for the transition from old school communism, where technological and market reforms are strictly controlled by the state and only permitted when the state feels confident enough that the reform in question won’t threaten its power.

I suppose it’s better than no change at all. Living in a walled garden beats rotting away in a dungeon or being worked to death in a slave labor camp. China is a much better place now under authoritarian one-party state capitalism than it was under Mao’s totalitarian communism, so if Cuba does evolve along those lines, life will no doubt be a whole lot better for the average person. Perhaps in time Cuba will end up hewing closer to the Vietnamese model, which is a more relaxed and lenient version of the Chinese model. Who knows? Either way, Cuba is decades behind both and has a long road ahead of it.

Cuban citizens, of course, yearn for the Czech model where communism collapsed in spectacular fashion and was replaced all at once with political liberalism and a market economy. It’s what those of us in the free world should hope to see down there, too.

If you want to visit Cuba before it changes, fine. Go. I did. It’s interesting. Just understand that change is a good thing, and the more change the better. Doubt it? Ask yourself if anyone but a political psychopath thinks abolishing communism destroyed Prague.

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