Like all public services in Cuba, internet connections are provided exclusively by the government. The Cuban Telecommunications Agency (Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba – or ETECSA) offers home lines and WiFi across the island, but connections are expensive and the service has its share of glitches. In response, many towns have set up their own “pirated” intranet networks.
One of these, as reported by the AFP news agency, is in the little town of Gaspar, in the heart of the Ciego de Ávila region. There, local youths have created Gaspar Social, a social network that allows them to build profiles and share photos and files. The network is, of course, illegal, but so far the government has allowed its existence as long as it keeps a low profile and is not used to criticize the Castro regime. According to the report, four of the youths responsible for creating the network were called in by authorities, who emphasized that the enterprise is not lawful, but made no moves to take it down.
Gaspar Social has become the poster-child of similar networks built throughout the island. Some have been put together by tech-savvy individuals with little official interference, while others have required low-level bribes of local officials to use existing infrastructure. They are only the latest evidence of the amazing ingenuity of Cubans, who have had to keep up with advances in the rest of the world amidst ever-growing scarcity and a government that always views change with suspicion.
It remains to be seen what the impact of such online social activity will have on Cuban youth. Will social networking come to dominate their lives to the degree that it has for teens and young adults in the “free” world? This would have some obvious effects: more efficient communication and sharing of information, virtual spaces in which to converse and exchange ideas (though always fearful of government surveillance), the availability of the endless escapist distractions of the digital world.
But less clear is whether, and if so, how, this could impact the political and social life of the island. Will social networks become a sort of opiate for the masses? Will they make young Cubans less likely to protest and resist their government? Or will they have the opposite effect, as they have around the world in places as different as Egypt and Hong Kong, and spur collective action?
At the very least, the cobbled together networks will probably just make the vastness of the World Wide Web more available to Cubans. In the long run, this may end up being the most lasting contribution.