Mobile Phone Internet Bringing Fast Changes to Cuba

28 February, 2019

After a tornado struck Havana last month, Mijail Ramirez wrote on Twitter that Cuban officials were threatening to force him from his damaged home. A week later, he said the government had changed its mind and would help him rebuild the home.

Cuban citizen Jorge Luis Leon sent a message to the official Twitter account of a Cuban vice president asking that hospital waiting rooms have seating for family members.

And, a group of young people launched "Sube," a ride-requesting app for the aging American vehicles that can be seen on the streets of Havana each day.

A man holds his phone showing the app
A man holds his phone showing the app "Sube," a ride-hailing app for the aging American sedans on the streets of Havana, in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019.

It has been over two months since Cuban officials announced that the country's citizens could fully use the internet on their mobile phones. Today, internet-connected Cubans are doing everything from questioning government officials to posting pictures of dirty bathrooms.

In the process, they are bringing their country -- once one of the least-connected places in the world -- into the digital age.

Fast-moving changes are small but noticeable.

"Life has changed," said 25-year-old Alberto Cabrera, who is part of the team that developed the Sube app. "You see it when you walk down the street. The other day, looking from the roof of my house I could see that a neighbor had mobile internet service, as did the person in front and the person beyond him. You never saw that before."

A recent government report says about 6.4 million of Cuba's 11 million people are using the internet and social media.

In the past, most Cubans could use their mobile phones to link only to their state-run email accounts. They also could visit one of the few government-supported Wi-Fi areas on the island.

Claudia Cuevas is a 26-year-old university professor and a member of the Sube team. She said, "Before you went to the park (with Wi-Fi zones) once a week to communicate with your family."

The history of the internet in Cuba has been filled with tensions and suspicions since the 1990s. Cuba's government accused the United States of blocking its access to the fiber optic cables near the island. Cuba said, as a result, it was forced it to use a costly and slow satellite service. In 2011, Cuba got access to a submarine cable with the help of Venezuela. Then, in 2015, the general public in Cuba gained access through the opening of Wi-Fi points in hundreds of parks.

Critics of the government said it resisted giving Cubans free access to the internet because it feared a free flow of information. Government supporters said it was fighting efforts by the U.S. to weaken Cuba's political system.

Harold Cardenas is a Cuban blogger and Cuba expert who now lives in the United States. He said, "For a while, the internet generated fear among Cuba's leaders and there was a long wait."

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel opened a Twitter account last year. He recently ordered all of his ministers and other top officials to do the same. But many of them do not provide their own content or answer citizens' questions. They only retweet official messages or propaganda.

Diaz-Canel has repeated the importance of the internet. He says Cuban officials are working on websites and tools to help provide online government services. Such tools could make it easier for a citizen to request birth certificates or complete a government form.

Cubans are growing more skilled and more interested in internet use. This was made clear by the online reaction to the tornado in late January. Citizens used Facebook and Twitter to give and gather reports on damage and organize support.

Claudia Cuevas, the university professor, said the combination of internet access and social media "is a channel that people can use to say things as they are directly: ‘We need this or this is happening.' It cannot be blocked and people must see it as a way to express themselves and say what they think."

I'm Ashley Thompson.

And I'm Caty Weaver.

The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

tornado - n. a violent and destructive storm in which powerful winds move around a central point

app - n. a computer program that performs a special function

roof - n. the cover or top of a building, vehicle, etc.

fiber optics - n. thin threads of glass or plastic to carry large amounts of information in the form of light signals

access - n. a way of getting near, at, or to something or someone