Bringing The Internet To Cuba, One Flash Drive At A Time

The solution is a bit analog, but in a country that is largely shut off from the World Wide Web, every bit of outside information counts.

Bringing The Internet To Cuba, One Flash Drive At A Time

Internet access is no longer a privilege. Two years ago, the United Nations published a report stating that Internet access is a human right. Now taking that imperative one step further, a Florida-based human rights organization says that Internet access can and should be snuck into a country that’s been particularly slow on the uptake.


After raising $35,000 in a successful Indiegogo campaign, the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (FHRC) is planning to bring the outside Internet to 2,500 Cuban families by flash drive, CD, and DVD-carrying volunteers. Performers Gloria Estefan and Willy Chirino have recorded videos in a show of support, and the organization plans on using part of the funds to record a song to popularize its Connect Cuba campaign.

If you’re wondering how the vast, tubular Internet can fit on thumb drives, first, consider how the island’s Internet currently works. In early October, the International Telecommunication Union put out a report showing that Cuba’s Internet costs ranked as the most expensive in the world compared to average income. “Meanwhile, Cuba’s Internet remains so wildly expensive because it’s only available to the average person at 118 government-run cafes, where computers cost $4.50 an hour to use,” the Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey reports. The average government worker’s salary, however, is $20 a month.

Only 25.64% of Cubans use the Internet, according to the ITU–still a significant increase from the meager 3.77% of Cubans using the Internet a decade ago. Much of that has to do with the United States’ ongoing embargo, which has made it exceedingly difficult to purchase and build up Internet infrastructure, according to Ted Henken, a professor specializing in contemporary Cuban culture and society at Baruch College. But on top of lack of access, the Cuban government also strictly censors online content. Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, for example, relies on friends abroad to post the pieces she sends by email.

Lately, getting outside information onto the island has become a bit easier following a decision from the Cuban government in early January. Now, dissidents are able to leave and return to the island without an exit visa or invitation from someone in their destination country–a loosening of the requirements installed as part of the revolution after 1959.

But because access to the Internet remains so limited, Cubans use flash drives to pass along underground magazines and other outside media to which they wouldn’t normally have access. It’s not illegal to bring in outside content, per se, though Cuban officials can be fickle, Henken explains. Sending in volunteers with hardware to deliver is still risky, especially for more high-profile activists. One American contractor, for example, has been detained in Cuba since 2009 for trying to deliver satellite Internet to Jewish groups on the island–though in his case, he was bringing actual connectivity equipment, rather than hard data stored on drives.

The Connect Cuba campaign aims to deliver flash drives and rewriteable discs with outside news to existing black market information networks on the island. Volunteers will pass along the drives to relatives and friends, who then read the information on their home computers, which have little to no Internet access. Flash drives might even be stored in wristbands, like in the photo above.


“In some ways, flash drives, USB drives are the Cuban Internet in terms of horizontal sharing of information that might come from abroad. That’s smart,” Henken said, referring to the FHRC’s effort. But he’s also cautious about whatever will be contained on flash drives being delivered to an Internet-starved country–especially if it ends up being propaganda, just from the other side.

“To be really smart, [the FHRC] would need to be sure that the information is pluralistic, and widely representative of different views and different information,” he says. Cubans would have to be aware of who’s giving them this information, and how it’s being funded, he added.

According to Jose Luis Martinez, communications director for the Connect Cuba campaign, the thumb drives would largely contain outside information, like yesterday’s New York Times website. “Anything that’s outside information that’s newsworthy–for example, Yoani’s blog that’s been banned inside the island,” he said. “The other purpose of getting the flash drives into what we call civil society in Cuba is to have them share it with each other,” he added.

In 2011, the United States Agency for International Development gave the FHRC a three-year, $3.4 million grant to support civil society in Cuba. The organization says that funding for the Connect Cuba project will be accomplished separately from the grant.

Martinez said that the FHRC doesn’t yet have a concrete plan as to what it’ll put on the flash drives. Simply getting the rewriteable technology over there would be a good place to start, he said. The island can take it from there.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.