Cuban Social Hacker Talks Hackathon For Cuba In Miami

In Cuba, the blazing fast speed of technology is more like the slow crawl of a tortoise whose legs have been broken by the government.

However, the same processes of innovative thought that rule most every other aspect of life on The Island, apply to information technology as well.

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And with that in mind, the first ever Hackathon For Cuba is coming to The LAB Miami in Wynwood on January 31st. Local teams of experts will come together to develop app based solutions to the lack of web connectivity. Pacific 54 had a chance to catch up with Raul Moas from Roots Of Hope (who are sponsoring the Hackathon) to find out about living on dialup, hacking Cuban WIFI, and whether Fidel Castro checks his Google alerts.

What is the problem of internet in Cuba?

In Cuba right now less than 5% of the people have regular access to the internet. No one really has it at home. Some have it at work. Some have it at universities. But it’s all censored, and it’s all on dialup, so it’s slow. Also, less than 20% of Cubans have mobile telephony. Only one out five people have cell phones. Given these realities, they need to connect.

Where are your from?

Born and raised in Miami from Cuban parents.

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What is the black market for web access like in Cuba?

It’s common down there that if you have an internet connection at work, to allocate a portion of it to sell to your friends and neighbors. People also connect at Universities, but again, it’s censored. You can buy time at a public internet station, but that’s $5 an hour for dialup. The average monthly income there is $20, so that’s 25% of your monthly earnings for one hour of dialup. It’s incredibly hard.

But young Cubans are finding ways to connect with each other. They are creating LAN networks by hijacking telephone lines and running them across multiple apartments in a small area. That’s a kind of ingenuity that Cubans have gotten used to relying on in many different areas of technology.

What other digital innovations have sprung up on the Island?

Yoani Sánchez wrote about the 10 most popular Android Apps in Cuba. One of them is Wiki Droid, which allows access to Wikipedia without constant internet access on a phone. That’s the reality in Cuba. You just don’t have constant access to the internet in your pocket. So people there rely on apps that don’t require a constant web connection. The question is, how do modify an app that we take for granted and adapt it to the constraints of the Cuban reality.

What is WIFI like there?

There is hotel WIFI that is made available to foreign tourists. Europeans and Latin Americans can buy WIFI access in their hotel lobbies for about $12 an hour. Private networks are illegal, and considered subversive and dangerous by the government.

How about the black market for WIFI gear?

There really isn’t all that much because of the repercussions. Some hardware does exist because people bring it in, but that’s for a very small number of people. The other thing is, WIFI is not a great benefit because it’s connected via dialup internet, and the latency is even worse than if it’s directly connected. The one thing that is popular down there when it comes to WIFI is sitting outside of hotels that use wireless networks, hacking into them, and stealing the signal.

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What type of penalties are there for internet related access crimes?

They vary. What I can tell you is that right now a guy named Alan Gross who has been imprisoned by the Cuban government for 4 years and 1 month (as of this writing) for sneaking satellite internet connections in to the small Jewish community of Havana. He is American, so it’s politically charged, but I’m sure Cubans who have perhaps tried to connect have face repercussions.

What is the Cuban government so afraid of?

They are afraid of losing control. They are afraid of empowered and informed citizens who can share their daily reality. They are afraid of the end of their control.

Do you believe in the rumors that Fidel Castro checks the Google Alerts for anything mentioning his name?

I’ve never heard of that. I can’t comment.

Yeah, supposedly he personally checks out every article that mentions his name…

Wow. No comment.

How would peer to peer connectivity solutions enhance life in Cuba?

Anything that helps Cubans connect with each other is a welcome thing. The more, the better. The chance for economic prosperity, and development as individuals, and families, and communities is a good thing.

What kind of information are people most hungry for?

For young people in particular, technology is a really big thing. IT (information technology) is one of the most popular University majors on the Island. Cubans want to feel like they are part of the 21st century connectivity. They’re interested in baseball, futbol, international news. Everything you and I look for here, they have a desire for as well. That’s one of the most striking similarities. They have the same hopes and dreams and want to apply themselves to succeed by the sweat of their own brow. They don’t want to be told that they can’t dream, build, and create.

Is there any type of scene for micro computers like Arduino and Raspberry Pi?

We have been looking into Raspberry Pi, and how to get some on the Island to see what people do with them.

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Who is the greatest Cuban hacker?

The leading voice of technology in Cuba is the blogger Yoani Sanchez. She was the first person to use twitter in Cuba. She does it by sending text messages to a phone that is connected to it, but she can’t interact with it directly. She never knows how many retweets, or favorites, or anything she has. It’s a one way street for her. She sends out her messages for the world to see.

Where do you see Cuban Internet in 2015?

That’s a loaded question. I hope that everybody has access. That’s very much a dream, and I’m not sure how realistic it is, but I hope Cubans are better able to connect with the global economy and have access to the market place. Hopefully that will increase innovation and will have economic and developmental benefits for the entire county, not just a select few.