HAVANA, Cuba — Dozens of cyber cafes dot the streets of Havana, but a small trailer on the grounds of the US diplomatic mission is one of the only places where Cuban citizens can freely access the internet.
Each week, 74-year-old Eusebio Morales Rivas travels 40 minutes by bus to the trailer here to access content that’s free of the usual blocks, and of the usual steep fees.
“Thanks to the United States we can get internet,” Morales said. “That’s why we come here every Friday.”
Cubans can also take classes in journalism and English at the US Interests Section, a fact that has attracted the ire of Cuban President Raul Castro, who called the training “illegal” last month. As the United States and Cuba work toward restoring normal diplomatic relations, Castro sees the courses as an attempt to subvert his government’s tightly controlled media and web access.
An official at the US Interests Section declined to comment.
The US government removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism on Friday — a day many Cubans believed they wouldn’t live to see. But critics of renewed relations say that Cuba’s strict control of the media and decades of oppressing political dissidents are cause for concern.
The combo of Cuba’s controls plus Washington’s half-century-old embargo against the island long created frustratingly slow and incomplete service for Cuban internet users. Although the trade embargo remains in place, last December President Barack Obama announced looser rules for technology companies wanting to do business with Cuba. He said he hoped this would help increase online access in a country with one of the world's lowest web usage rates.
But the two governments aren’t totally friends yet, and there's tension about people using American diplomats' free web service. Several users say they have been threatened and harassed for going to the trailer. But, they say, access to human rights workers and the broader web is worth the risk.
Lidia Romer Rojos said internet access is difficult in a country where cyber cafes charge $5 for a 30-minute session with Cuba’s still limited internet. That’s about equal to the average weekly wage of a Cuban worker.
“Access to the [web] is really difficult for the people,” Romer said. “Since I am in the opposition, I go to the US Interests Section to use the internet. It’s free.”
Castro has accused the US diplomatic mission of paying people to go there.
“I did a couple of tweets about what he said. He thinks that people are paid to go to the US Interests Section. This is not true,” Romer said.
Some Cubans perceive using the trailer as working with the enemy. Still, the facility receives numerous Cubans daily.
Morales, a political dissident, knows that the Cuban government is watching him. He said has been held in jail dozens of times.
“Many people feel afraid to come here,” Morales said.
Megan Abundis and Megan Murnane are journalism students at Washington State University's Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.