When the illegal Wi-Fi network in the Havana neighborhood of Mantilla was up and running, 120 members could play computer games and exchange news, movies and TV shows with each other far from the watchful eye of the communist government.
But then, a May 25 raid by State Security agents, police and employees of the state-owned ETECSA telecommunications monopoly seized several computers and powerful Wi-Fi signal boosters, and shut down the network.
The raid also cast a spotlight on the island’s Wi-Fi networks, one of several semi-secret and mostly illegal ways that a growing number of tech-savvy Cubans use to exchange uncensored information and entertainment.
There are applications that allow smartphone owners to chat and search the Web — without actual Internet access. There are programs that allow them to send encrypted messages to each other, and that automatically send them the day’s top news — and even horoscopes — as emails.
In the country with the worst Internet penetration in the Western Hemisphere, illegal telephone and Internet “companies” use satellite phones to bypass ETECSA and State Security. And there are social media platforms for Cubans with names like La Cubanada and Despierta Cuba (Wake Up Cuba).
Cuban authorities regularly attack such innovations, calling them part of a U.S. “cyber-war” to topple the regime. Indeed, the U.S. Agency for International Development financed the development of ZunZuneo, a controversial Twitter-like platform for Cubans.
But many of the new technologies used on the island are off-the-shelf, developed abroad and imported by Cubans for their personal use — and are evidence that the government is losing the battle to control access to the Internet and uncensored information.
Cuban officials “are setting up a wall that is leaking and putting fingers on the leak. Pretty soon there will be more leaks than fingers,” said Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College in New York who studies Cuba’s blogosphere.
The latest leak to become public: Wi-Fi networks, essentially groups of friends and neighbors who started out linking their personal routers about a decade ago to play multiplayer computer games and exchange entertainment programs.
Wi-Fi networks “are widely in use in Cuba these days to exchange information not offered by the official media,” said Alvaro Yero, a computer technician and journalist who was a member of the Mantilla network, known as the Vibora Park Team.
Government censors initially turned a blind eye to them, even as they increasingly used powerful signal boosters to extend the areas of coverage and transmission speeds, according to the blog La Singularidad, which helps Cubans find uncensored information.
“But what’s been happening recently is that they have been attacking [the networks] with more virulence” since the ZunZuneo program made headlines in early April, the blog added.
Two other networks in Havana and one in Cienfuegos, 140 miles to the east, were reported to have been shut down by authorities this year. But Yero said Havana alone has at least a dozen still operating, and Cienfuegos residents said they know of two others that are still working.
The Vibora Park Team had 120 members who used passwords to access the network, free of charge, and the games, movies and TV programs stored on a makeshift server, said Yero, whose report on the closing appeared on the Miami-based website Cubanet. He said he did not know the name of the computer program used to coordinate the multiple connections.
The network had its own home page but no access to the Internet, he added. Others said, however, that while most of the Havana networks did not have Internet access, some obtained occasional access by bribing government officials who have accounts because of their work.
Yero said the same man who ran the Mantilla network ran an even bigger one, with 400 members, that police broke up in early May. That network was linked to a string of others that stretched the coverage as far as 10 miles away, he told el Nuevo Herald.
It charged members up to $10 a month for the access plus a weekly paquete — a compilation of movies, telenovelas, sports and news reports usually put together abroad and more often passed around among Cubans using DVDs or USB flash drives.
Police seized equipment valued at nearly $1,100 during that first raid, and fined the network’s operator $1,000. He was fined an additional $180 after the latest raid, but was not charged with a criminal violation.
ETECSA officials also shuttered a Wi-Fi network last month that had operated for barely a week out of an apartment building in the Pastorita neighborhood of Cienfuegos, with a reach of up to 300 feet, according to another report on Cubanet.
“No matter how much I explained to them that I only used it to play games, the officials did not understand. They alleged that what I was doing was illegal and proceeded to seize the equipment,” said the network’s owner, Carlos Daniel.
Cuban laws are apparently unclear on Wi-Fi equipment, and several Nano-brand signal boosters are listed for sale for up to $250 on the website Revolico, a Cuban version of eBay. But the government blocks Cubans’ access to Revolico.
USAID subcontractor Alan P. Gross is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Havana for using satellite phones to create three Wi-Fi hotspots and Internet access for Cuban Jews outside state controls. He was convicted of endangering Cuban sovereignty, a national-security crime.