One Network to Connect Them All

By Yassel A. Padrón Kunakbaeva

In the last few weeks, the social networks in Cuba have seen heated discussion on one specific topic: SNET. Many people, especially those from the older generations, probably don’t know what SNET is and have never heard of it, but, to give you an idea, it’s a project that has managed to bring together around twenty thousand young people to work together and collaborate for more than 15 years. Since last July 29, the putting into effect of a batch of Resolutions by the Ministry of Communications (MINCOM) brought SNET to the brink of disappearing, and that triggered a series of actions and responses, which were politicized from different positions.

We have witnessed another round in the fight between the State and the opposition for hegemony over the movements of civil society.

What is SNET?

SNET, an acronym of Street Network, is an independent intranet set up by its users, and which encompasses a large part of the territory of Havana. It appeared spontaneously, as a response to the prevailing lack of connectivity, with the purpose of playing video games over the network and to share information of interest. Since then, it has grown exponentially, becoming one of the greatest self-management experiences of the 21st century in Cuba.

The network was distinguished at the beginning by its decentralized nature. Several independent networks appeared gradually in different places, which later found a way to connect with each other. To create these connections, the users managed to get the necessary equipment themselves: the APs, the Ubiquiti devices, NanoStations and cables. They developed further as new technology came in. In time, it became customary to see cables flying over streets and buildings.

SNET became more than just a network. With the passing of time, it became a fundamental part of many people’s lives. Gamers were able to interact with each other in real time from anywhere in the capital. They were also able to share in forums and download series. Through the network, lasting friendships have started, and even relationships. It’s been a true mass phenomenon.

Of course, it hasn’t always been smooth. Once the main pillars were consolidated (central connection points), and payment of a tax became official, SNET was centralized. There were power struggles between different administrators, the network split in two, and there were unpleasant altercations, with the issue of money in the background.

However, it must be acknowledged that SNET was always faithful to some of its foundational principles. One of them: never to share information related to politics or pornography.

The conflict

On July 29, 2019, MINCOM Resolutions 98 and 99 came into effect. They had been announced a few weeks earlier, as part of the process of computerization of Cuban society. Among other points, the resolutions involved a series of norms for the setting up and usage of private networks, bringing a new order to a world which, up until that moment, had been outside the legal scope. The days in which SNET could grow naturally and unfettered came to an end.

Among the most unpopular points of the resolutions was the impossibility to hang cables across streets, not even small inner streets, as well as the limitation imposed to the power of the equipments, which now could only be up to 100 mW. Some measures hit straight at the heart of SNET: its ability to interconnect users.

In understandable terms: by being unable to hang cables over thoroughfares, many people would be unable to connect, even if the network passed right across the street from their house. But the worst part was the one about the maximum power of the equipment, since, with a power setting as low as the one set by the resolution, it would be impossible to keep the various SNET nodes connected. The paradigm contained in the resolutions was that of a multitude of small, private, non-profit and mutually disconnected networks.

Faced with these resolutions, the Administration of SNET started to look for alternatives from the very beginning. It was then that they drew up and submitted to the Ministry some documents with proposals to modify the regulations and with possible solutions which would enable the network to survive. However, at first, MINCOM’s response was short and icy: they were going to analyze the submitted documents.

In the morning of August 9, a meeting was held between Ministry authorities and some of SNET administrators. In that meeting, an understanding was not reached. The attitude of the Ministry officials left something to be desired; they simply informed the administrators that the resolutions would be applied and that those who did not comply with them would receive written warnings. No collaboration of any sort was suggested. On the contrary, they were notified that the Joven Club de Computación (Cuba’s community computer centers) would replace the network in the offering of connection services, for which they would start running pilot tests.

The outcome of that unfortunate meeting was the call by SNET administrators to a meeting outside the Ministry of Communications on Saturday, August 10, to protest the regulations and to try to plead for a solution. From that moment on, the social networks began to heat up. Once it resulted in a public demonstration of defiance, the SNET issue began to appear on the radar of the different actors interested in either promoting or appeasing any instance of destabilization in Cuba.

On Saturday morning, many young people got to the area outside the Ministry of Communications. They were only a small fraction of the thousands of connected people. In spite of that, they were enough. Several Ministry officials responded with their presence, met with the young people, exchanged with them and committed to finding a solution.

Cuban official media reported nothing of what happened there. However, part of the opposition, which in recent years has gained in versatility and response capacity, was there that morning. The opposition medium 14 y medio was the first to cover that day’s events on the spot.

Crossed strategies

From Saturday, August 10, the issue of SNET became a priority for several groups in the Cuban opposition. It’s no secret that their strategy in the last few years is attaching themselves to other, authentic struggles of Cuban society in order to co-opt them, thus giving a social base to their activism against the Cuban State and system. This tactic already worked well for them on May 11 with the LGBTIQ movement, in what probably was their greatest victory in recent years.

The opposition immediately realized that, if it managed to dominate SNET’s struggle, it would gain access to a social base of thousands of Cuban young people of all social conditions. It was a tasty treat for them. For that reason, they started to devote coverage to the struggle, they went to their Facebook groups, they created WhatsApp groups, and they even found allies among the most unyielding SNET users. In violation of one of the foundational rules of the network, it became common in certain groups to mix the struggle for SNET’s existence with messages against the system.

Faced with this strategy, it must be acknowledged that the way the State and MINCOM acted was qualitatively superior to the response given to the events on May 11. The very next day, on Sunday, August 11, there was another meeting between officials and network administrators, in which they reached a new agreement: the resolutions would not be modified, but they would work together with SNET to transfer part of their services and infrastructure to the new network to be created by the Joven Club. These administrators were offered the possibility to become Joven Club collaborators and to receive a salary for it. Likewise, they were told about the advantages of the new network, which would cover the entire country and use fiber optic technology.

Initially, the response of SNET administrators was not unified. While those in Cerro accepted the new reality and started to work side by side in the joint tests with the Joven Club, the ones from other places declared themselves in open rebellion and called another meeting in front of MINCOM for Saturday, August 17. Deep down, the harshest aspects of the resolutions still stung; the issues of cables and maximum equipment power, together with the fact that not all users live near a Joven Club.

Nothing could serve the purposes of the opposition more than the call to another public demonstration. That’s why they intensified their efforts to create an atmosphere of opinion that favored destabilization. WhatsApp groups played a fundamental role.

On the other hand, the meddling by members of the opposition who receive funding from American sources aimed at regime change, gave the Ministry of the Interior a motive to intervene and make a strong appeal to several administrators to refrain from any type of demonstration against the Government. As it happens in this sort of conflict, someone innocent always pays a price.

What’s important is that, while this happened, MINCOM approached the various pillars of SNET and managed to attract the administrators to their proposal. The negotiated solution prevailed over impositions. Those who managed SNET were given the possibility to participate in the setting up of the new Joven Club network. It was collaboration as a response against confrontation.

In the end, the opposition groups were left without a social base, and by Saturday the public demonstration did not have the support of the vast majority of network administrators. Some went there anyway, either out of intransigence, or because they did not hear about the change in stance of the administrators, but they were received inside the Ministry of Communications and were treated to a calm discussion.

What’s true is that, during the week before August 17, most of SNET’s administrators started working with the Joven Club, preparing the servers and adding services. On Friday, August 16, an article appeared in MINCOM’s official website, in which Pedro Ernesto Pérez –known in the network as ‘Doom’– exposed some of his impressions on the process, and explained that the search for alternatives continues so that, within the framework of the resolutions, no one is left disconnected. One of those alternatives is the connection through Joven Club Wi-Fi points located at various MINCOM facilities. He also informed that the main SNET gaming platforms and services are being transferred to the new network.

This time, the State won the match.

The repressed

Since Saturday morning, Twitter was ablaze: there were images and audio recordings of the involvement of the State Security, which turned out in force to prevent that many people leave their homes and attend the public demonstration in front of MINCOM. However, from what I can see, the bulk of those who suffered ‘repression’ that day were not the guys from SNET, but people who had already took up the cudgel for the opposition to the Cuban system, and who do not mind accepting American support to carry out their activities.

Part of what they achieved was preventing the coverage which could have been provided by El Toque, Periodismo de Barrio, El Estornudo, 14 y medio and ADN Cuba, among others.

In other articles I have criticized the phobia of public demonstrations that the authorities in charge of maintaining order in Cuba have. However, this time I wish to put forth other elements.

Firstly, that people who receive money or any benefit from international institutions committed to the strategy of regime change in Cuba should not be surprised that counterintelligence consider them dangerous and take an interest in them. Such a thing they should not make news of.

Secondly, that the fact something is alternative doesn’t make it good. In that sense, I would like to know how many of those who today are tough and committed dissidents would protest the loss of social rights which would be implied by a capitalist restoration in Cuba.

Lastly, I know that some in the world of independent media are only looking for a space to legitimately express their diverging points of view. And I know that the State –and above all the most conservative elements in the bureaucracy– finds it very convenient to consider them all to be of the same ilk. But that’s why we must first fight for a legitimate space within Cuban society for independent media, and that begins with assuming a radically anti-imperialist stance (which does not mean anti-American), both in theory and in practice.

To conclude, the network

In order to conclude, I would like to say that I find it very positive that collaboration between SNET and the Joven Club prevailed. However, in the manner that the resolutions are written, if they were to be enforced today to the letter, the vast majority of SNET users would be left disconnected. My suggestion is that –if there really is a will to provide an alternative to those who spent so much time building SNET– the resolutions not be applied while the conditions to connect everyone are not created. It wouldn’t be good at all that, at the end of this story, the outcome should be that thousands of young people get disconnected.

Contact the author at: yasselpadron1@riseup.net

(Translated from the original)

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