There’s another revolution in Cuba, and this time it’s online. All over the country, WiFi is being made available in plazas, parks and outside important buildings. Throngs of people are gathering daily, armed with laptops, phones and other devices for what would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Life here is rapidly transforming, and this is one of the most visible changes.
Walking down Havana’s busy shopping street, Boulevard de San Rafael, I was suddenly accosted by a teenager shouting fast Spanish at me and thrusting dozens of small packets into my arms. Soon they were everywhere. ‘¿Tarjeta de Internet?’ ‘¡Wifi, wifi, wifi!’ ‘Cinco pesos… ¡tres pesos!’ It didn’t take long to see what all the fuss was about. In the small square opposite were hundreds of people, and hundreds of small screens.
Some held phones at arm’s length, smiling and chatting to friends and relatives abroad. Others were sat on benches typing furiously away at laptops, worlds away from the city life around them.
Having only been introduced outdoors a few months ago, these telepuntos (hotspots) are everywhere. All you need is a scratchcard which gives you a username and password to connect whenever you please. Whatever the weather, Cubans are plugging in at all hours to connect with the wider world. One night, I left a jazz club on the Malecón to find a dozen users still going strong on the steps of a library. (Havana is pretty safe, apparently to the extent that you can parade your iPhone at 2am without concern.) It didn’t look like they were packing up anytime soon.
The same thing is happening in the provinces. The network ETECSA, Cuba’s state-controlled service provider, pops up on my phone as I walk through almost any plaza. This is usually accompanied by hard sells from groups of competing teenagers. I chatted to one student in Cienfuegos who had been going to and fro between his sister’s birthday celebrations and selling Internet scratchcards in the city centre – one card sold, one more mojito.
Earlier this year, telepuntos were limited to small sales offices, where you bought similar cards to rent a computer. Otherwise, the only Internet access outside authorised workplaces was the unreliable and expensive WiFi in the lobbies of a few swanky hotels. Now it’s al fresco, communal, available to all – except that you still have to pay.
The strict laws and controls on Internet access in Cuba are well-known. Only in 2008 were citizens granted the right to own a computer. For a fee, sending and receiving emails was permitted. But a direct Internet feed required government authorisation, usually only granted for professional or educational use – so the vast majority were limited to a local Intranet of approved websites.
In 2013, Raúl Castro announced that full Internet access would soon be permitted. You only have to walk the streets of Havana to see that the Cuban government seems to have made good on its promise. However, restrictions certainly still exist, particularly concerning the freedom of the press – a sticking point between Cuba and the rest of the world. According to US-based NGO Freedom House, a growing number of outspoken bloggers are routinely harassed and detained for their criticism of the government. The nation is still one of the ‘enemies of the Internet’ named by Reporters Without Borders, which argues that connection problems can no longer be blamed on the US embargo since a submarine cable linking Cuba to Venezuela was installed. The main barrier is financial. In a nation with shockingly low wages, people just can’t afford to sit back and surf the web.
Yet as the political climate shifts, so too does the urban landscape. Park benches are occupied not by old men smoking cigars and leafing through Granma, but by citizens of all ages staring at screens. Headphones shut out the world around in favour of an exciting, virtual space that links Cubans to a community they have long been denied. This might seem a shame to those of us who find it more of a luxury to switch off for an hour than to connect. It may appear to spoil the tranquillity of those leafy plazas where people stop to collect their thoughts, read in peace, or talk to strangers like old friends. Far from it – nothing could do away with the all-important rite in Cuba of park bench chatter. But now relatives in Miami can join in the conversation.
I’m currently staying at the lovely Hostal Los Ricardos, overlooking the main plaza in Sancti Spíritus. The WiFi just about reaches the balcony. It feels like breakfast in bed.