Category Archives: Cuba-US relations

Cuba’s outdoor WiFi hotspots

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.

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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.

First impressions

On my first day in Havana, I woke up late (jaded from jet lag and Cuban rum, always much less sweet the next morning) to see US Secretary of State John Kerry delivering his speech at the newly operational embassy. So I sprinted – or walked, as hastily as any foreigner could in the scorching midday heat – down to the Malecón. I was just in time to hear the end of the US anthem and see the flag flying high at the top of the mast-pole. An expected step after the opening of the Cuban embassy in Washington last month, but nonetheless a patent symbol of peace and immense possibility for the future of Cuban citizens for whom hostilities with their northern neighbour has taken a huge toll. Hundreds of people were gathered outside the building, cheering and clapping, Cubans and Americans alike.

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So a wonderful time to be in Cuba, to say the least. The thaw in relations with the US and the knowledge that the crippling embargo is one step closer to being lifted adds hope and excitement to a city that already astonishes with its resilience and constant movement. Havana is big – much bigger than I had imagined – but nothing is diluted. Buses, motorbikes, bicycles and the archetypal American cars blaze down the Malecón in a continuous stream of every colour imaginable. To the left, hundreds of narrow entrances to the maze of streets that make up the city centre. To the right, quiet; silhouettes of couples sitting and boys fishing at the seafront. It’s a city of juxtapositions that still seem perfectly in tune.

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Inside the labyrinth, the energy of children playing football in every street is offset by their parents reclining on chairs on the pavement, as languid as the cigar smoke you breathe in everywhere. It’s like a novel of magical realism where time fast-forwards then stands still before you turn the page. It might be cliché, except that it’s too confusing.

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However, as a traveller, you can’t just leave your wits behind and enter the euphoria. Cuba has a strained relationship with tourism. It’s perfectly safe, but many try every scam to lighten your wallet. In a country where wages are shockingly low, it is perhaps inevitable that the tourist tax is sky-high and you can expect to be charged for everything as much as locals can get away with. Tourists take different transport and even use a different currency (pesos convertibles rather than the national peso). When you are reminded at every turn that you are an outsider, the divide seems pretty unbridgeable.

These were my first, and most likely very shallow and inaccurate impressions. I think that for the first few days, you can really only enjoy yourself, reserve judgement and get thoroughly lost in the amazing, perplexing streets of the city.

Cuban Embassy opens in Washington

It has been a day of celebration for both countries as Cuba’s flag is raised above the embassy in Washington, signalling that the thaw in hostilities has turned to real and open diplomatic relations.

This was the latest stepping stone in a long effort to normalise relations. It comes after several landmark changes in the past year, beginning with Obama’s historic announcement of a ‘new chapter’ last December. In January, talks continued and restrictions on travel and trade between the two countries were significantly relaxed. On May 29, Cuba was formally removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, which may sound like no more than a long overdue rubber stamp, but in fact opened the path for foreign companies and banks to trade with and invest in Cuba. In a country where the average wage is said to about $20 a month, this can only be a good thing.

There are many problems that remain unresolved, as all parties are reminding us – and rightfully so, since the trade embargo is enshrined in law and will need congressional approval to be finally lifted. The impassioned chant of ‘Cuba sí – bloqueo no’ was heard today as the flag was raised. Calling the embargo a blockade is vividly accurate. In 2011, Cuba calculated that the economic damage of the policy had reached over $1 trillion over the course of half a century.

Neither can anybody ignore the humongous elephant in the room that is Guantánamo Bay. Since the Revolution, Cuba has cashed none of the payments offered for the naval base, and maintains that the territory is illegally occupied. Again, Obama’s call to close the facility is hampered by Congress.

Nevertheless, this latest step is a victory for global diplomacy and promises further developments in the not too distant future. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Cuba in August for a similar inauguration of the US embassy in Havana. Meanwhile, talks will continue behind the scenes, and each announcement is another hurdle cleared at last.

Cuba: a living car museum?

Every year, tourists flock to Cuba to see the thousands of ‘Yank Tanks’ still on the roads today

Walk the streets of Havana and you are bound to see dozens of the classic American cars that gloss the cover of almost every tourist guide. “Come to Cuba,” they urge, “trundle along the Malecón, sip mojitos in the back of a 1954 Chevrolet, gaze out at a tropical island frozen in space and time…” Nicknamed yank tanks or máquinas, there are thought to be 60,000 of these vehicles still in operation in Cuba; over a third of the total number of cars on the road. Little wonder that sightseers from all over the world are enchanted by this 50s ‘time-warp’… and yet the true significance of this culture is often blotted out.

A 1951 Chevy on Playa Ancón. Photograph: Dmitri Alexander

A 1951 Chevrolet on Playa Ancón. Photograph: Dmitri Alexander

In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the US trade embargo against Cuba was formally extended to include all imports, reinforced by statute after statute over the years. This policy has made it almost impossible for Cubans to obtain replacement parts for run-down vehicles, and it is thanks to the ingenuity of mechanics that the cars have been kept going for so long. Some are held together with wire, tape, any household product available, many refitted with Soviet diesel engines; a much cheaper and more efficient option. The cars that really are done for are seldom cast into the dustbin; instead ‘parted out’, keeping others on the road while creating extra income for their owners. The resourcefulness of the system is staggering.

Traffic in Havana. Photograph: Democratic Underground 2014

Traffic in Havana. Photograph: Democratic Underground 2014

These botched-up automobiles seem to represent the twin pillars of innovation and hardship that have marked the post-revolutionary period in Cuba. The impressive make-do-and-mend culture they demonstrate is not self-consciously kitsch or exhibitionist, as is often suggested, but rather enforced by harsh economic policy and crippling international sanctions.

But change is in the air. After decades of hostility, the past year has seen a decisive thaw in relations between Cuba and the US. Last Wednesday, President Obama announced the reestablishment of full diplomatic relations, stating that secretary of state John Kerry would travel to the country later this summer to reopen the US embassy. Although the embargo remains in force, held fast – for now – by the iron fist of Congress, this new entente is an indisputably welcome milestone for both nations.

What will this mean for the battered vehicles that paint Cuba’s coastline so brightly? Some commentators have predicted a swarm of US dealers scooping them up for private collections, although many are sceptical about how much interest they will really gather abroad. In January, Cuban president Raúl Castro relaxed the country’s trade restrictions on imports, but the very high prices of foreign cars mean these are still out of reach for the vast majority. The most likely, immediate outcome is simply that it will become much easier for mechanics to get their hands on the right parts for a lot less money – and however visible the impact, this is hardly something for nostalgic tourists to bemoan.

1958 Cadillac in Mikhail Kalatozov's 1964 film Soy Cuba

1958 Cadillac in Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 film ‘Soy Cuba’

The cars of Cuba stand for a great deal more than brightly coloured muses to be papped by spellbound travellers. It is dangerous to romanticise any country so much to claim that entering its borders seems like stepping back into the fifties, especially considering the memory of pre-revolutionary Havana. The so-called ‘Yank Tanks’ are a far cry from the vehicles they once were, imported from the US decades ago. They do not represent a time lag, but mobility and progression. Let’s bear this mind now that Cuba and the US may be – possibly for the first time – communicating on equal terms.