“Cuba has changed a lot. Raul is not Fidel!” said our taxi driver, Geovani, through teeth clenched around the cigar he held in his mouth. He turned down the volume of the radio from blaring to manageable as he continued: “He knows that the pressure builds up when people are oppressed for a long time and those Internet access points are like an escape valve. On this island the government loosens a little every 15 years or so.”

Ironically, everything that my senses perceived in this theme park of the past were new. While I have travelled extensively throughout South and Latin America, this was my first trip to Cuba. I was here mixing business with pleasure, sent by YO! with instructions to assess the market viability and to see with my own eyes how the nearly ten thousand Cubans who had downloaded our app were using it.

Geovani, a thickly built man with short hair and tanned skin, maneuvered his old ’56 Plymouth with considerable skill, although he changed lanes a little too quickly for my wife’s taste. She was afraid that the rusted bolts, and us, were going to end up in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean on the other side of the ‘Malecón’ (an 8km long seawall that stretches from Old Havana to the Vedado neighbourhood).

It had been almost 10 years since Danielle had last visited the island and a decade, even for the anachronistic Cuba, it is a long time. For my wife, collecting stamps in her passport it is almost an addiction and, although she is not a fan of visiting the same place twice, the Caribbean country was always on her list of places she should go back to. Despite the difficulties that face travelers there, Cuba had always had a magnetism, the promise of something she had never seen, but that she knew existed, still intact, behind the walls of the crumbling old buildings.

“Now there is more access to information and more freedom”, Geovani continued; however, despite the distinct lack of revolutionary propaganda we had seen along the way (which had been quite prolific a decade ago, according to my wife), we couldn’t completely believe him. Not because the island doesn’t have the capacity for change, but because we had still not seen a single Internet café nor any of the famous WiFi hotspots the international press had boasted about. Obviously we were looking in the wrong place.

Havana’s Hot Spots

After asking around we were finally directed to a section of town no tourist would think to go to. We walked through narrow streets and past food-venders with prices listed in nacionales (the locals-only currency), finally emerging into a huge plaza filled with hundreds of people glued to their smart phones and tablets, and even the occasional laptop. Young and not-so-young Cubans surfed the Net in this square located along La Rampa, one of the main avenues of Havana. Although largely hidden from tourists’ prying eyes, what used to be an unusual sight in Cuba is now common in the new 35 WiFi spaces enabled by the Government on the first of July of last year.   “Today I brought my grandson so he can use the Internet for the first time. He wanted to see the new dog his aunt in Miami has adopted. Now he is talking with his cousins,” says Roberto, a 66-year-old retiree whose face, like that of Alexis, his 12-year-old grandson, glows with joy.

Sitting in front of Roberto and his grandson, using smartphones and laptops to check the signal quality of this relatively new service, are employees of the largely state-owned telecommunications monopoly ETECSA. Surprisingly, a few meters away, some bisneros (street traders) take advantage of the inability of the company to maintain a stable supply of prepaid cards by reselling them for 3 convertible pesos (CUC), one more than the official rate. “Many people are trying to connect and ETECSA cannot keep up with the demand; the lines are very long and the cards are only sold during working hours. That’s why people have to go to the black market,” says one bisnero who prefers not to reveal his name.

Many local media, especially the official newspaper Granma, criticize informal WiFi traders, who range from the aforementioned card resellers to others who, after connecting to the main network with an official card, use their devices to create hotspots which can be accessed for half the official price. “People do not have much money and have to accept what is offered but, since the government has become aware of the resellers, surveillance has increased considerably,” says Sofía, a peanut-setter in Paseo de la Villa Panamericana, one of the busiest access points in Havana.

The eagerness of Cubans to communicate with the outside world has generated, according to official sources, nearly 60,000 wireless connections in just six months. The number of people able to connect at the same time has reached the not inconsiderable figure of eight thousand Internet users. However, Cuba remains one of the countries with the lowest rates of connectivity in the world: only 5% of the population has Internet access, while only 1% has access to broadband.

In Cuba, Internet access from private homes it is so restricted and expensive that the populace sees it as a luxury only available to members of the government, journalists, and foreign diplomats. Although 11,503 people have some sort of connection to the network, according to the International Telecommunication Union, that number is not very encouraging when taking into account that the country has more than eleven million inhabitants, of whom 500,000 are university students.

Back in La Rampa, Ivan Rodriguez complains about the stability and the speed of the connection: “The browsing speed is supposed to be up to 1MB, but this is very slow [browsing speeds rarely reach 56 kb]. I just spent 10% of my salary to send my mother, who lives in Spain, photos of her grandchildren. The way it is going now, I don’t think the hour that I got from the card is going to be enough.” The 32 year old tour guide, who earns only 20 CUC per month, politely ends our conversation with “I cannot stay and talk any longer. For good or bad, in Cuba now, time is money, brother”.

Although Cuba has taken steps in the right direction by allowing its citizens to become globally connected, there is still a long way to go. Like everything else we noticed, the government’s need for ultimate control inhibits large scale growth; it does, however, inspire creativity. As is indicative of their culture, Cubans once again come together as a unit in much the same way as they did following the US embargo on trade: overcoming the challenges through collaboration and innovation. Like Geovani’s car, which boasts a new Hyundai engine under the 60-year-old chassis, Internet access in Cuba is pulling the citizens of a bygone age bit by bit into the future. Will this new “escape valve” be enough to last for 15 more years, or will access to the Internet turn up the heat in the pressure cooker?

 

Regardless, the door has been opened and, judging by the avarice of the Cubans who sucked up every precious second of Internet time, will not be closed easily. Islanders, especially the youth, are pushing for change, trying to catch up to their peers in fully-connected countries. This new addiction to tactile screens combined with the hunger for information and the desire to communicate with the rest of the world, has begun a new, unstoppable revolution.