Inside Cuba’s Internet Embargo
In a country that feels like it’s in a continuous time warp–exotic fruits are easier to come by than its most limited commodity: an Internet connection.
“Ellos hablan con el Mundo,” Nicolas said in his thick Cubano accent as I looked out at the crowds milling around the park. Which roughly translates to: they are talking to the world. Even though it was 2 AM on a Monday night, young people filled the park in droves. There were almost no streetlights, but the glow from a hundred little screens lit-up the faces in the dark.
This was one of Havana’s internet parks and one of the few places in the city that has public Wi-Fi. It is accessible only through pay-by-the-hour cards which are sometimes out of stock. The connection is poor and the cards are expensive. It’s steep, three Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) for an hour (about three dollars), especially when the average income is only thirty dollars a month.
I had heard about Cuba’s lack of available Internet but I couldn’t fully grasp the concept. But even still, I was prepared. My friend and I, a Canadian travel photographer named Luke Gram, had tried to make some semblance of a plan; at least to be able to find each other if we dropped off the face of the digital earth. “How are you going to make it?” The mother of my host family in Colombia asked me as I was packing up. “The first thing you do in the morning is check your phone!” Minor social media addictions notwithstanding, I was determined to prove her wrong.
Nicolas continued to jabber away happily as we drove onwards, occasionally pointing out various locations of interest with dramatic hand gestures. “Mira (Look)! La Plaza de Revolucion! Mira, Che! Mira, Fidel!” He practically shouted in excitement as we drove past the twin buildings sporting retro-looking metal facades of Cuba’s two most famous heroes. “Te gusta Fidel?”, I asked. “I adore Fidel”’ he responded with a grin. He told me life was better here now because of Fidel.
And I guess he would know – Nicolas was a Havana native after all. He was 76-years-old and still driving a cab at all hours of the day and night, with the charm of David Attenborough and a smile that could melt butter. He was the first person I had met in Cuba, but I had a strong feeling that he was going to remain my favorite until the end.
He had scooped me straight up from the airport on my arrival, literally the second I walked out of the building. Sadly, I’ve learned to become suspicious of overly-zealous cab drivers; but when I met him, I took one look at his face and knew, this sweet old man wouldn’t swindle a fly. Even though I was penniless because my Colombian pesos were not exchangeable and the ATM’s were offline, he still offered to drive me in to town in exchange for a later repayment and dinner with his family. I couldn’t have asked for a warmer greeting in this country which has such a difficult relationship with my own.
Looking out the window of the cab: the stillness, the darkness, the vintage cars, the crumbling facades of the old Spanish colonial buildings (Nicolas even had classical music playing from the radio)-it was even more cinematic than I could have imagined. There were no billboards, no skyscrapers, no illuminated Golden Arches and no convenience stores. The lights only provided fleeting glimpses, a vision into another time; mysterious, demure, and elegant in its squalor. Never once before on a trip have I ever felt so immediately and utterly transcended. “So this is what it looks like,” I thought, “the world without Internet.”
But, what does that even mean? A world without Internet? I asked myself the innate, moronic questions that any generation Y-er would have. But, I mean, how do you look up information? Do you actually go to the library? How do you contact people? Calling on the phone?! How do you get your news? From the TV?!! How do you find your way around? A FREAKING MAP?!!!! MUSIC FROM AN FM RADIO?!! WHAT IS THIS MADNESS!?
I’ll tell you one thing it means for sure, the word “community” has a wonderfully different meaning in Cuba.
“It’s just like a bunch of people living together but not a city,” Luke remarked as we explored our neighborhood the next day. We were staying near Chinatown, a poor but central part of the city named after immigrants who had long since left for greener pastures. He was right, the things that we used in our modern western culture to define a city weren’t there: the restaurants, the bars, the supermarkets and shops, it was consumerist dystopia. We walked around for over an hour just looking to buy a bottle of water and some quick food. Turns out, it’s easy to find rum everywhere in Havana and not much else. Eventually, the only things we were able to find were a couple of small bottles of room temperature sparkling water and some fried mystery substance from a bodega. Luke claims its potato, I think it’s some sort of processed, diluted meat. Whatever the case, we dubbed them orange sticks and they became a main staple in our diet.
We couldn’t provide for ourselves the way the locals did, but even for them it was, at times, a struggle. When they need something, it is probably in short supply, but they knew where to get it, and they often bought in bulk. The bicycle vendors pedal down the street and the upstairs neighbors lower down money in buckets in exchange for a few green bananas or some cassava. When Havanians need to talk to someone, they yell up at windows, they yell down the street, sometimes I swear I think they yell at no one in particular just for the sake of yelling (I mean, that’s essentially Tweeting right?), they chase each other down constantly, and talk about all of the gossip and particular issues of the day. From an outside perspective, it didn’t seem as if the lack of internet made much of a difference in their lives.
As for me, I managed to make it five days without caving. Finally, money accessing trouble forced me to seek help from the States. I had to make the pilgrimage to the internet park.
The first thing I noticed in the park was the smell: that rotten trash, that wafts up from who knows where. Your nose simply refuses to get used to it. You don’t have to look far to find the internet card dealers, they find you. A young man looked at me, looked away, made a hissing sound between his teeth, clicked twice and then beckoned me over. The cards sold on the black market are no different than the ones from the official office. However, there is also no guarantee that when you buy an hour-long card it will not stop working after fifteen minutes. If you want to get even more economical about it, you can leech off a guy’s cellphone hotspot at a snail’s pace for one CUC an hour.
The dealer makes about twenty-five cents off of every card, it is very little, but just enough to provide for his small family. He hands me the card discreetly between two fingers. The card looks like a lottery ticket with a gray scratch-off strip on the back containing the lengthy set of numbers you need to log in. On the front is an image of a woman, sitting in lotus position and connected to various Internet devices by rays of light streaming from her heart, digital zen? The only other people who aren’t on their phones are two old women sitting on a bench and a group of kids playing soccer barefoot. I ducked my head and try not to get hit in the face as I hurriedly punched the numbers in to connect.
Internet park, Havana 2016 Photo by Karen Khachaturov
We were all immersed in our own worlds, but we were immersed together. I looked around and saw that everyone was saving their precious Internet time for social media. I wondered though, how does limited Internet shape social identity? Is it more about what you’re seen wearing on the street than the photos you upload? Maybe, maybe not. I watched them fervently posting on social media, sending lengthy paragraph-long messages, taking and sending selfies, and scrolling through their feeds, their private digital lives all on display in the public arena, stopping only to hold their devices up in the air to look for a better signal. So far though, I haven’t stumbled on anyone casually looking up porn. Well, not yet anyways.
As I was glued to my own little beacon, a guy tried to get my attention. “Hola Linda! Que tal? Where are you from?” He asked with a smirk. “Sorry, estoy occupada! (I’m busy!)” I waved him off as I tried to finish my messages before the connection ran out. Suddenly, I had a thought. I broke from my trance, looked up at him and asked, “Are you on Tinder?” He stared at me in pure bewilderment, shook his head and walked away.
I also met a club promoter as I was leaving. He came up and introduced himself and nearly blinded me as he stepped into the sun. Everything on him was dropping in shiny gold–his shoes, the fat chain around his neck, two gold and diamond caps on his incisors, and even streaks of gold in his beard and dreadlocks. He started telling me everything I needed to know right away. He explained that this park was the first place in the whole country to have internet. Cuba has only had public Wi-Fi for one year now, which is particularly ironic since it was one of the first countries in the world to have telephone and TV service.
Elio Felix Lara Perez, Photo by Karen Khachaturov
But why? Who even controls the internet? I never even contemplated a world without it–its existence was perpetually expected to my generation. The promoter said it was because of the American embargo. Grendi (the card dealer) told me it was because the government does not want Cubans to “Veen la realidad del Mundo” which translates to, to see the reality of the world. The truth is somewhere in the middle: the government maintains strict control, but also trade restrictions make the connection extremely expensive. In fact, the only other country in the world who has more limited access to this basic human right of information and global communication is North Korea. I asked Elio how he gets his information, he said he looks it up online, but only the things which are of interest to him–he never reads the news and the television is censored.
But surely someone has to have a private Internet connection? What about 3G? Elio told me no, he believes that no private Wi-Fi exists in the entire country and he had no idea what cellular data was–it does actually exist in private homes, but estimates say only about 5% of the population has it and only under special permission from the government. I asked him, “But what about the rich?” Surely the very wealthy have their own Wi-Fi. He pointed me to a hotel down the road where groups of tourists with laptops hang out. The Wi-Fi there is better there, but only slightly, and this place was off-limits to locals until just recently.
I had asked the dumb questions, but what about the more important ones. How does the average Cubano learn a foreign language online? How does the single mother attend online university? How do the citizens start and organize social movements, arrange protests, or even keep the government accountable? How does a Cuban entrepreneur manage his website and compete globally? Or even, how will this country ever hope to establish its place in the world? How will they ever move forward?
In 2016 the Cuban News Agency (ACN) reported that it had plans to bring private wifi to 2000 homes in Havana and was working on offering internet on mobile phones in 2017.
To read more from Kirsten check our her excellent blog.