"Wifi, wifi," calls Frank Rodriguez, sitting on a park bench as the morning crowds hurry past.
Most of Parque Centre, on one of Havana’s most famous squares, is deserted, but in this one corner some 20 people have gathered around the same spot. Some of them are pacing up and down; others have earphones on and look like they’re speaking to themselves. Everyone is lost in a smartphone.
In most cities in the world, this is a commonplace scene, but anywhere else in Cuba it is almost unknown.
Until now, the internet revolution had largely passed Cuba by
Rodriguez (27), sharply dressed with a ponytail, ripped jeans and an earring, is an entrepreneur moving into a new market. When someone approaches him, he takes out a stack of government-issued wifi cards. Each one has a 12-digit code that buys the user an hour of wireless internet access at this and a number of other public parks around Havana.
In state-owned kiosks, the cards cost 1.5 convertible pesos (€1.40), but the queues are so long that Rodriguez can sell them on for twice their face value. “There’s a limit of three cards per person per day, so I bring my friends and family to the kiosk, we get in line and buy a lot of cards,” he says. But competition is intense. “If it was only me doing this, I’d be a millionaire by now.”
Until now, the internet revolution had largely passed Cuba by – the island has one of the lowest connectivity rates in the world. The effects of the US embargo combined with restrictions imposed by the Cuban government have limited online access and made it prohibitively expensive for most citizens.
Broadband access was limited largely to expensive internet cafes and hotels. Cuba is connected to only one undersea fibre-optic cable originating in Venezuela, although it offers plenty of bandwidth given the low number of users. It remains illegal to have a wifi router at home without special permission, usually given only to diplomats, foreign journalists and those with a link to the government.
Things have begun to change in the past two years. Today there are 240 public wifi spots in parks and squares around the country. While still expensive by international standards, the price of a one-hour access card has halved since 2015. And, in the latest development, state telecoms provider Etecsa has installed wifi routers in 2,000 selected homes in Havana's old town under a pilot scheme that is expected to be expanded.
Keeping in contact
In a country where one out of every three people have a relative living abroad, wider internet access has become a vital means of keeping in contact. At a public wifi spot on Paseo del Prado, a tree-lined boulevard in central Havana, Raysa Perez, a middle-aged schoolteacher, has popped out during her lunch break to video-call her daughter in Argentina.
"I feel closer to my daughter this way, since I can see her face," says Perez, holding a Samsung tablet that her daughter bought her. She misses her terribly. "You know how young people are. They want to explore and see new things. I'd prefer her to be here, but this is good for now."
While wider internet access is gradually changing people's lives and enabling businesses to expand, it remains expensive and slow. At €1.40 an hour, public wifi is out of reach for many people in a country where the average monthly income is about €25. The two biggest app stores, owned by Apple and Google, are inaccessible because of the embargo, while video and audio calls are blocked on WhatsApp, Skype and Facetime. (Cubans instead use IMO, a domestic video-calling platform.)
Frank Rodriguez, who uses IMO to speak to his wife and child in Spain, complains that internet connections can be patchy: "A movie takes five days to download."
Today there is more room for critical thinking than at any point since the revolution, Hernandez says
The government blamed the US embargo and cost for the lack of investment in its digital infrastructure, but critics claimed a second impediment was the state’s fear of losing control of citizens’ sources of information.
Washington declared the development of Cuba’s internet a priority in the talks that began under the Obama administration, even creating exemptions to the embargo to allow US companies to sell equipment and services to Cubans and invest in telecommunications on the island. Both Raúl Castro and the man expected to succeed him as president next year, vice-president Miguel Ángel Díaz Canel, have signalled their openness to wider access.
"It's so important to be connected to the world," says José Luis Hernandez, a composer who has come to a public square in the Centro neighbourhood to speak to a friend in Mexico. He sees widening internet access as one of the biggest and most important in a series of changes – long overdue, in his view – that have begun to open up Cuba.
Today there is more room for critical thinking than at any point since the revolution, Hernandez says, even thought he laments a certain “conformism” he believes holds his compatriots back from complaining about high prices and other issues.
Fifteen years ago, Hernandez says he couldn’t have said such things out loud. “People here are breathing in and out . . . Now it’s time for barriers to come down – for the world to open to us and us to open to the world.”
Saturday: Che Guevara’s eldest son, Camilo, on his unusual childhood, his father’s legacy and what Donald Trump means for Cuba. Weekend Review.