HAVANA — Orlando Matillo hit refresh and stared hopefully at his laptop screen. He had been trying to connect to Facebook and talk with family overseas for more than an hour through one of the rare Wi-Fi networks available in Cuba.
“This time it will work,” he says as he maneuvered his keyboard once again. “In Cuba, you have to have a little patience.” The screen, however, remained unchanged. “You’re not connected to a network,” it read.
In the more than half-century since Cuba came under Communist control, it has famously devolved into something of a museum piece displaying the accoutrements of life absent updating — a land of rusting vintage cars and crumbling architecture for lack of newer options; a place of vivid material scarcity amid widespread economic dysfunction. In the realm of cyberspace, Cuba seems equally tethered to the past, as people struggle with primitive infrastructure in often-futile efforts to interact with one another and the rest of the world.
Cuba’s physical confines as an island-nation have been reinforced by a stark digital divide: Most people cannot afford to go online for long, and the available infrastructure is severely limiting. Now, as the United States prepares to lift its decades-old embargo against Cuba, some here hope that they will finally be able to use everyday technology such as cell phones and computers that much of the developed world takes for granted.
For years, telecommunications giants including Nokia Oyj, AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., have demanded access to Cuba. But Web access remains both expensive and rare across the island-nation even as Cubans are increasingly embracing smart phones, laptops, tablets and other devices designed for easily connecting to the internet. Many Cuban said they fear a 21st Century world of online connectivity has already left them behind and it’s unclear when they will be able to catch up.
The Cuban government only allows certain professionals to have limited internet access at home, including some state workers, artists and academics. Everyone else can access the internet through state-owned internet centers or at a handful of luxury hotels catering to foreign tourists. Online access generally costs roughly $5 an hour, more than most Cubans earn in a week.
In all, barely five percent of Cuba’s 11 million residents are able to get online, and when they do the connection is often painfully slow. Uploading pictures, downloading files and watching videos on the internet can take hours or days.
“Cuba remains one of the world’s most repressive environments for the internet and other information and communication technologies,” Freedom House, a civil rights group based in Massachusetts, concluded in a recent report. “There is practically no access to internet applications other than email, given the slowness of the country’s connectivity and high prices, and most users are restricted to an intranet for obtaining information.”
Cubans, however, are increasingly poised to make use of widespread internet access. Smart phones, including iPhones, Blackberrys and Androids, have become more common in recent years, especially among Millennials who largely use the devices to send text messages, make phone calls, play games and share music. In 2011, 1.3 million Cubans, or about 11 percent, had a mobile phone, up from approximately 443,000 in 2009.
The trendy phones, computers and tablets are generally brought to Cuba from “afuera,” or the outside, a term often used as a shorthand to explain a foreign connection. Some Cubans who travel regularly to other countries earn cash by purchasing used devices in Miami, Madrid, Quito and other major cities to later resell in Cuba, while a lucky few receive old phones and computers from relatives in the United States who have upgraded to newer models.
Those in the market for a smart phone generally must choose from a limited selection from a few dozen private outlets that have opened since the government began allowing Cubans to operate small businesses in 2011. Movil Express, a cell phone vendor and repair shop in a bustling Havana business district, had only two models for sale on a recent afternoon. The LG phone cost $200, the Blu phone cost $100. Both were bargain basement models, below the quality of phone given away for free with service contracts in the U.S.
“People who buy these phones know they can’t really use them to go online, but they are the best you can get here, and everyone always want the best,” says Eduardo Riva, 27, whose family owns Movil Express. “Most Cubans can’t afford these phones, but a relative sends them money from Miami, or they have a little extra cash in their pockets, and they know it’s an investment.”
“The 21st Century Has Left Us Behind”
More Cubans are also becoming dependent on home computers, even if they can’t use them to surf the Web, said Carlos Leyva, 54, the owner of a popular computer repair shop. They play games, create documents and print paperwork on Dells, Toshibas, HPs, Hewlett-Packards and other brands. More often than not, the computers are less than 10 years old and have found new life in Cuba after previous owners in foreign countries purchased newer models.
Leyva began his business more than four years ago after decades of working as a computer engineer for the Cuban government. At first, he repaired about four computers a week. As more Cubans acquired computers and his business grew, he purchased a storefront on a main street in Camaguey, Cuba’s third most populous city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site replete with colonial-style homes and churches. These days, his business employs three people and repairs about 25 computers a week and must often turn away potential new customers because he can’t meet the demand.
Most of the computers that arrive at Leyva’s store have overheated after being exposed to Cuba’s scorching year-round climate in homes without air-conditioning. “In the U.S., people have computers and phones for a year or two before saying, ‘oh, this doesn’t work. I need a new one.’ Here, we fix things and we make them last,” he says.
Leyva has regular internet access because of his wife, who is pursuing a doctorate in engineering. He spends about two hours a day online searching for the latest tech news. He regularly enters Spanish-language tech chat rooms to ask for advice when he is stumped by one of his jobs. He purchases computer parts, tools and other equipment from a smuggler who travels frequently to Miami.
“Right now, it feels like the 21st Century has left us behind. Even when you can get online, it’s so slow, you are there for hours waiting for the information to download. But we’ve been paying attention. People in my field are ready for Cuba to have internet, whenever that day comes,” Leyva says.
Cell Phones Still Rare
Cuba’s youths are also impatiently waiting for their country to catch up with the rest of the world.
Jessica Santos, 19, has a Samsung Galaxy 3 smartphone that her boyfriend in Florida brought her when he came to visit in February. She uses it to send text messages to friends, take pictures and listen to Celine Dion songs. The state-run phone company charges by the minute, so she keeps her phone conversations short. Her mother, a clerk for a federal judge, pays the bill. “Cell phones here are for emergencies. If you want to get in touch with someone, you walk to their house,” Santos says.
Ivan Reince, 24, got his first cell phone three years ago after landing a job as a construction worker. Cell phones are still rare enough in Cuba that “when you ask a girl out, you ask if she has phone first. Then you ask for the number,” he says.
He learned to type in school, where five computers were shared by 25 students for a few hours each week. He has been online only a few times over the past five years. Asked whether he had a Facebook account, he laughed and said, “But, do you think you’re in the United States?”
If he could go online, he said, he would flirt with girls on Facebook, watch music videos featuring Chris Brown and Lil Wayne, and download movies whenever he wanted. “You pay $50 a month in the United States and it’s unlimited. Here, we pay for every phone call, every minute, every text message and still we don’t have internet access,” he says.
Albert Manrique, 20, recently sold the Blackberry his grandfather in Miami sent him to buy two pairs of skinny jeans. It seemed more practical, he said. “I hardly used the phone and I wanted the clothes to go to parties on the weekend,” says Manrique, who recently graduated from high school with honors and lives in a crumbling apartment building on the outskirts of Camaguey with his sister, mother and stepfather.
“It’s My Right Hand”
Cubans who have embraced technology brought over from the United States and other countries said the devices have already improved their lives, allowing small business owners to provide better service to customers and improving communications between families and friends.
Miguel Antonio Evans, 18, saved up for months to buy a used Toshiba laptop for $175 last year. Evans, who runs a tattoo studio out of the humble home his family has lived in for more six decades in Camaguey, keeps the computer within arm’s reach each day as he spends hours drawing elaborate designs across his customer’s biceps, chests and legs.
He purchased a memory card loaded with music videos that he plays on repeat to distract his clients from the pain of the tattoo needle. He also downloaded dozens of tattoo art, and encourages customers to choose from the designs. Before the laptop, he depended on a handful of outdated tattoo art magazines imported from the U.S. to inspire his clients.
“It’s my right hand,” he says of the laptop on a recent afternoon as he inks flowers on a customer’s arm, the computer within reach. “It’s made everything much easier.”
Evans said he would like to be able to surf the Web for new tattoo designs and download the latest music for his clients. He would promote his business on Facebook and upload pictures of his work.
“When will that day come? I don’t know. No one knows else. I can’t even tell you if that will happen in my lifetime,” he says.
“Are you connected?”
Among Cubans desperate for a cheap internet connection, Kcho Studio Romerillo Laboratory for Art along the outskirts of Havana has become a unique solution. The art studio owned by Cuban artist Kcho offers free WiFi in the low-income Romerillo neighborhood, where many of the homes are made of wood and metal sliding and neighbors pass the days by gossiping on crowded street corners under the sweltering sun. Local youths, business owners and students still in their school uniforms arrive daily with smart phones, laptops and tablets to sit on the benches and wicker chairs scattered across the art complex as they try to log on. They are multiple electrical outlets for charging devices. A café sells juice, coffee and sandwiches.
Kcho’s network only allows 25 people to connect at a time, meaning many Cubans hang around for hours until they can get online. “Are you connected?” they ask strangers as they hit refresh.
Matillo, who teaches English at a local elementary school, said he heard about Kcho’s WiFi a few weeks ago from a friend and has since visited the studio multiple times a week. He takes two buses to the arts complex, where getting online is never a guarantee. Last week, he was able to post some selfies on Facebook before he lost the connection. Other times, he has chatted with his cousin in New York.
“Cubans want to go online and talk to the world like everyone else,” Matillo, 27, says on a recent afternoon as he sat on a bench with his laptop open and a smart phone in one hand trying to connect. “We want to be part of the Web and join the conversation.”