Up until a few years ago, the only way most Cubans could use the internet was to visit a public Wi-Fi hot spot, typically a park or plaza, and connect to the internet using scratch-off cards sold by the hour. These outdoor Wi-Fi hot spots were few and far between, and they provided no protection from the scorching sun or torrential Caribbean downpours. And the reliability of the connection was spotty at best.
Cubans didn’t spend their days glued to digital screens, posting carefully curated versions of their lives online. They didn’t experience a near-constant state of FOMO (fear of missing out) if they felt their own lives didn’t measure up to what was showing up in their social media feeds.
They met with friends to converse in plazas. They played baseball in the park, soccer in the street, and dominoes on the sidewalk. They held spirited debates in cafes, restaurants, and living rooms. They worked to establish and build a growing number of independently run private businesses popping up across the country.
But since then, internet coverage has expanded through mobile providers, giving more and more people access and flooding the country with a sudden glut of digital culture. Those in Cuba say the cultural shift has been dramatic.
Resistance to internet culture
When Wi-Fi first came to Havana, the socially conscious bookstore and coffee shop Cuba Libro decided to not install a connection in the cafe.
“One of the things that makes Cuba Libro so special is the connection amongst people, all types of people,” its founder, Conner Gorry, told Digital Trends. “But we also decided at that time that people need to be connected digitally – for work, to stay in touch with their families, to maximize their opportunities – so we decided that to have access to that Wi-Fi, people had to be participatory and part of our community.”
Cuba Libro didn’t want customers coming in just for the Wi-Fi, so it was decided that anyone contributing an hour of volunteer work would receive an hour of Wi-Fi. Customers could also receive an hour of Wi-Fi when they had 10 punches on their frequent customer card.
The introduction of mobile data in Cuba meant that Cuba Libro’s customers no longer required an external Wi-Fi connection to connect to the internet at the café.
They could now create their own mobile hot spot with their phone and use the café as a workspace. Gorry says, however, that she has not noticed a decrease in genuine interaction among Cuba Libro’s community. In fact, she says that many customers express that they specifically visit Cuba Libro “to get away from all the internet, static, and real-life problems.”
Only time will tell how dramatically Cuba’s steadily increasing internet access will impact its population. For now, one thing is certain: Despite the concerns of the older generation, Cubans now have greater access to the web — and can look forward to even more connectivity in the future.