HAVANA — The newest hotspot in Cuba is a WiFi hotspot. Some people travel hours just to use it. Others crowd onto sidewalks or pack into plazas hoping to connect. Many more just want to get online for the first time.
Cuba has recently taken a small but important step to shed its dubious distinction as one of the least-connected countries in the world by opening dozens of state-sanctioned WiFi hotspots. In Havana, where I’ve lived for the past six years working as a photographer, there are three outdoor hotspots, and 35 locations nationwide where Cubans can get online—many for the first time.
The 24-hour hotspots have been one of the most visible changes on the island since the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States, transforming plazas and sidewalks into open-air internet lounges.
Cubans are embracing the new internet access, flocking to the so-called puntos wifi with their smartphones, tablets, laptops, headsets and chargers.
I recently spent some time at one of the more frequented hotspots in a plaza in central Havana watching a handful of Cubans discover the internet for the first time. Others chatted with loved ones they hadn’t seen in years.
Cubans may be arriving late to the digital revolution, but they’re learning fast and getting hooked.
But connecting to the internet doesn’t come cheap. An hour of prepaid WiFi service requires a scratch-off card with a username and password and costs $2, a hefty sum in a country where average monthly salaries are around $20 a month. Some black market entrepreneurs have spotted a business opportunity, reselling the cards for $3- $4 to people who don’t want to wait in line to get online.
The hotspots are becoming a fertile ground for young tech-savvy Cubans. One enterprising young man in the plaza set up what is essentially a street office by unfolding a portable table and powering his laptop from a nearby street lamp. He then begins to offer an array of services: 50 cents to charge a device, or a $1 to connect to his own pirated parallel WiFi network (When I checked the number of WiFi signals available on my phone, several popped up in addition to the signal made available by Cuba's state-run telecoms company, indicating others are doing the same thing).
"For $3, I’ll set you up with a Facebook account,” he says smiling.
The scene offers glimpses of Cubans familiarizing themselves with the internet and technology. “Hey, boy, this isn’t working!” a man shouts to the Cuban running the jerry-rigged WiFi connection as he fails to type in his password. A young man seated next him chimes in, “You have your caps lock turned on.”
“What’s caps lock?” he says.
I overhear a middle-aged woman shouting into the microphone of her tablet’s handset. “I finally got the package of medicines!” she shouts repeatedly. The woman later tells me she was using WiFi for the first time to talk to her family abroad.
Sitting on a nearby park bench, Silvio Fernandez and his wife Sulima hold their 3-month-old baby boy in front of their smartphone for a video call. They're talking to Sulima’s father, who lives in Norway. “We’re so happy to be able to share this moment,” she tells me.
As night falls, it starts to drizzle—but not enough to keep people away. Around the park, faces are lit by the blue glow of phones and tablets. Many people stand mesmerized by their screens, hardly paying attention to anything else around them—or the weather, for that matter.
Yaima Perez, a 30-year-old from the central Villa Clara province, came all the way to Havana on a 12-hour train ride. “It’s been a month since I’ve been online and I’m going crazy,” she says, giggling. She was anxious to get back on Facebook and to talk to friends now living in the United States.
“I’m totally addicted to the internet,” she says.