It's 10 pm and Agramonte Park, in the central Cuban city of Camagüey, looks like it is going to explode. It is crowded with people focused intently on white screens that illuminate the darkness in the absence of streetlights. At night, the benches barely provide enough space for everyone. During the day, the sun scorches whoever tries to go online here. If you want to sit at a cafe with a WiFi signal, you are required to order something and pay for it.
La Rampa, a downtown Havana thoroughfare, can accommodate up to 100 simultaneously connected users. In parks with WiFi set up in Camagüey, the number falls to only 50.
“It has reached the maximum,” Alejo, a local blogger, tells me. “You realize this when you see a message saying your request cannot be processed when you enter your username and password,” he adds.
To use the Internet in Cuba, one must sign up for an account with ETECSA, the country’s parent company for all telecommunications services. There are two ways to get an account: you can buy a prepaid Nauta card, or obtain a contract with ETECSA that includes Internet browsing and email. In both cases, you are required to present official, government-issued identification, be it a state ID or passport.
Hotels provide Internet access services for prices ranging from the equivalent of US$4.50 to US$10 per hour, and they do not request any sort of personal information. But with an average monthly salary of US$20, this kind of access is unthinkable for most Cubans.
Three weeks ago, a Nauta card cost $2.50 on the black market. Today, prepaid cards circulating in the emerging black market of La Rampa cost $3 for browsing in WiFi zones. At official ETECSA retail outlets they cost $2, but users have to wait in long lines alongside people in need of charging their cell phones, paying their phone bills, or buying different products.
At present, Cubans experience the Internet in fits and starts. It is expensive and short-lived.
The neighborhood of Guanabo, also in Havana, lacks WiFi zones, but an ETECSA outlet with three computers and air conditioning – a real luxury compared to the one in neighboring Casino Deportivo – has become a popular gathering place for teens. Jennifer already has her Facebook account and proudly saves the page on her browser to show it to her mother, from her disconnected computer. “What did you look at most today?” I ask her. She shows me photos downloaded from the page for Los Ángeles, a trendy music group.
In La Rampa, Guanabo, Camagüey, or Casino Deportivo, everyone seems to look at the same things. Internet in Cuba – from public access points – is limited to one social network (Facebook), some email services, video and chat applications. It is barely a basic substitute for an expensive and inefficient telephone service. It's not as though there is only one browsing experience, that assumption would be a mistake. But walking around these places, one can observe generalized consumer patterns.
And the lack of full Internet access is only part of the problem. Prices are high. The locations of hotspots give people little choice but to sit on steps, curbs, and sidewalks while using the Web, making an unfavorable atmosphere for browsing. And there is no coherent strategy for teaching everyone how to use the Internet, beyond what is offered for university students and those working in key sectors of scientific development in the country. These factors have left most Cuban Internet users logging on for little more than utilitarian purposes.
At present, Cubans experience the Internet in fits and starts. It is expensive and short-lived. It is an investment, and one that must bring worthwhile returns for those who make it. Several ads posted on Revolico (a Cuba-based informal trade site similar to Craigslist) offer management services for personal Facebook accounts. “There is a man living near my house who manages accounts for three girls who have foreign pen pals. They respond to the messages and he sends them,” a user who did not wish to be identified tells me.
On the next corner, a young girl opens her Facebook account. It features a scandalous profile photo that says “I'm sexy.” Her parents think she is in a park with her friends, which is technically true. But no one has explained to her parents that online you can be in many places at the same time, and that some of these places can be dangerous. Or perhaps they’ve seen it on state television, a report describing this as a danger of the Internet, as something that happens far away in other countries, but never in Cuba, never to their children.
Add to this a new sense of urgency. In the Cuba of 2015, the Internet barely solves one of the most painful challenges that peaked in the 1990s: People's proximity to one another. With almost two million Cubans living in the United States and hundreds of thousands of families separated by immigration, Internet access lowers the barriers presented by visas and the astronomical cost of airline tickets. It unites people. Perhaps that is most important now.
For everything else, there will be time.