Cuba and the Internet

Casa particulares (some kind of bed and breakfast) often state they have access to the Internet. In fact, there is most of the time no such thing as having internet in a casa. The only realistic hope is to be able to go online from your homestay is via one of the Wi-Fi hotspots installed by the state-run telecommunication company, Etecsa. Even if it is technically possible to subscribe and have a private box, I haven’t seen a single one in three weeks spent in Cuba. No other choice than to find one of the – or, as in Playa Larga and Baracoa, the one and unique – parks where these hotspots are located to communicate with the outside of the country and pause, for a while, the cultural immersion. However, this immersion lasts until the very end: the places are sometimes overcrowded, logging in can take forever and you will need to bring your patience with you.

Buying a navigation card (tarjeta de navegaciòn), with a twelve digit identifier written at the top-left corner, is therefore unavoidable. Under these numbers is a grey area to scratch. Once scratched, it will not give you any prize or money but a password of the same length. To be fair, getting this card is already winning something: the time you need to buy it is frequently insane. Cubans and tourists queue in front of the Etecsa kiosks and shops, full of people as soon as they open – and even before. They come to buy internet access, phones or prepaid cards to use one of the many remaining public phones. When there is a newcomer in the waiting game, he openly asks “¿Último?” (Last?) so that he or she can know who is before him or her. The queue is never a straight line but rather a chain, in which everybody can tell who is before and after, but no more. Everyone tries and finds a bit of shade or a place to sit, and everyone knows his or her turn will come after the person who responded earlier. There is no way to know, though, the order of the previous people.

People waiting outside of ETECSA
People waiting outside of ETECSA, the state-run telecommunication company, in Trinidad

The way the governmental entreprise works is at least as surprising. People are required to wait patiently outside, under a barely bearable warmth. A guard, with a baton hanging to his belt and a uniform notably looking like a police one, makes sure the opaque door that still lets light coming inside stays closed. The air-conditioned room can welcome only a few people, exactly as many as there are chairs. It is strictly forbidden to wait and stand up: the guard is watchful. A customer who has just finished goes away et leaves a desk free, the next one fills instantly the gap and lets another to escape the heat of the sun for a while. Now is her turn to be in a fresh environment, comfortably seated.

Man on his computer
Man on his computer, in a park of Havana with a Wi-Fi hotspot, while people are playing football behind

A card costs 1 dollar, which is 1/25th of the national monthly average salary. Clearly, not a lot of locals can afford accessing the Internet with no limits, given that one of these cards allows one hour of navigation. It is of course possible to split the use of this hour. This is also a mean to improve your memory skills since every time you log in needs you to type the twelve character password. Having to go in public parks lets people use the card carefully: one hour will therefore last longer than if it was possible to log in everywhere, at any moment. You can attend very interesting scenes in theses places. Two or three meters away from children playing football seats a man with a computer on his legs; alongside couples kissing flourish, at dusk, lighted faces on the benches and all around the water fountains. Different connections. Cubans call relatives abroad, and the words they usually have with they neighbours are now running into the network. Uncommonly, some of them are now alone, and seem talking to no one as well.

People looking at their phone
People looking at their phone, near a Wi-Fi hotspot, in a street of Havana
Officer using his phone on his horse
Officer using his phone on his horse, behind a square where it is possible to use Wi-Fi, in Trinidad

If you do not want to join the endless awaiting if front of Etecsa, you will always find locals selling navigation cards twice or thrice as expensive in the parks or around. Anyway, the price will be lower than using the internet subscription you have with your phone. Two minutes after I forgot to stop the data, my mobile phone operator is clear: “You currently owe us more than 50€”. Luckily, they unilaterally cut the service at this point. Two months of a Cuban’s salary flew away from my pocket…

Those who cannot have a cellphone use one of the public pay phones you can find hanging on walls or, just like big shrubs, coming out of the ground. The cheapest smartphones cost at least about twice the average salary, and you need to spend twenty dollars for these very basic phones that were very popular in the 2000s in Europe. If, in France, telephone booths will not exist anymore by the end of 2018, they still have a long life ahead in Cuba. Calling a friend through a personal phone costs between 10 and 35 cents, depending on the hour; using a public phone is twenty-five times cheaper, depending also on the distance between the caller and the called. Prices are transparent: even if I learned all of this while talking with a local, you can find them on Etecsa’s website.

Couple using a public phone
Couple using a public phone, outside of a store in Cienfuegos

The state-run company is also a cybercafé – with no coffees. Very old computers still using Windows XP, an outdated operating system, are put on tables in the same office as the cards and phones sellers or, sometimes, in an adjacent room. When employees in France ask for a “droit à la déconnexion” (right to disconnect), some on the other side of the world would actually like to be able to go online…

Woman using a public phone
Woman using a public phone in a street of Las Tunas

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