What It Looks Like to Use the Internet for the First Time
"I've heard of the internet, but don't know what it's for."
A popular wifi zone is in front of the Havana Libre hotel, which was a Hilton before Fidel Castro seized it. Image: David Osit for Motherboard
It's easy to know when you've encountered a wifi hotspot in Cuba, if only because they're the only places that feel even remotely like you're walking through an American city. It's here that Havana's chaotic streets—full of neighbors chatting outside their homes, old men playing dominoes, young lovers enthralled with each others' presence—turn into places where people stare at their screens, just like most of the world seems to do all day, every day. This, obviously, is where the internet lives.
The brand-new hotspots are packed with dozens or hundreds of jacked-in Cubans, regardless of the hour or the weather. At night, the glow of a laptop or smartphone eerily illuminates users' faces, giving the whole square a cyberpunk vibe. If it's raining, internet users pull out their umbrellas, crowd under alcoves, awnings, or door frames. Surveillance cameras are omnipresent; security messages routinely warn you that the connection is being monitored; websites that are seen as anti-communist are blocked.
If you're interested, you can learn much more about how the hotspots function and how a black market economy has cropped up around these areas in our earlier reporting. We thought it would be worth giving a voice to some of the people who, for so long, have been cut off from the rest of the world to find out what they were using the internet for. Last names are generally omitted because many people in Cuba fear backlash from the communist government for talking to foreign reporters.
"I had to drive my niece and my nephew 30 minutes here to talk. It's really a lot of effort just to get here but it's important. It's important that my niece and nephew be able to talk to their father in Miami. It's important that they know there's more to the world than Cuba, and it's important because I think the internet will continue to grow and it won't always be so hard to connect. Making a phone call from here to the United States is expensive. It usually costs $2 a minute. Here, I need to drive thirty minutes, but we can talk for an hour for $2. Even if it's just chatting through text that's still better that the alternative. Calling is impossible with what we make."
Nelson (with Jennifer)
"I've heard about the internet for a long time but I've never been on it. It was a really fun experience and I hope to use it again. I've always known about the internet but it's never been something that I can use. I don't even know what I can use it for. I know it's really big. I want to use the internet for things besides talking to my dad, but what can I use it for? I don't know what else there is. I guess I need to find out. It's exciting."
"My friends have been talking about the internet for a long time, so I decided to come with them to see what it is. This is the first time I've ever been on the internet. They tell me I need to make a Facebook page so I can make friends in other countries and talk to them. They just took my picture and I'm going to open my account. I don't really know what it is, but I thought it was worth coming out here. Just to see. To learn, you know?"
"I moved to Cuba five years ago to study medicine. I'm like any other medical student, I'm studying all the time so I don't have a lot of time to browse the internet. But really using the internet here isn't much different than what I remember from using the internet in China. At least in the small town where I'm from, we didn't have internet in my house, so I had to go to the library to use it.
Lots of sites are blocked at home so the fact that the internet here is censored here too means it doesn't feel very different. I'm playing a game tonight, but I sometimes try to use Weibo to talk to my friends. Usually it's blocked or I can't get connected. I live right down the street, so since this wifi zone has been installed it's gotten a lot easier to get online. But it's still pretty hard, because it doesn't always work."
Dennys & David
"That was my first video call with my daughter in the United States. It was something amazing, a really good experience. Do you see this phone? It's amazing—being able to see her was so much better than a call, I can't believe it worked so well. We're going to do it a lot more I hope. I hope it gets easier. It has to get easier, right?"
Henry Constantin Ferreiro (an activist fighting for expanded internet access)
"Globally speaking, young Cubans are on the floor, with the rest of the world much higher. But when you live in a closed society, you don't even know you're on the floor. You don't know how the rest of the world lives. When you give them the internet, even if it's just this small wifi, you don't necessarily lift them off the floor. But what you do is you give them eyes. You give them the ability to see that they're on the floor, that there is a ceiling, and they're being kept on the ground. Whether they'll rise with the internet and get closer to everyone else? I hope so, but we're going to need more of it. If you don't live in the city, you'll never get to use it."
Even though they are censored and expensive, it's clear that these hotspots are better than nothing and, for many Cubans, have given them their first taste of life outside the island. Just outside the Hotel Habana Libre (a former Hilton that Fidel Castro seized in 1959 and repurposed after the revolution), I watched three generations of Cubans speak to a young woman's American fiancé on Skype. I saw teenagers helping each other set up Facebook profiles, foreign exchange students gaming, multiple people going on Google for the first time in their lives.
A group of teens will crowd around one smartphone screen, solitary internet users never glance up from their devices, not even for a second. If you're wondering, most of the smartphones come from relatives or friends overseas. Accessing the internet through one of the 35 government-owned hotspots on the island costs $2 CUC per hour (CUC is pegged 1:1 with the dollar), which is 10 percent of the average government-set salary. To waste time helping a stranger or chatting up a friend can end up being a not insubstantial waste of cash.
I spoke to multiple people who had traveled multiple hours on several different buses simply to get online, and there are surely countless people who live in rural areas who will never be able to take advantage of a hotspot. This is a service that's desperately wanted and deeply necessary.
Still, this is a step forward. For the first time since the rise of the Castro regime, Cubans are joining the rest of the world.