Internet Access Expands In Cuba — For Those Who Can Afford It | KUOW News and Information

Internet Access Expands In Cuba — For Those Who Can Afford It

Oct 6, 2015
Originally published on October 6, 2015 11:03 am

The best place to see Cuba's Internet explosion is along the busy Havana thoroughfare known as La Rampa, or the Ramp.

Named for its sloping descent toward the sea, it is congested and loud. Still, crowds pack the sidewalks, office alcoves and driveways here to get online. They huddle within a few blocks of huge cell towers atop the Habana Libre luxury hotel. All eyes are glued to smartphones, tablets and laptops.

Raul Cuba, 41, types a lengthy Internet access code and password into his phone. He only learned how to log on a month ago.

"I'd never been on Facebook before, and the first time I did, I got so excited. I started chatting with my family in Miami, in Italy and Spain," he says.

Until this summer, Internet access only was available to tourists and officials, but since then the Castro government has set up dozens of pay-as-you-go public Wi-Fi hot spots around the country. And last month, President Obama allowed U.S. companies to invest in the island's telecommunication industry.

But Cuba's public Wi-Fi remains out of most people's reach. An access card sold by the state phone company, ETECSA, costs about $2 for an hour of Internet use, while the average state salary in Cuba is about $20 a month. The lucky ones have relatives abroad sending money and devices back home — or they work in Cuba's tourist industry, earning tips in dollars.

Out on the Ramp, you can buy one of the Internet access cards for about $3 on Cuba's ubiquitous black market — more expensive, but it comes with technical assistance courtesy of Manuel Garcias, who's got a stack of cards for sale.

Asked where he gets the cards, he says, "they come here and sell them to me — the husband or cousin of someone who works at ETECSA."

'The Rest Of Us With Nothing'

So far, only about 5 percent of Cubans can get online — one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the world. And you don't have to go far to see those left off Cuba's Internet highway.

Just a few blocks down the Rampa, where the street dead-ends at Havana's picturesque Malecon seawall, is old-school Cuba — the original nighttime gathering spot for roving musicians, necking couples and revelers of all ages. There's barely a cellphone or laptop in sight.

Franc Bernal Gonzalez, 17, and some friends have the night off from their mandatory military service. Only two of them have cellphones — old, little ones; the only thing they do is make a call.

"In Cuba, we didn't used to see so many people with all this stuff and the rest of us with nothing," Bernal says. "These differences started showing up a few years back, but have really grown bigger lately."

The government says it will boost the country's extremely low Internet access rate to 50 percent in the next five years, finances permitting — but hard-line politics may cut in to that goal. The No. 2 official in Cuba's Communist Party recently accused outsiders of taking advantage of greater Internet freedom to "penetrate us and do ideological work for a new conquest."

Video Chats And Beauty Tips

Back on La Rampa, there's no evidence of political penetration or subversive Web surfing. Nearly everyone here is video-chatting with relatives abroad.

"My love! How are you, my love!" exclaims Mari Jimenez, 53, reaching her son, who's driving in Miami.

Jimenez just learned a month ago how to use her new iPhone 5, sent by her son. She has long, acrylic white nails — except on her index finger. "It's much faster to use the phone without the nail," she says. "I don't want to waste time or money." She'll just glue it back on when she gets home.

Meanwhile, 18-year-old Daniella Hidalgo is checking out makeup tips from a YouTube beauty guru named Yuya in Mexico City. Unfortunately, the signal isn't that good and she only gets to see a few of the tips before the video cuts out.

I ask Hidalgo if she visits news sites or anything political. No way, she says: "I'm paying for this; I'm not going to waste my money on politics."

Jorge Bativia has been trying unsuccessfully for the past hour to video-chat with his girlfriend in Australia — whom he first met via an online chat — and is ready to give up.

Even so, he says, he's glad the Internet finally came to Cuba.

"Even if [the government] wanted to take it back, they can't," he says. "You can't keep people's eyes covered forever."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're getting a portrait of life in Cuba as the relationship with the U.S. changes. For one thing, the Internet has expanded. The government has set up Wi-Fi hotspots. U.S. companies are eager to invest in the telecom industry. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, this may be widening the digital divide.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The best place to see Cuba's Internet explosion is along the busy Havana thoroughfare known as La Rampa, the Ramp.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

KAHN: Named for its sloping descent toward the sea, 23rd Street is congested and loud. Still, crowds pack the sidewalks, office alcoves and driveways here to log on. They huddle within a few blocks of huge cell towers that top the Havana Libre luxury hotel. All eyes are glued to smart phones, tablets and laptops.

RAUL CUBA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Forty-one-year-old Raul Cuba types a lengthy Internet access code and password into his phone. He's only learned how to log on a month ago.

CUBA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I'd never been on Facebook before, and the first time I did, I got so excited. I started chatting with my family in Miami and Italy and Spain," he says.

CUBA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: But he adds, Cuba's public Wi-Fi is out of most people's reach. An access card sold by the state phone company costs about $2 for an hour of Internet use. An average Cuban salary is $20 a month, leaving the majority of the island off-line. That's unless you have a relative abroad sending money and devices back home or you work in Cuba's tourist industry, earning tips and dollars. But head just a few blocks down La Rampa to where the street dead-ends at Havana's picturesque Malecon seawall, and there's barely a cell phone or laptop in sight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: This is old-school Cuba, the original nighttime gathering spot for roving musicians, necking couples and general revelry.

FRANC BERNAL GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Seventeen-year-old Franc Bernal Gonzalez and some friends got the night off from their mandatory military service. Only two of the kids have cell phones, those old little ones - remember? - where the only thing you could do was make a call. Bernal says in Cuba, we didn't used to seeing so many people with all this stuff and the rest of us with nothing.

GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "These differences started showing up a few years back but have really grown bigger lately," he adds. Only about 5 percent of Cubans can get online, one of the lowest Internet penetrations in the world. The government says it'll boost that to 50 percent in the next five years, finances permitting. But hard-line politics may cut into that goal. The number-two official in the Communist Party recently accused outsiders of taking advantage of greater Internet freedom to, quote, "penetrate us and do ideological work for a new conquest." However, out on the Rampa, there's no evidence of political penetration or subversive surfing in sight.

MARI JIMENEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Nearly everyone, like 53-year-old Mari Jimenez, is video chatting. She caught up with her son in Miami.

JIMENEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Eighteen-year-old Daniella Hidalgo is checking out a YouTube beauty guru, Yuya from Mexico City, giving makeup tips.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

YUYA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Unfortunately, the signal isn't that good, and the feed keeps cutting out. Jorge Bativia's been trying unsuccessfully for the last hour to video chat with his girlfriend in Australia.

JORGE BATIVIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Despite his clear frustration, he's glad the Internet finally came to Cuba. He says even if they - the government - wanted to take it back, they can't. He adds, you can't keep people's eyes covered forever. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.