Connecting Cuba

    The technology used to connect this country with the rest of the world has traveled a typically Cuban path: slow, long, winding, and full of roadblocks and detours. But with a government whose existence relies on controlling what its people read and hear, this is unsurprising.

    First there was El Paquete Seminal, or the weekly packet, perhaps the ultimate manifestation of Cuban entrepreneurship. It is operated by young, computer-savvy people called, logically enough, paqueteros, who assemble and organize hundreds of hours of the latest movies, TV programs, and even YouTube videos. The content is loaded onto the hard drives of top-level distributors, who disseminate it through their own networks of distributors. Within a day the content has reached end users throughout the island, who pay around 5 CUC to participate in a scheme that would make an Amway marketer envious.

    I stayed at Hotel Los Frailes in 2013 which had, in theory at least, internet access consisting of one clunky old PC in the lobby. A guest wishing to check email or do some very basic web searching could purchase an access card, enter the login and password codes from the card, and, if both the computer and the internet connection happened to be working that day, one was online. Some hotels even had ¨business centers,¨ meaning several computers in a separate room.

    A couple of years later some hotels were providing wireless connectivity to their guests. They were easy to spot at night by the ethereal glow of smartphone-illuminated Cuban faces gathered outside, purloining the hotel's internet using bootlegged cards. It became such a problem that paying guests had trouble getting online, so police officers routinely rousted these latter day pirates, who no doubt reassembled around the corner at another hotel.

    The hourly cards cost 8 CUC at the hotels, but could be purchased more cheaply in a certain park known as an outlet for clandestine goods and services. As soon as I entered, a young woman offered me her ¨services;¨ I politely declined and said that I was looking for a tarjeta, or a wireless internet card. She directed me with her eyes to a man on a nearby bench, who palmed me a card then signaled that I should pay a woman on another bench 3 CUC.

    The latest and most significant change occurs in December of 2018 when “Weefee,” as it is pronounced here, becomes officially available in parks throughout Havana. I stand in line with some Cubans and a couple of other foreigners to purchase a WiFi card from a blue and white building that has recently been placed here by ETECSA, the state owned telecommunications service. The woman on the other side of the tiny, barred window knows even before I speak in my ¨Cowboy Spanish¨ that I am a foreigner, and asks for my passport. She dutifully types in its number, along with those on the access cards. The government may have made the internet more available, but its interest in who is communicating what to whom has not diminished. For 3 CUC I purchase 3 hours of connectivity.

    I notice a young man standing in the shade of a tree near the ETECSA stand, occasionally making eye contact with people in line. Some of them purchase cards then walk to the man and exchange one for money, while others eschew the line and instead buy cards from him. Later I learn that people can only purchase a limited amount of access each day, so some buy their allotment and sell what they don´t need, while others who want more than the daily limit purchase more. He pays a little more than what ETECSA charges, and sells for a bit more than that to make a profit. I wonder if he once sold bootlegged cards but was forced to change his business model, and once again marvel at the ability of Cubans to follow the motto of the US Marines to “adapt, improvise, and overcome.”