Getting Online in Cuba: The Reality of Living Without 4G

Fidel Castro had died, but arguably it’s things like Internet access which will have the most impact on the speed of change in Cuba

Getting Online in Cuba: The Reality of Living Without 4G

by Florence Wilkinson |

The first thing people said when I booked a trip to Cuba was ‘great time to go, before it all changes; before Fidel pops his clogs’. And low and behold, less than two weeks after I get back, Fidel Castro – revolutionary leader of Cuba for 47 years – liberator, dictator, Anti-Apartheid campaigner, human rights abuser – is dead. Apparently, after 638 failed assassination attempts, it was my holiday that jinxed it. Donald Trump tweeted: ‘Fidel Castro is dead!’. Yeah, we got the memo, hun.


The second thing people said was: ‘hmm… it’ll be tricky getting online there’. Arguably it’s factors such as internet access – and not in fact the death of Fidel – that will have the most impact on the speed of change in Cuba.

Living online is something that has become so second nature back home that despite the things that worry me about the internet I take it for granted and I'm not sure I could live without it.

How do young women in Cuba, growing up as the country is on the cusp of so much change, feel? What do they think about people like me – internet addicts, information junkies – when we come to visit their home? And is being able to access the internet so easily a good or a bad thing?

‘People are not used to this in Cuba – being interviewed – they will find it strange’, my guide Alexis* warns me when I ask him to help me approach random women in the park to talk about the internet. Cuba is one of the least connected countries in the world, with only one in four Cubans able to get online (although this number may well be incorrect or out of date due to lack of data). Only 5% have the internet in their own homes with access significantly restricted.

I’d like to say the lack of 4G didn’t faze me, but if I’m honest I check my email, WhatsApp and Facebook like it’s a nervous twitch. My over active imagination goes into overdrive if I’m not able to check in with friends and family every few hours.

Luckily for me, one of the first things you notice when arriving in Havana are the ‘Wi-Fi parks’, which are full of locals on their phones. They’ve only been around for a year or so and don’t seem to be restricted (I didn’t get arrested searching for stuff like ‘human rights abuses Cuba’), but they don’t come cheap – most Cubans earn the equivalent of between £20 and £80 a month, and internet scratch cards cost around £1.60 for an hour’s access.

Alexis and I approach a couple of shy school-age girls. They tell us they use the internet whenever they can in the parks. When I ask what they do online their first response is ‘look up song lyrics’, and ‘search for information on Korean soap stars’. I give Alexis a confused look. ‘There are some Korean soap operas that are regularly on the TV here’, he explains. ‘They are very popular with young girls!’

I ask the girls if they use Facebook and Instagram. They nod. Would they like to get online more often? They nod again, enthusiastically. And do they think there are any negatives to the internet? ‘The internet is what you make of it – you find what you choose to find’, they tell me. I ask Alexis to explain to them that in the UK most of us are online 24/7. What do they think of that? ‘If you are in touch with something all the time it can be boring’, they reply. Fair point.

Next I speak to 20-year-old Claudia, a medical student with selfie stick in hand, and her boyfriend Edward. Claudia says she visits a Wi-Fi park near her home every day. Like the teenagers I’ve just spoken to she likes to look up song lyrics online, but being a bit older than the other two she also uses the internet for her studies. Does she have a Facebook account? ‘Of course’, she replies. She also uses Instagram, WhatsApp, and has just downloaded Snapchat.

‘Do you think there are negatives when it comes to being online?’ I ask. ‘Perhaps something to do with pornography?’ Claudia’s boyfriend Edward suggests. ‘In the UK some people have concerns about pornography addiction because it’s so easily accessible’, I tell them, ‘and others worry that certain kinds of porn lead to unrealistic attitudes towards sex’. Alexis dutifully translates, the couple don't seem embarrassed or surprised – they nod – ‘makes sense’.

‘Why do you think the internet is so hard to access in Cuba’ I ask. ‘Cuba is a poor country and the priorities are things like healthcare and education’, Claudia tells me. ‘Internet is not a thing you need to live’. ‘Some people in the UK might disagree’, I reply thiking that what I’ve just said is the understatement of the century. She shrugs her shoulders. I push her a bit further: ‘You really don't have to answer this, but do you think that the Cuban Government deliberately wants to stop people from using the internet?’ She pauses, then responds; ‘no, I don't think that’. She seems confident in her answer.

Alexis is less sure – he suspects that the Government has a vested interest in making it difficult for people to get online. ‘They say it's because we don't have the infrastructure – that we don't have the right technology – but I don't think so’. He looks at me conspiratorially. ‘We know much more about what's going on in the outside world than what's happening here in Cuba – that's where they keep us in the dark’. Cuba was promised a new under seas fiber-optic link to Venezuela in 2011, Alexis explains, but this took years to surface, with rumours mounting that the Government had either repurposed the funding from the Venezuelan Government, or kept access only for themselves.

We stroll along to Havana's seafront – known as the Malecón – a popular spot for both locals and tourists. ‘In the next year the government tells us that more people will be connected’, Alexis says. ‘There will be internet all along the sea wall’. But he looks doubtful. ‘2017 in Cuban time could well mean 2027…’

We approach three young women who are sitting on the wall: 26-year-old Gillian, who – like Claudia – is a medical student (Alexis explains that medicine is well funded and a key part of the Cuban economy), and her friends Ruth, 18, who’s still at school, and Anna, a 22-year-old chef. Gillian says that she uses the Wi-Fi parks twice a week to keep in touch with friends and family – it's too expensive to get online more often. Her main problem is with the speed of the connection.

I ask whether they think there are any negative sides to the internet. Alexis pauses for a moment, struggling to translate Gillian's answer. ‘She says... it takes away the human touch. Using the internet too much...can turn you into a...robot’. I ask if Cubans use online dating. ‘She doesn't use it’, he says, gesturing at Gillian; ‘it exists in Cuba but most people don't use it. She thinks it's better to be in touch with people face to face’.

In the end I did manage to get online a fair bit in Cuba; little snatches here and there. When access is time-limited it forces you to focus on the important things I guess, like keeping in touch with friends and family. There’s certainly something liberating about not checking your phone every five minutes. But when it comes down to it, scrolling through my News Feed for half an hour is my choice, and the problems Cuba faces with its infrastructure aren’t there to teach me how much time I waste on clickbait.

Just as he’s about to leave I ask Alexis if he thinks Cuba is changing. ‘It is changing’, he replies, ‘but perhaps not as fast as you think. My grandmother – her generation – are happy with the way things are. They remember a time before the revolution when it was really bad – there was a lot of corruption. Younger people, though – we think that never mind communism, capitalism, any ‘ism’ – what we need is a different way of thinking’.

Fidel Castro may be dead, but for now his brother Raúl rules on, and when it comes to stuff like getting online many Cubans seem resigned to the status quo. For others like Alexis though – frustrated by the pace of ‘Cuban time’ – change can't come soon enough.

*Some names have been changed to protect identities.

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Follow Florence on Twitter: @Flo_Wilk

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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