Cuba’s new WiFi culture

Havana seems to present a larger number of unique, sometimes absurd, daily traditions than other cities. Perhaps this due to its mix of vibrant street life and hardships that often require creative responses from its citizens. Take, for example, the practice of queuing in Cuba, a sadly necessary daily phenomenon that’s been elevated to an art form here, and which has become an important space for socialising. Or the informal shared taxi system, with its layered rituals that all Habaneros implicitly understand. Or the bizarre daily sight of lurid special-occasion cakes being carried along the street. On my December 2015 visit to the island – my first since 1998 – I was struck by a new phenomenon, one that might be fairly fleeting but that is definitely up there with Cuba’s other unique social customs: the outdoor WiFi phenomenon and resultant black market for WiFi cards. Like many things in Cuba, this phenomenon is often as comical as it is frustrating.

Cuba wifi image

Here are the basics: Cuba currently has one of the lowest rates of internet connectivity of any country in the world, with very few people (save for a few state-approved journalists and government officials) able to access the internet at home. A black-market intranet-based email network has existed for a while, but WiFi in homes is almost unheard of. However, in the last few months of 2015, ETECSA – the State-financed telecommunications agency – has introduced a series of public WiFi hotspots in some 40 squares and streets in Havana and other Cuban cities. WiFi in these spaces is accessed via a scratch-card password system. These cards gives internet access for the official price of 2 CUC (equivalent to US$2) an hour – a lot of money in a country where the average wage is (officially) around $24 a month.

WiFi spots are very obvious, due to the number of people that now congregate in these public spaces; a bit like watering holes for thirsty wildlife. Hanging out in squares or on the street is, of course, already a normal activity in Cuba – the result of the country’s mix of Caribbean culture and Communist politics. But the country’s first proper forays into digital connectivity have made these areas of the city even busier than before, meaning that accessing the internet in Cuba right now, far from being a reclusive exercise, is actually a very communal, even sociable, activity. Head to the designated WiFi squares and streets (including the ones on La Rampa, Havana’s main commercial stretch) at any time of the day or evening, and you’ll see rows of friends and acquaintances – both teenagers and adults – on benches or on the pavement, interacting with their smartphones, laptops and tablets; video-phoning relations in Miami, surfing the web, or sending emails. Despite the high cost, people here – just like everywhere in the world, though perhaps even more acutely because of their half-century economic isolation – are desperate to connect and get information.

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The other notable aspect of the new WiFi phenomenon is the black market activity that’s part and parcel of it. Queuing for a WiFi card at an official ETECSA office can be a painfully long and tedious experience. More than once I queued for over an hour, before being told that the computer they use to log every single card sold had crashed – meaning that cards were no longer available that day. Selling WiFi cards illegally on the street has thus now become a favoured activity for local touts (or bisneros), who sell the cards for 3 CUC a piece, thus making a tidy 1 CUC profit per card. Buying a card from a tout is akin to looking for a drug deal. You turn up to the WiFi square or street, and hang around looking like you’re in the market. Sooner or later you’ll likely be approached by someone offering you a card – complete with the type of circumspect body language that’s straight out of The Wire (think limited words and discreet hand movements). ‘Are we actually just buying a WiFi card?!’, my friend commented on our first experience of this; internet access is such a normal part of daily life in most of the world now that it’s hard to think of it as a potentially clandestine activity. But it’s just another curious aspect of this fascinating city that refuses to play in the same ballpark as any other capital, and in which all aspects of social life are seemingly played out with a spirit of the absurd. As WiFi access becomes more widespread in Cuba – as it likely will, now that the tide is turning – and as people eventually get access at home, these practices will likely change. Though this will be a good thing overall – especially, of course, for the locals – part of me will be sad to see such unique and characterful elements of Havana disappear.

Update April 2017: Martin Parr has just published a brilliant photo story on this phenomenon on the Magnum website: