Alice Driver is a freelance journalist and translator based in Mexico City. She is currently traveling through Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala working on a project on migration with Longreads Originals.
“Years ago, I wrote letters. Now I talk to my son every day.”
“News reporting problems of unrest in Venezuela is fake news,” announced the Cuban TV anchor as I drank my guava juice, mentally reviewing all the images of Venezuelan protesters I had seen. In Cuba, news is state-controlled and internet access is scarce, with wi-fi available almost exclusively in public spaces like parks. When I visited the island earlier this month, I wanted to understand how citizens communicated with and got news about the outside world.
Before 2014, some workplaces in Cuba had internet (for example, universities), but it was not available in homes. That year, Raúl Castro declared his support for the “public and social” use of the internet, and the country opened an initial 237 paid wi-fi hotspots in public spaces like parks. The Castro government has since expanded the number of hotspots, but an hour of wi-fi costs 1.5 CUC (about $2), which is a significant amount in comparison to the average Cuban salary.
After arriving in Havana, I dropped off my bag at the house of Carmen Yolí and Andrés Medina, the couple who had hosted me in January 2016 when Cuba first welcomed Airbnb into the country. It was dusk and I walked from San Lazaro Street, near the University of Havana, to the Malecón, the long esplanade along the coast. There, I struck up a conversation with a group of fishermen and their friends. They said the wi-fi connection was bad, but they were thankful to be able to communicate with family members living abroad.
Walking back from the Malecón, I chatted with Ovi Domínguez, 43, who works in a state-run butchery. He was sitting on the corner of the park near my hosts’ house sharing a juice-box-sized rum with a friend, who introduced himself to me as “El Bicho” (“The Bug”).
As he tried to connect to Facebook, Ovi explained, “I can’t connect every day because it is very expensive. When I can connect to Facebook, sometimes I can’t see photos because the connection is so bad. For so long, we have had nothing. We want to know and understand and see the world.” The butchery where he works often runs out of meat in the first seven to 10 days of the month, so he usually has a lot of free time. “I don’t work much, but I make about 10 CUC per month. How can my family survive on that?”
Nearby was Yandel, 26. (He and many other people I talked to asked that only their first names be used.) He wore a gold chain with a serpent on it and paused his phone conversation to tell me, “I’m talking to a friend in Canada. I’m looking for a relationship. Life in Cuba is work and more work—it isn’t easy. On the internet, you can meet new people. I’m looking for a woman with a splendid heart.”
Passing through the Parque Trillo on the way to Old Havana, I met Venezuelan Luz Villegas, who was reading a book on a large tablet while rocking her one-year-old son in her arms. “I live in Venezuela, but I want to move to Cuba for my son. Venezuela is a mess,” she said. She had married a Cuban, but they were living in Venezuela and only visiting family in Havana for a few days.
The next day, near the Malecón, I found men clustered on benches around a metal sculpture called “Primavera” by the Cuban artist Rafael San Juan. Abner Ruíz, 24, told me, “I'm talking to my girlfriend. Well, I don’t know if she is my girlfriend. She lives in Los Angeles and visits me twice a year.”
A kitten ran under our feet as we talked, and in the corner of the park two police stood guard with a large, muzzled German Shepherd. None of the other men wanted me to publish their names.
Almost everyone I met using wi-fi in Havana was using it to talk to family, and Haymet, 52, was no exception. She was sitting in the Parque de los Martirios Universitarios with her sister Estela, 53, and her niece Patricia, 19, who is deaf and was using Skype to sign with a cousin in Venezuela. Haymet explained, “I come to talk to friends from outside to disconnect, because my 24-year-old daughter died a month ago.” She held up a photo of her daughter on her phone, but started to cry and said she couldn’t talk about her.
Haymet said she mostly used wi-fi to talk to her son who was working as a doctor in Venezuela. “I am very satisfied with the wi-fi system,” she said. “It has many faults—you cannot see things very well, you have difficulties—but I accept those difficulties because I can connect with my son and my sister.”
She continued: “Years ago, I wrote letters. Now I talk to my son every day. Recently I reconnected with a friend from high school on Facebook. How nice! It is difficult, but we can communicate with the outside world.”
It was almost midnight when I met Mario, who was sitting in the Parque Trillo talking on his phone. His cousin stood nearby hugging his dog, whose feet dangled into my photo. Mario, like many Cubans, had mixed feelings about the state-controlled provision of wi-fi, and he also had love on his mind.
“There are times when you’re talking to a girl, and she asks where you are, and you say, ‘the park.’ And then the connection drops, and she thinks you’re talking to someone else,” he said. “You have fiber optics in the U.S., but we are still living in the Ice Age.”