THE TRAVEL ISSUE
The week of May 24, 2015

Tech in Cuba, before the thaw

By Matt Stempeck

With Raul Castro reforming the island’s government and Barack Obama beginning to normalize relations with the United States, Cuba is at the threshold of a new era.

A vibrant culture that’s stagnated economically for decades is about to be opened to our modern communications era, one of ubiquitous connectivity and constant contact. Google officials visited in March to discuss connectivity, and Airbnb recently opened its business to the country’s existing network of casas particulares (private homes functioning like bed and breakfasts). Netflix has even launched in Cuba, despite slow or nonexistent Internet on the island. I wanted to understand the role of technology in regular Cubans’ lives in 2015, at this unique moment, before the inevitable—and irrevocable—changes.

On the way into Havana, I befriended a few other American guys over the shared uncertainty of customs checks and fate-deciding passport stamps. Within hours of getting off the plane, we were drinking rum together at a hotel bar. There I met a local university student, a compsci major who helped run a casa particular. He considered it more lucrative than an a career in computer science.

While my new American friends drank in a hotel bar he couldn’t afford (and until recently, wasn’t even allowed to enter), we geeked out over the latest Android devices, local Wi-Fi options, and where to download the best warez. Our Cuban friend actually had a newer version of Android than I do (I’m still waiting on AT&T to deploy last November’s update). He sported a Nexus 5 phone that had recently been brought over from Miami but was going to have to resell it after a few days of trying it out because he needed the cash as seed capital in the tech consulting operation he’s trying to get off the ground.

What follows is all I gleaned about regular Cubans’ technology usage in 2015 from conversations with locals in five cities, careful observations, and some pre- and post-trip research. It’s mostly anecdotal. (For an in-depth exploration of how the Cuban Internet works, check out this Medium piece by Elaine Diaz and Ellery Biddle.) This is an account of the general technology landscape for regular people—or at least regular people with some exposure to the income that follows working in the tourism sector.

IMG_20150331_103249279An Internet café

Connectivity

Cubans have had a reputation for ingenuity bred from necessity long before we started tossing around the word “hacker.” In a place with severely limited resources, everyone is a bit of a hacker, and the creative solutions Cubans devise to maintain a certain quality of living will make your binder clip tricks look uninspired.

Needless to say, this creative problem-solving has been extended in recent years to digital resources like connectivity and content.

I wanted to understand the role of technology in regular Cubans’ lives in 2015, at this unique moment, before the inevitable—and irrevocable—changes.

There are many ways to prevent a people from connecting to the rest of the online world. The first thing that comes to mind is outright restriction: foreign regimes that ban YouTube, or the Great Firewall of China. In Cuba the situation is more like active neglect. By simply failing to invest in communications networks and maintaining a hostile business climate, Internet and other communications networks are simply priced out of most people’s realities. You don’t need to block YouTube; you just need to ensure the act of streaming video feels like an unattainable luxury.

Cuba offers three broad connectivity options: Internet cafés, hotel Wi-Fi, and workplace Internet. The grander tourist hotels offer Wi-Fi for $6-9 per hour; government-run Internet cafés charge slightly less. The average Cuban takes home about $20 per month. They find all kinds of ways to supplement that income, but cost remains a barrier to getting Cubans online.

The government’s Internet cafés are run by a national company called ETECSA (Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A.). You wait for a retro-style terminal to open up at the coffee bar, then pay for an hour and get to work on a (likely surveilled) PC featuring a big onscreen countdown timer. For many Cubans without workplace access, this is the only option. At-home Internet is virtually nonexistent, although the government promises it’s coming.

If you want to connect with your phone and refresh all of your apps, Havana’s tourist hotels are your option for actual Wi-Fi. It’s pricier but more personal. It’s not seamless. The entire time I used hotel Wi-Fi, I witnessed a constant stream of irate tourists complaining to the network administrator/barista about various things not working. They complained not just of the usual issues initially connecting to the network, but also once connected, of slow speeds and the lack of SMTP connection necessary to access many work email accounts run through Exchange servers.

“I couldn’t get on Google, and Hotmail didn’t work half the time. I should get half my money back,” said the wealthy man staying at the fanciest hotel in the city, as he spent 10 minutes demanding a refund of 3.50 pesos. I suddenly understood why the woman fielding these concerns had been less than cheerful when I asked her about the Wi-Fi options.

Workplace Internet is not always “the Internet” as we know it.

The third option for connectivity is workplace Internet—probably the most reliable option for white-collar Cubans. But workplace Internet is not always “the Internet” as we know it. The Cuban government maintains a constellation of professional networks to provide information to different professions, such as healthcare. The networks also include a messaging system very similar to email, except sometimes restricted to domestic recipients.

05-P1000539We went to CUBACEL to purchase payphone credits on a calling card. The payphone and its automated phonetree had both seen better days.

Data plans

The majority of the people I spoke to, intelligent and worldly in all other regards, had no concept of what a cellular data plan meant. There was cell service, for calls, and Wi-Fi, for data, but the idea of having data anywhere one went was a new one. This isn’t to say that there are no data towers—my travel companion’s government-provided work phone provided a data connection just fine. The relatively few Cubans with smartphones can pay for a data plan, but it provides access only to Cuba’s state-run email system.

Apps and Web services

I was impressed by the degree to which Facebook was prevalent, relative to other tech, but due to the high friction of actually transmitting data, it serves socially like a phone book directory to “have” rather than to “use” regularly for interaction.

On the hotel Wi-Fi, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Circa all worked, whereas I couldn’t access Facebook from the browser, or download Google Translate’s offline Spanish package (but this probably had more to do with its large file size). And yes, dating apps like Tinder worked as well, although there were only two women on the service in Havana: one tourist and one local. I never regained Wi-Fi access to see if we’d matched.

I never regained Wi-Fi access to see if we’d matched.

Those Cubans I met with smartphones had a fairly limited collections of apps. (My phone’s Google Play background service persistently crashed, which could explain the lack of apps.) One girl had Twitter installed but had yet to ever actually open it. There are exceptions, of course, the most notable being the USB-trafficked app collections that saturate phones with black-market apps.

12-P1000756

Our driver’s original car radio and after-market CD player, housed in a custom wooden case

Hacks

Enterprising youths have developed more sustainable workarounds that better preserve their limited incomes. One young person explained to me how he and his fellow geeks descend on a particularly susceptible network, late at night when the network administrator is home sleeping. One of them will pay for the initial hour to get the necessary scratch card and access code. They’ll use one laptop to access the network and turn it into a server to tether all manner of additional devices. They use a hack to break the countdown timer just before it expires, creating an open-air LAN party.

It’s not just connections that can be procured. In a place where physical goods are cumbersome to come by, the allure of endlessly shareable digital goods is powerful. Cubans may be behind much of the world in access to the Internet, but the result is that they remain in the golden age of filesharing. USB memory sticks chock full of warez pass between friends. El paquete, or “the package,” refers to a weekly dump of timely files, including anywhere from 500 gigabytes to a terabyte worth of global news, American TV shows and movies (including Game of Thrones), antivirus updates, and hundreds of pirated mobile apps.

There’s no single cardinal paquete; like torrent sites, various providers compete to offer the richest collection, with the reputation as someone who can get things as the main reward. It’s passed between friends and sold by networks of distributors. The price decreases throughout the week as the digital content grows stale. The people I spoke to didn’t know who was getting the paquetes into Cuba each week, but the U.S. TV shows featured logos from Miami television stations.

If you have money, of course, you can better access modern offerings. Officially, Cuba has less than 10 TV channels. Surprisingly enough, these state-run networks air a number of American sitcoms. (My friend and I had a good time picturing officials in the Bureau of Moral Integrity greenlighting the fourth season of The Big Bang Theory after careful consideration of each and every episode.) If you’re willing to pay a substantial monthly fee, someone will decode DirecTV for your home, much like Americans used to bootleg cable hookups. I wasn’t expecting to spend my night discussing how the Celtics were doing this season, in Spanish, in a Cuban living room, but there I was.

They use a hack to break the countdown timer just before it expires, creating an open-air LAN party.

Hardware is a bit trickier and, along with the cost of access, is a limiting factor. New devices are snuck into the country to evade high fees. A healthy aftermarket tech trade occurs on Revolico, a Cuban Craigslist—which is also one of the few sites consistently blocked in Cuba.

Computers

The computers and laptops are almost entirely PCs. Cathode ray tube monitors are still the norm. The laptops reminded me of the personal machines my friends brought to the 2008 presidential campaign, affectionately lugged around field offices and follow-up jobs well past their prime. Components are held together by duct tape, if necessary. The desktops were throwbacks, too; 1990s or early 2000s models, the kind that become dusty and sticky-dirty and never quite clean again, their computational obsolescence manifesting in their yellowed hulls. I saw few if any Macs in the wild, but those Apple logo stickers that come with every iPod are prolific. They’re applied not just as bumper stickers but also cleverly repurposed as signs and logos to communicate apple (the fruit)—brand violations bold enough to make Steve Jobs spin in his grave.

39-P1010299Cellphone vendors may line the streets, but there’s only one provider, run by the Cuban government.

Cellphones

If you’re frustrated with the U.S.’s limited cellular options, you probably won’t enjoy Cubacel, a subsidiary of ETECSA, the island’s sole provider. Most American phones won’t work on the network because they’re locked, thanks to our own telecommunications oligarchy. But an unlocked GSM phone and a Cuban SIM card will get you on the Cubacel network. The cheap Blu GSM world phone I brought for the trip was widely recognized, while my first-generation Android Moto X was mistaken as an iPhone multiple times.

The CUBACEL stores, like many official offices, are swamped with long lines. In many of the cities we visited, an employee stood at the door enforcing a one-in, one-out policy that could adjust for people they know. The store’s clean glass display cases were a throwback to RadioShack: top-of-the-line answering machines and cordless phones photo sat on the barren glass shelves.

Tourists and business travelers can rent expensive cell plans during their stay, but if you meet the right locals, you can also make a deal to rent their tarjeta de SIM, or línea Cubana, for a period of time. You can get a good deal this way, though you’ll also receive their friends’ confused calls and text messages every day. You can also purchase prepaid cards (tarjetas) that allow you to place calls from local payphones. It took us a significant amount of time to purchase this card and figure out how to place a call, so a functional cell is a better option.

While Internet service remains rare, especially outside of tourist areas, third-party cellular businesses have sprouted up alongside adjacent farmacias and grocers to serve a far larger percentage of the population than other high tech. Freedom House produces reports about connectivity in Cuba, which is poor but improving. As in many developing countries, small mobile stores and stands abound even in smaller cities, as obtaining and servicing a mobile has become as necessary for daily life’s communication, if not yet information. Many of the services these stores provide, such as unlocking, probably aren’t technically legal, but they’re only one aspect of an extensive gray market system that helps Cuba sustain in the face of unworkable official economies.

Illustration by J. Longo | Photos by Matt Stempeck