One year ago was nothing. Foreign phones were dead and could not see any network, anywhere and were being relegated to their debased role of music player and photo storage. We still checked them in our habitual way that became a second nature, a sort of paranoia of our current time of not being left out, an obsession of a modern society that lives more virtually than in reality. But soon we learned that nothing will pop up on the screen and stealthily we tucked it away in the creases of our luggage and forgot about them, our main tool of existence. And we found out that life without them was way richer, connected, laughing and joyful like the life of the impoverished Cubans that surrounded us. So many Cubans had the magic toys also, fake iPhone from China or older ones from Miami received from their relatives that supported with money their livelihood for the last 23 years and with it the entire Cuban economy helping an inept government to survive unthinkably. Without public Internet in the country nobody was using the phone to communicate but they sported them and listen to music being wired like all teenagers around the world with the main difference that not having the electronic way of communicating at hand they had to default to the old fashion way of face to face talking, such an “yesterday’ thing in the west nowadays.
And now everything changed. When it happened I could not find out, some said that more than a year ago, others said it just happened and others that it happened several months ago but for sure the revolution, this time non-socialist, was so obvious on the streets of Havana and all other Cuban cities. And for the first time Cubans were able to access the world and with it other points of view that till just yesterday were censored through the pages of Granma or Juventud Rebelde.
First I did not understand the crowds; lots of young people were glued to their phones right outside the hotels, on all sides of them, on sidewalks, sitting directly on the streets or filling the surrounding benches. The parks were filled with youth whose faces in the night were glowing lit by their screens, an explosion of fireflies on a limited area in the middle of the city. The image was mesmerizing and I stayed there to admire and take photos of a crowd that was completely transported in another time and space, texting, talking, checking Facebook and taking selfies to be sent to the long gone friends and family in foreign places. Most of the people were keeping their phones in front of them video chatting over IMO some sharing the headphones with relatives or friends. So my long desired electronic-free vacation was over and I jumped to see how I can join the Cuban new Internet revolution just to find out that I have to stay in line for almost one hour to get an one hour Internet card that cost a little more than $2, (2CUC). But the slow moving gears of a comatose bureaucratic system will always create lines, the famous Cuban “colas” that you see everywhere in the country, the same “colas” that were in Eastern Europe a byproduct of any socialist system. In order to buy a card you have to get registered with the passport or any ID, so the simple thing of getting a card it becomes a process that creates a long line in front of the post offices of at least one hour wait. You can buy a card in a hotel for about $5/hour or better from one of the street hustlers who go and wait in line and buy up to a maximum of four cards and resell them with about 3CUC, making 1CUC on the way. Or, because the entrepreneurial spirit is live anywhere in the world, you can get a hot spot connection from a guy in the park for just $1 and do your email on the spot.
The Internet in Cuba has only one provider who installed powerful wi-fi hotspots in all major points of the cities but mainly in the large hotels and some parks. Being only one wi-fi provider in the entire country, and as I understood being advised by their Chinese friends if I am not mistaken, for sure it makes easy to control the access and the traffic trying to keep an eye on seditious elements that may try to destabilize the regime. Being used to be always connected at home, I first cherished the change but soon I realized what was lost from the last visit. The freedom and the laisser-faire that I had before was gone, the excuse that I don’t have to answer my NY clients’ emails was not so convincing anymore and I dived in the daily routine of checking once a day the mailbox, way better that the compulsive, almost obsessive and pathological way of checking it in NY. Because the Internet access cards were hard to get in the post office, or you had to walk all the way to the Parc de Valle where the hustlers were selling them, the way to check your email was different; you were opening the connection, pulling your email and closing the connection. After that you went to the restaurant and till the food was coming you were responding in the Outbox. When the dinner was done you went back to the park or the hotel and open the connection and the messages were sent, repeating the drill the next evening. It was pointless to check the news while in Cuba and sour your day finding out about the exploits of The Donald encouraging his audience to punch the others in the face while people were dancing salsa on the streets of Havana. There are better things to do in life. So Havana and many other cities in Cuba got wired to the relief of a friend, Julio, who told me last year:”We are the last people on Earth. We have nothing, not even Internet! Because they want for us to hear only their version of the story”