Cuba Technology Development: Cell Phones, Internet Remain Rare On Island
Stuck In The Past
By Cristina Silva @cristymsilva email@example.com on May 10 2015 8:07
HAVANA — Orlando Matillo hit the refresh button and stared hopefully at
the screen of his laptop personal computer. He had been attempting to
connect to Facebook and talk with family overseas for more than an hour
through one of the rare Wi-Fi networks available in Cuba.
“This time, it will work,” he says as he maneuvered his keyboard once
again. “In Cuba, you have to have a little patience.” However, the
screen remained unchanged. “You’re not connected to a network,” it read.
During the more than half a century since Cuba came under Communist
control, it has famously devolved into something of a museum piece
displaying the accoutrements of life absent updating. It is a land of
rusting vintage cars and crumbling architecture for lack of newer
options, and a place of vivid material scarcity amid widespread economic
dysfunction. In the realm of cyberspace, Cuba appears equally tethered
to the past, as people struggle with primitive infrastructure in
frequently futile efforts to interact with one another and the rest of
Cuba’s physical confines as an island nation have been reinforced by a
stark digital divide: Most people cannot afford to go online for long,
and the available infrastructure is severely limiting. Now, as the U.S.
prepares to lift its decades-long embargo against Cuba, some here hope
they will finally be able to use the everyday technology such as cell
phones and PCs that much of the developed world takes for granted.
For years, telecommunications giants such as AT&T Inc., Nokia Oyj and
Verizon Communications Inc. have demanded entry into the Cuban market.
But Web access remains both expensive and rare across the country even
as Cubans are increasingly embracing smartphones, laptops, tablets and
other devices designed for easily connecting to the internet. Many
Cubans say they fear a 21st century world of online connectivity has
already left them behind and it’s unclear when they will be able to
The Cuban government allows only certain professionals to have limited
Internet access at home. They include some state workers, artists and
academics. Everyone else can go online through state-owned Internet
centers or at a handful of luxury hotels catering to foreign tourists.
Online access generally costs about $5 an hour, more than most Cubans
earn in a week.
In all, barely 5 percent of Cuba’s 11 million residents are able to get
online, and when they do, the connection is often painfully slow.
Uploading pictures, downloading files and watching videos on the
Internet can take hours or days.
“Cuba remains one of the world’s most repressive environments for the
Internet and other information and communication technologies,” Freedom
House, a civil-rights group based in Washington, concluded in a recent
report. “There is practically no access to Internet applications other
than email, given the slowness of the country’s connectivity and high
prices, and most users are restricted to an intranet for obtaining
However, Cubans are increasingly poised to make use of widespread
Internet access. Smartphones — iPhones, Blackberry handsets and Android
devices — have become more common in recent years, especially among
millennials who largely use them to send text messages, make phone
calls, play games and share music. In 2011, about 1.3 million Cubans, or
around 11 percent, had mobile phones, up from roughly 443,000 in 2009.
The trendy phones, laptops and tablets are generally brought to Cuba
from “afuera,” or the outside, a term frequently used as a shorthand
expression to explain a foreign connection. Some Cubans who travel
regularly to other countries earn cash by purchasing used devices in
Madrid, Miami, Ecuador’s Quito and other major cities to later resell in
Cuba, while a lucky few receive old phones and PCs from relatives in the
U.S. who have upgraded to newer models.
Those in the market for a smartphone generally must choose from a
limited selection at a few dozen private outlets that have opened since
the government began allowing Cubans to operate small businesses in
2011. Movil Express, a phone vendor and repair shop in a bustling Havana
business district, had only two models for sale on a recent afternoon.
The LG phone cost $200; the Blu phone cost $100. Both were
bargain-basement models, below the quality of phone given away for free
with service contracts in the U.S.
“People who buy these phones know they can’t really use them to go
online, but they are the best you can get here, and everyone always want
the best,” says Eduardo Riva, 27, whose family owns Movil Express. “Most
Cubans can’t afford these phones, but a relative sends them money from
Miami, or they have a little extra cash in their pockets, and they know
it’s an investment.”
‘The 21st Century Has Left Us Behind’
More Cubans are also becoming dependent on home PCs, even if they can’t
use them to surf the Web, says Carlos Leyva, 54, the owner of a popular
computer-repair shop. They play games, create documents and print
paperwork on Dells, Hewlett-Packards, Toshibas and other brands. More
often than not, the PCs are less than 10 years old and have found new
lives in Cuba after previous owners in foreign countries purchased newer
Leyva began his business more than four years ago after decades of
working as a computer engineer for the Cuban government. At first, he
repaired about four PCs a week. As more Cubans acquired them and his
business grew, he purchased a storefront on a main street in Camaguey,
Cuba’s third most-populous city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site replete
with colonial-style homes and churches. These days, his business employs
three people and repairs about 25 PCs a week, and he must often turn
away potential new customers because he can’t meet the demand for his
Most of the PCs that arrive at Leyva’s store have overheated after being
exposed to Cuba’s scorching year-round climate in homes without air
conditioning. “In the U.S., people have computers and phones for a year
or two before saying, ‘Oh, this doesn’t work. I need a new one.’ Here,
we fix things and we make them last,” he says.
Leyva has regular Internet access because of his wife, who is pursuing a
doctorate in engineering. He spends about two hours a day online
searching for the latest tech news. He regularly enters Spanish-language
tech chat rooms to ask for advice when he is stumped by one of his jobs.
He purchases computer parts, tools and other equipment from a smuggler
who travels frequently to Miami.
“Right now, it feels like the 21st Century has left us behind. Even when
you can get online, it’s so slow, you are there for hours waiting for
the information to download. But we’ve been paying attention. People in
my field are ready for Cuba to have Internet, whenever that day comes,”
Cell Phones Still Rare
Cuba’s youths are also impatiently waiting for their country to catch up
with the rest of the world.
Jessica Santos, 19, has a Samsung Galaxy 3 smartphone that her boyfriend
in Florida brought her when he came to visit in February. She uses it to
send text messages to friends, take pictures and listen to Celine Dion
songs. The state-run phone company charges by the minute, so she keeps
her phone conversations short. Her mother, a clerk for a federal judge,
pays the bill. “Cell phones here are for emergencies. If you want to get
in touch with someone, you walk to their house,” Santos says.
Ivan Reince, 24, got his first cell phone three years ago after landing
a job as a construction worker. Cell phones are still rare enough in
Cuba that “when you ask a girl out, you ask if she has phone first. Then
you ask for the number,” he says.
He learned to type in school, where five PCs were shared by 25 students
for a few hours each week. He has been online only a few times over the
past five years. Asked whether he had a Facebook account, he laughs and
says, “But, do you think you’re in the United States?”
If he could go online, he says, he would flirt with girls on Facebook,
watch music videos featuring Chris Brown and Lil Wayne, and download
movies whenever he wanted. “You pay $50 a month in the United States and
it’s unlimited. Here, we pay for every phone call, every minute, every
text message and still we don’t have Internet access,” he says.
Albert Manrique, 20, recently sold the Blackberry his grandfather in
Miami sent him to buy two pairs of skinny jeans. It seemed more
practical, he says. “I hardly used the phone and I wanted the clothes to
go to parties on the weekend,” says Manrique, who recently graduated
from high school with honors and lives in a crumbling apartment building
on the outskirts of Camaguey with his sister, mother and stepfather.
‘It’s My Right Hand’
Cubans who have embraced technology brought over from the U.S. and other
countries say the devices have already improved their lives, allowing
small-business owners to provide better service to customers and
improving communications among families and friends.
Miguel Antonio Evans, 18, saved up for months to buy a used Toshiba
laptop for $175 last year. Evans, who runs a tattoo studio out of the
humble home his family has lived in for more six decades in Camaguey,
keeps the PC within arm’s reach each day as he spends hours drawing
elaborate designs across his customer’s biceps, chests and legs.
He purchased a memory card loaded with music videos that he plays on
repeat to distract his clients from the pain of the tattoo needle. He
also downloaded dozens of images of tattoo art, and encourages customers
to choose from the designs. Before the laptop, he depended on a handful
of outdated tattoo-art magazines imported from the U.S. to inspire his
“It’s my right hand,” he says of the laptop on a recent afternoon as he
inks flowers on a customer’s arm, the PC within reach. “It’s made
everything much easier.”
Evans says he would like to be able to surf the Web for new tattoo
designs and download the latest music for his clients. He would promote
his business on Facebook and upload pictures of his work.
“When will that day come? I don’t know. No one else knows. I can’t even
tell you if that will happen in my lifetime,” he says.
‘Are You Connected?’
Among Cubans desperate for a cheap Internet connection, the Kcho Studio
Romerillo Laboratory for Art on the outskirts of Havana has become a
unique solution. The art studio owned by Cuban artist Kcho offers free
Wi-Fi in the low-income Romerillo neighborhood, where many of the homes
are made of wood and metal siding and neighbors pass the days by
gossiping on crowded street corners under the sweltering sun. Local
youths, business owners and students still in their school uniforms
arrive daily with smartphones, laptops and tablets to sit on the benches
and wicker chairs scattered across the art complex as they try to log
on. They are multiple electrical outlets for charging devices. A cafe
sells juice, coffee and sandwiches.
Kcho’s network allows only 25 people to connect at any one time, meaning
many Cubans hang around for hours until they can get online. “Are you
connected?” they ask strangers as they hit their refresh buttons.
Matillo, who teaches English at a local elementary school, says he heard
about Kcho’s Wi-Fi spot a few weeks ago from a friend and has since
visited the studio multiple times a week. He takes two buses to the arts
complex, where getting online is not guaranteed. Last week, he was able
to post some selfies on Facebook before he lost the connection. Other
times, he has chatted with his cousin in New York.
“Cubans want to go online and talk to the world like everyone else,”
Matillo, 27, says on a recent afternoon as he sits on a bench with his
laptop open and a smartphone in one hand trying to connect. “We want to
be part of the Web and join the conversation.”
Source: Cuba Technology Development: Cell Phones, Internet Remain Rare
On Island Stuck In The Past –