Communist Wi-Fi - Pacific Standard

Communist Wi-Fi

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Logging onto the Internet in Cuba, where only 4.1 percent of households have home access.

By Rick Paulas

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Cubans queue to buy and register mobile phones at ETECSA on April 14, 2008, in Havana. (Photo: Adalberto Rogue/AFP/Getty Images)

The glowing moon forces the corners and curves of the colonial-era fountain to stand out in the darkness. The structure was placed in the center of the cobble-stoned plaza decades ago, where it owed and gargled until, one day, it stopped and no one bothered to fix it. But now its silent dryness goes unnoticed by the surrounding mix of tourists and citizens, who sit crosslegged on the ground, perch on wrought-iron benches, and roam in concentric patterns like penitent monks. They’re distracted by the luminance of their phones and laptops, which hold all the light, and the darkness of the world outside Cuba.

Deep in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana, the plaza — nestled among shuttered factories, Art Deco apartments, and brick homes that have shed their paint — is one of 17 Wi-Fi hotspots the city established in July 2015. The users are a multinational delegation in all shades, ages, and genders. Tourists dominate, as they have the expendable cash needed for service, but Cuban citizens who splurged for the night lurk as well.

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A version of this story first appeared in the

September/October 2016 issue

of Pacific Standard.

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An extended family jockeys for space within the frame of a camera lens, like seals fighting over a rock. A middle-aged Cuban couple trades a pair of headphones back and forth to catch snippets of their child’s voice, beamed in from another country. A toddler taps an iPad game while bouncing on her dad’s lap. A European woman smiles, snapping a selfie. A line of men sits silent, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.

To participate in this outdoor ritual, every Web surfer must first gain entry through Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A., ever-present as the alphabet soup of ETECSA, the gatekeeper that holds the keys to the country’s Internet access. Only 4.1 percent of Cuban households have Internet access at home. To find the organization’s offces, prospective users stumble upon clusters of people assuming the position — lining the fences outside hotels, resting on outdoor staircases of office buildings, or gathering at any domain reserved in American society for our now-banished smokers. They rush off hasty inquiries to souls kind enough to spare precious seconds to give directions. The information leads back to a motley line outside the nearest office. People stumble from the sidewalk to the back of it, and they wait.

Broken Spanglish is the official language of the queue. New entrants mumble to the person ahead, hoping they’ll confirm that this, indeed, is the place they’re looking for. A few people in line have passports out, so newbies follow suit. A tall man in a tracksuit and sunglasses weaves through the line, whispering black-market offers for the service ahead, but no one trusts him enough to bite. Eventually, the line snakes past the sharp architecture of communism, through the doors, and into pale fluorescence and linoleum. At the front, a grim clerk flatly asks for identification, types in a record, and slides cards with login information across the table for the equivalent of two bucks an hour.

“Look at the junkies,” one American says outside. “They always need their fix.” She’ll stroll back toward Wi-Fi plaza, eventually passing a row of the connected, who reflect their glow onto her path like faithful bridesmaids. Then, the woman passing judgment will take out her own device and her own scratch-off, and she’ll log on as well.

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