In April, I announced – on Facebook, where else? – that I was going to one of the few countries in the world with no Internet. I couldn’t wait! 10 days with no notifications and without experiencing my own journey through my own posts. Just one more update from the airport and – We are Go! How does Cuba really look, cut off from the Internet?
In the spring, during my stay in Cuba, the official data stated that 3 per cent of the population have access to the Internet, with only 1 per cent having broadband access. This is the second such a place in the world. The infamous North Korea is in the lead.
I admit that I’m one of those people for whom the wifi at a cafe or a hotel is a matter of course. I also know from a friend who works as a barista in the Warsaw Leniviec [? pisownia] cafe that the first question people ask having sat down at a table is the wifi password. And if the router happens to be down, the guests feel as if they were suddenly cut off from a vital life support and nervously ask where their Internet went.
And thus I console myself that I am not alone. Increasingly often, however, I dream about places without coverage, so Cuba, more and more entangled in its burgeoning affair with the United States, had to be visited asap! And if you said that it was enough to go to the Bieszczady Mountains, you would have been, unfortunately, wrong. In the winter, at snow-buried Wetlina, I easily connected to the wifi. And adding posts from trips has become my unfortunate habit. Yes, I feel strongly entangled in the virtual Net. And I don’t really differ from from the norm much here, even though the Internet is my working tool.
The new face of the Cuban Revolution
The first night in Havana, we had booked in our friend’s casa particulares (private accommodation run by Cubans) … Via e-mail! – So the Internet situation may not be so bad – I reassured myself. So what happened? I do not know what is the situation in the hotel type resorts like for example Varadero, but I did not find Internet in Cuba throughout the whole length of my stay. Yet all the Cubans we met happily exchanged email addresses, often owned smartphones and were fully aware of what Facebook is. On the streets you could see a lot of TripAdvisor stickers, advertising ratings received by the hosts of casa particulares, but access to booking.com is blocked. But even that will probably change soon…
Because since July, Cuba has been undergoing an Internet revolution, at least in terms of its realities. A spokesman for the Cuban telephone company ETECSA announced that wireless internet would be available in 35 centres supervised by the authorities in Havana. The telecommunications monopoly created Internet zones in halls, cinemas, theatres, on boulevards and in parks, in, among others, Havana, Matanzas, Santa Clara, Santiago de Cuba and Pinar del Rio.
The spokesman also proudly announced that for the hour of Internet access, users would now pay two US dollars (two convertible pesos) rather than four and a half as it had been before. Considering that the average earnings of Cuban people are around 20-30 dollars a month, it is not difficult to see that the Internet is still a luxury good. Earlier on, 500 Internet-access rooms had been operating in Cuba, accessible, among others, for some state employees, while for the rest of the society, the prices were almost prohibitive.
A mental barrier, but not one of infrastructure
The beginning of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States will bring imminent changes in this hot Latin land. The very fact that Cubans can skip the dial-up, modem-dependent Internet the older of us remember speaks for itself.
A communications cable with large capacity has been laying on the seabed between Venezuela and Cuba for four years. Cuba, however, does not use it, because… no. Access to the Internet is strictly controlled by the regime and, for example, was made available in the luxury hotels mentioned above. But this I only know from hearsay…
But this information blockade crumbles more and more with each passing day. Cubans have more and more mobile phones, tablets and smart TVs and connect with the world outside the legal wired network using a variety of home-made ways.
Materials on a USB memory sticks are widely circulated. For example, music or movies get loaded onto their plasma TVs. I also know Cubans using Facebook, and on Instagram I follow the profile of Casa de Vinales. So they manage. I get emails from Cuba almost every day. This correspondence, however, resembles the traditional waited-for letters, but more on that in a moment.
Is the Internet going to flow in the Latin blood?
When I saw in the media this exact sentence: The streets of Havana were filled with young people staring into their smartphones after the Cuban government had increased the availability of the Internet – I was shocked. Not that I don’t want the Cubans to have the Internet, but I have been consciously observing what the Internet is doing to our relationships and how beautiful the Cuban museum is in this respect.
What do I mean? Anyone who has been to Latin America or experienced the typical Latin liveliness and spontaneity, probably knows what I mean. Openness, smile and joy are the characteristics of the southerners. And in Cuba all these great traits are particularly manifest. Given their political system and the theoretical lack of class divisions in the society, Cuba is truly unique in this respect. And I think that free access to the Internet may lead to the loss of this uniqueness…
The depth and mindfulness of the Cuban everyday life
No tourist will walk a Cuban street unnoticed. – Linda, guapa (Spanish: ‘Beautiful’) – can be heard. There is no end to compliments. And in my opinion it’s not just about the temperament. Let’s go back to this sentence: young people staring into their smartphones. If we are staring into smartphones, how are we to see another person next to us?! In airports, waiting rooms, trains, cafes — everybody is connected to the Internet. Staring at the phone screen we don’t notice the real people around us. We don’t see their beauty, uniqueness. We don’t even notice their presence. This human indifference to each other is a side effect of the use of mobile Internet.
It is said said that at a certain age women become transparent, invisible to men. But today you do not have to be a woman of a certain age. Today, we all have moments where we feel like we are wearing an invisibility cloak. Moreover, Cuba has not yet absorbed the skewed ideals of photo-shopped beauty from glossy magazines. With her head held proudly up it can be proud of its sensitivity to others. The natural, human beauty is recognised there. And this is much more valuable than the beautiful Caribbean beaches, which you will also find there.
Queues are widespread in Cuba and can be seen every day. But no one is queuing in them glued to their smartphone. They don’t scroll up and down their Facebook wall, don’t add the status of “standing in a line”, don’t post queuing pics on Instagram, or tweet “long queue for meat, you better come later.” So they call out their ”lindas” and ”guapa’s’. They call out because they are busy being here and now. Not in a million of other places at the same time, with millions of people beyond the physical reach.
Do you remember what it means to miss someone?
For the last 10 years I have lived separated by nearly 400 km from my parents. But we ”meet” very often, and I am convinced that not miss them as much as I would have done. Skype and watching me on Facebook offset the distance. When we watch my friends we have a feeling of being informed. We think we know how they are doing. They turn up here and there all the time, if only they are active on social media. Also, long-distance relationships are doing much better. Cuba reminds me of what it means to miss someone.
You can’t watch someone on Facebook, or Instagram, and you’re not watched. Cubans will not look at you through the lens of your Internet reach, because they have no reference point. They do not know the value of a ”Like”. What is important are the shared moments – lived through together IRL. Feelings, emotions and attention gifted to each other. And in Cuba it is easier. Human presence there does not compete with the whole virtual world.
We should learn this from the (still) off-line Cuba.