HAVANA— Nancy Cabrera has hardly talked with her daughter in the last two years, inhibited by Cuba’s restrictive Internet access. But now, Ms. Cabrera and her daughter, who lives in China, have started to video-chat on their smartphones in a new public Wi-Fi spot as the communist regime here cautiously begins to improve connectivity.
“We talked for the first time right now. It has been two years since she’s left and we haven’t seen her,” Ms. Cabrera, 59 years old, said. “We talked about everything, because we hadn’t done so for such a long time.”
In July, Cuba’s state-run telecom Etecsa installed Wi-Fi in 35 public areas across the Caribbean island, expanding Internet access in a country where the government has long restricted the flow of information to obstruct opposition.
The Wi-Fi spots, which cost users $2 an hour, have turned sleepy parks and busy street corners into mini-Internet hubs, attracting teenage girls, mothers with toddlers and older couples using their laptops, tablets and smartphones.
At a park in central Havana recently, Internet users crowded onto benches and rested against trees to talk with family and friends living abroad. Conversations extended late into the night as the glare from laptop and smartphone screens lighted up the dark plaza.
“It is something new, so everyone gathers here to connect to the Internet,” said Javier Rodríguez, a 20-year-old with gold earrings who uses his iPhone 5 to chat with his mother in Brazil and watch movies on YouTube. “Young people prefer to be online than to play dominoes.”
The service is one of Cuba’s first initiatives to improve connectivity since embarking on a plan to normalize relations with the U.S., which applauded the move.
The Wi-Fi spots are only a baby step in providing Cuba’s 11 million people with unfettered Internet access. Users can send an email, update their Facebook status or video-chat with family using an app called IMO. But they still can’t access some independent media, like 14ymedio, an online newspaper run by dissident journalist Yoani Sánchez that is blocked in Cuba.
“The Cuban government will always want to have some type of control,” said José Luis Martínez, a spokesman for the Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba. “They are a totalitarian regime trying to operate in the 21st century.”
Cuba has been able to control the Internet mainly by limiting access, a different approach than that taken by China, which maintains a robust state system to censor websites and monitor online activity.
‘As access spreads, the Cuban government may increase their efforts to block sites and control the flow of information.’
Cuba’s National Statistics Office says about 25% of the population has Internet access. But Freedom House, a Washington-based watchdog group, says the real number is closer to 5% as most users can only access a government-controlled Intranet that restricts users to email and a Cuban-produced encyclopedia.
Emily Parker, author of a recent book that chronicles the lives of Internet activists, says the government in Havana could expand censorship even as it improves Internet access.
“The Internet has not yet posed a serious threat to Cuban state power because so few people are online,” she said. “As access spreads, the Cuban government may increase their efforts to block sites and control the flow of information.”
Cuban officials have long distrusted the Internet as a U.S. tool to promote regime change. In 2007, Ramiro Valdés, a former communications minister and confidant of Fidel and Raúl Castro, called the Internet the “wild colt of new technologies that can and must be controlled.”
The government’s control over information has been key to the communist regime’s survival for more than 50 years, allowing it to withstand Cuba’s economic meltdown in the 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union.
Cuban officials blame the country’s poor Internet access on economic and technological factors stemming from the U.S. embargo, which government billboards in Havana describe as “the longest genocide in history.”
Recent improvements in connectivity are due to a 1,000-mile submarine fiber-optic cable line from Venezuela to Cuba that helped speed up the island’s Internet by replacing a satellite connection.
William LeoGrande, a professor at American University, said the government’s decision to open the Wi-Fi spots is a response to the growing demand for Internet among Cubans, who are eager to close the island’s digital divide with the rest of the world.
“It is an indicator that [the government] understands that Internet access is an economic necessity,” he said. “They have a very highly educated population that is really just champing at the bit to be able to gain access to the Internet. I think they recognize that there is no way to resist it.”
The $2-an-hour fee is steep for most Cubans, amounting to a day’s wages for Nestor Hernandez, a 39-year-old microbiologist, who sat on the steps of a central Havana park on a recent day to check his Facebook account.
At the park in central Havana recently, many users said they hope the government will further improve Internet access. Patricia Medina, a 26-year-old jewelry maker, says the connection cuts out when buses drive by. She also complained about the lack of privacy when talking with family.
Some people have made a small business out of the influx of Internet users by selling Etecsa’s prepaid Wi-Fi cards at a small markup. Others offer food and drinks to people glued to their computer screens.
“There is nothing to eat, everybody is connected talking with their family and friends and they don’t dare move because they lose the signal,” said José Jardines, who sells sandwiches and soda from two white buckets.
Michael Márquez, 31 years old, was frustrated when his cellphone battery died, cutting short a call to his aunt in Miami.
“I’d like to have this in the comfort of my home,” he said. “I wouldn’t have to come all the way here, and sit under the sun on the sidewalk.”