The Underground Economy Supporting Public Internet Use in Cuba

Posted by Sam Kellogg — MA candidate in Media, Culture, and Communications at NYU

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The Wi-Fi park on 14th and 15th street, Vedado, Havana.

I met *Victor the second or third time I visited my local Wi-Fi park, on the corner of 14th and 15th streets in Vedado. Vedado is a neighborhood in Havana a mile west of the city center known for its tree-lined boulevards and grand houses, many of which were converted into shared living spaces or dedicated to municipal functions following the Cuban Revolution’s triumph in 1959. It’s in one of these converted houses I’ve been living for the past few weeks.

In the mornings, I sometimes pass by the park on 14th and 15th street to check my email, and most mornings until noon Victor is there, lounging on a green park bench beneath the extravagant orange flowers and merciful shade of the Flamboyán trees. His hustle is selling tarjetas to park visitors—single-use cards with scratch-off codes that give buyers access to the Internet for a set amount of time, usually an hour or two.

This is how most Cubans and island visitors get online, check their emails, scroll through Facebook, and listen to the latest music. The process of connecting goes something like this: Visit your local Wi-Fi-enabled park, turn on your device’s Wi-Fi, and connect to the public network. Usually the network will be named “WIFI_ETECSA” (ETECSA is the state telecom company, and the sole Internet provider on the island). Once connected to the network, a pop-up screen with spaces to type in a username and password allows you to log in. If you’re using the scratch-off single-use cards that Victor sells to connect, you’ll type in two twelve-digit numbers printed on the back of the card for your username and password and cross your fingers. Wait a few seconds, and if you typed in the numbers correctly (I often don’t), you’ll see a green check-mark and emails and notifications will start pouring in.

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Front and back of a five-hour single-use login card.

My local park is always buzzing with activity in the mornings and evenings when the shadows are longer and the sun is more forgiving. Sit for a while and you’ll overhear a multitude of long-distance conversations with loved ones all over the world. The scene is not so different from what you’d find in any Wi-Fi-enabled location in New York City—parents video-chat with their children, sweethearts exchange mediated kisses over IMO, kids on skateboards watch reggaeton music videos on YouTube, taxi drivers pull over to quickly check their messages before rumbling off in search of another fare. What makes the scene here so striking to foreigners is that all of this bustling communicative activity is concentrated in a single city-block radius: since mobile data as well as at-home broadband connections are rare (who has access and how is something I’ll be investigating later), for most Cubans the only option is to head to the local park. It is worth it: a half-hour of Wi-Fi access is far more economical than a half-hour long-distance telephone call.

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Wi-Fi antennae manufactured by Huawei mounted on a telephone pole.

Victor’s enterprise selling connection cards second-hand is strictly illegal—first-time offenders are fined 1,500.00 moneda nacional (~$60.00 USD) if caught and the average state monthly salary works out to somewhere between $25.00 USD and $40.00 USD depending on who you ask—but it is lucrative enough that you’ll rarely visit a Wi-Fi park without a discreet tarjeta salesperson offering you a login. After all, the demand is there. Officially, the only way to purchase Internet login cards is to wait in line at the local ETECSA branch and purchase them—a daunting prospect in the heat of the afternoon when the line is likely to be more than an hour long. Victor and others like him do the job of waiting, stock up on login cards, and then resell them at a premium to park visitors. This kind of card-reselling is enough to get by for some dedicated workers, and a good way to supplement a standard salary, but nobody is getting rich off of it. And though it’s a little pricier to purchase second-hand at the park than it is to buy directly from ETECSA, many agree that paying the premium is preferable to standing in line.

For those of us accustomed to being always-already connected, it can be tempting to compare the experience in Cuba to going back in time, and many a tourist guide and travel website will fall back on this tired refrain to describe the peculiarities of Cuban connectivity. However, while Cuba may sometimes feel isolated in certain respects, and though its Internet access is certainly limited, it has never been outside of history. Cuban Internet users are incredibly savvy, increasingly numerous, and highly creative. In my blog posts to come, I’ll be relating the stories of some of my interlocutors here in the wired city of Havana, and exploring the social and material infrastructures that make such practices possible.

*Victor’s name was changed to protect his identity.

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