For a long time the city of Pinar del Río has languished in the evening. The central Martí Street was a scene of complete desolation and only came alive Saturday with groups of young people wandering aimlessly. However, since early this month, the landscape has changed with the installation of a wireless network to surf the Internet, installed by the State Telecommunications Company of Cuba (ETECSA).
The WiFi service has changed the face of the central avenue for the four blocks from Independence Park to La Chiquita store. It is now a hive of people with phones, tablets, laptops and whatever technological device serves to access the web. At any hour of the morning, afternoon or night, the place is packed.
Entire families talk via Skype with their family members abroad. Students download information they can use in their next course, young people recently released onto the World Wide Web create their Facebook profiles, and hundreds of people, read, search and flit from one page to another. No one wants to be without their kilobytes. The tricks to it are shared outloud and if someone finds a way to optimize the connection time, the news travels from mouth to mouth.
A commotion, a jolt or a social phenomenon, the fact is that everyone agrees this city is not the same since the first of July. The park where as recently as two weeks ago only drunks and vagrants spent the night has been taken over by whole families gathered around a screen.
The park where as recently as two weeks ago only drunks and vagrants spent the night has been taken over by whole families gathered around a screen
The reduction in hourly connection costs, although still out of reach relative to wages, has motivated many to try this thing called the “interned.” (sic) Now, at two convertible pesos an hour*, residents of Pinar del Rio have been added to the many Cubans who have taken to the places where 35 WiFi points have just been unveiled throughout the country.
A month before the service was turned on in Pinar del Rio, the antennas were installed for the connection and, barely two weeks beforehand, the bandwidth was tested with 120 people connected at the same time. Last weekend the phenomenon was launched and threatens to revolutionize the entire city.
Alejandro, a young college student who has already tested the service a couple of times, told 14ymedio, “This is the best vacation gift you could imagine, this is my best summer.” With a tablet in hand, he navigates the social networks like Twitter, and watches videos on YouTube, while checking his email and looking for information on topics that interest him. The appetite for information is huge.
Like love, the Internet has no age and Leopoldina, 60, is almost crying with joy as she sees again via videoconference an emigrant son she hadn’t seen in ten years. “My son, how beautiful you are and how pretty your house is. The whole neighborhood sends you greetings and kisses,” the lady repeats, still a little surprised that this “box with keys” had returned her “little boy” to her.
Nearby a group of young girls looks for friends on Facebook. The complicit laughter and the whispers into each other’s ears complete the picture. A few yards away another girl, sitting in a doorway, chats her cellphone. “For us, who have nothing, this is very good,” explains the young woman without taking her eyes off the screen. “The price is high and many people can’t afford the equivalent of 50 Cuban pesos per hour, but I hope they’ll lower it later,” she says with enthusiasm.
Leopoldina, 60, is almost crying with joy as she sees again via videoconference an emigrant son she hadn’t seen in ten years
In Independence Park the connectivity is quite a spectacle. Loudspeakers play reggaeton every hour, while hundreds of young people are everywhere, some connected to the web, others dancing.
Baseball lovers, in Rock Forest Park now consult the web for the latest results of the Cubans playing in the major leagues. The minute they hear of the recent high level leaks against the United States their comments contrast with the silence of the government press on these matters. “They don’t have to say anything now, explain anything to us. Now we already have the news of the day,” a fan shouts loudly.
People, despite the costs, bite the bullet and live the experience of access to a vast diversity of information. “It is a sensation of freedom that I’ve never experienced before, ‘brother’,” Geddy Carlos enthuses. Seated next to eight young people who share an application through which they are all linked through a single account and so save money.
“Cubans always look for ways to overcome obstacles,” points out Andy, one of those connected to the peculiar network formed by all these guys stuck to their laptops. A young couple, next to them, jumps from El Nuevo Herald to el Diario de las Americas, and before they disconnect they take a look at El Pais. The bright flashes of the red LED on the USB memory shows they are making copies of everything they read.
“Look at what Antonio Castro is saying in Turkey!” a surprised young man murmurs, and an flood of friends come over to look at the page appearing on the screen. Midnight is approaching and the parks are still full. It seems that Pinar del Rio doesn’t want to go to sleep.
*Translator’s note: 2 convertible pesos is more than $2 US, the equivalent of two days wages or more for many workers.