Contrary to what one might expect in a country where communications are almost a luxury and not a right, the announced opening of a public network access at Havana’s La Rampa, which would expand Internet access in the capital starting July 1st, did not generate significant crowds.
In the morning hours, the iconic El Vedado stretch, from 23rd Street, between L and El Malecón, showed its usual liveliness. Just a few, mostly young, would-be Internet users roamed the corner of 23rd and L, manipulating their mobile phones in vain: there was no Wi-Fi signal.
The almost total absence of foreign media at the location seemed a bad omen. One of the most important complaints of the Cuban population has been specifically about the Internet. That is why every occasion relating to the expansion of communications and the creation of cyberspace is an event that brings out the media.
Under the scorching midday heat it was already evident that “something” had failed and –lacking any information- speculation became more frequent. “They must be configuring the system so it will not crash when service starts” argued a twenty-something young man that had spent hours searching for the expected signal on his phone. Others around him kept trying, while disappointment grew as the hours passed. Everyone had purchased their Nauta cards for this occasion, and they had activated their accounts to allow international navigation.
Already under the scorching midday heat it was evident that “something” had failed and –lacking any information- speculation became more frequent
By the afternoon, the number of potential Internet users grew a bit. The most persistent were about a dozen teenagers, who wanted to sign onto Facebook and Twitter to chat with friends who live abroad. A 17 year old girl claimed that although she had bought a card at the nearby Habana Libre Hotel, she could not connect without the hotel’s password. “It’s telling me that I need to have the hotel’s access code, but they did not mention that to me, or give me the code when I bought the card”.
Several vendors at the well-known craft fair, Feria de La Rampa “had known” unofficially that the network would only start operations “from July 2nd… or after the 10th”. As is the norm in Cuba, nobody knew exactly what difficulties had prevented the network’s activation. Tania, a custom jewelry seller, said she sporadically checked her phone to see if she could finally get a signal, until a friend who works at the Instituto Cubano de Radio y Televisión came by and told her that there would be no Wi-Fi signal because of a “technical problem”, a worn-out phrase which is strictly true in the Cuban circumstance. In fact, Nauta mail had problems since mid-morning, connecting intermittently and not allowing images or attachments to be viewed.
By afternoon’s end it was already clear the expected Wi-Fi signal would not be available on La Rampa, at least not on the promised date, and even the more optimistic users felt frustrated and put away their phones. “These people are always lying to us, that’s why nobody ever believes anything they say”, stated Joan, a college student who has been my companion today thorough this failed attempt at web-navigation. He is upset and is not hiding it. “You see this? They can’t even set up a Wi-Fi network which they charge us a lot for, besides. But no, just try to connect for free at the US Interests Office in Havana and they expel you from the University, they hold a meeting and label you as a traitor.” Then he leaves, grumbling, down La Rampa.
“Americans are going to set up a nice web room, all for free. And they won’t be able to tell us that it would be a bad thing, because we are now friends aren’t we?”
There are also the irredeemable optimists, who have an extra dose of fantasy. Roberto is another young man, but did not complete school. He drives the Coppelia-Vívora route of an almendrón [a vintage car fixed-route taxi] for a living. He says, “As soon as they reopen the embassy (on July 20th) Americans will set up a nice web room all for free, just wait and see. And they won’t be able to tell us that it would be a bad thing, because we are now friends, aren’t we? I want to view all about the Major Leagues on the internet.” What’s amazing is that there is no malice or suspicion in his demeanor, as if what he expects were a done deal.
The worst part of it? The indifference of some who simply shrugged: another day without Internet, who cares? Time is a dimension that only acquires real value beyond the wall of Havana’s Malecón which the Telecommunications Company, monopoly of the Cuban government, set as limit for the Wi-Fi, but that, in truth, continues to be the border between Havana and the real world.
Translated by Norma Whiting