How Cubans make island Internet work for them

By | February 10, 2021
Jaime Santos-Menéndez, a Havana-based documentary filmmaker, has a much different workflow than creatives in the United States.
Enlarge / Jaime Santos-Menéndez, a Havana-based documentary filmmaker, has a much different workflow than creatives in the United States.
Cassandra Brooklyn

As countless Cubans have proudly told me over the years, “Cubans invent.” They use creative workarounds to get by in an environment with limited access to outside resources. Glass beer bottles are sawed off to become drinking glasses; helmets transform into flowerpots; shoestrings and bottle caps are affixed to doors as makeshift locks.

And with a growing need for online access to function in the modern world, Cubans have been inventing new ways to connect to the Internet, too.

Jaime Santos-Menéndez, a Havana-based documentary filmmaker, has often lacked the money to pay for Wi-Fi cards, and so, like most Cubans, he came up with a workaround. For years, Santos-Menéndez relied on his mother, a state-employed biochemist, to receive messages for him at her office via her government email account. Friends were instructed to email his mother’s work account, she downloaded the messages to a USB drive, and she gave it all to Santos-Menéndez to view on his home computer. He would then respond to messages, load his outgoing emails onto the USB drive, and rely on his mother to send them from her office the next day.

In 2018, Santos-Menéndez’s mother was selected as part of a government program that provides doctors and other state employees in elevated positions with 30 hours/month of free dial-up Internet in their homes. Though Santos-Menéndez is now able to check email at home with some regularity through his mother’s dial-up account, the connection is so slow that his time allotment runs out long before the end of the month. Thankfully, his mom is still willing to help with her old routine.

Let’s make a movie

Santos-Menéndez’s craft also brings a few more specific challenges. Filmmakers, theater directors, designers, artists, and other Cubans in creative fields have struggled to transfer files that are too large to send via email, particularly if the connection is slow (and it often is). Small files, such as event flyers, menus, and itineraries, are often sent through WhatsApp. Larger files, such as logos, films, and video performance clips, often need to be transferred directly from a memory stick.

So, Santos-Menéndez always carries a USB drive with him that holds copies of his films. “You never know when you’ll have the opportunity to share something,” he says. He’s sent USB drives around the world with family, friends, and newly met travelers who could help promote his documentaries or pass them along to film festival coordinators for consideration. In some cases, he’s sent important digital documents along with near-strangers simply because it seemed the only way to get them into the right hands. A friend of a friend took his film to France to create French subtitles. A man he met at a film festival in Havana took a copy of his film to Puerto Rico to screen there.

In fact, I once bought a copy of Santos-Menéndez’s film, Rolling in Havana: Bicycle Stories, from a stranger I met while wandering side streets in Old Havana in 2015. And after watching the film, I shared it with the founder of the Bicycle Film Festival, which puts on screenings in dozens of cities around the world. I had no relationship with the festival other than serving as a valet bike parking volunteer in 2009, but it seemed like a good fit. Rolling in Havana was added to the New York City festival the following year, marking the first US screening for Santos-Menéndez’s film.

Though Santos-Menéndez has never left Cuba—and has rarely left Havana—he’s proud to have had his film screened in other countries. His residence in Havana has also made it easier for him to submit to Cuban film festivals, which are typically held in the capital. Many of his friends and colleagues around the country must send their work via DVD and USB drive to Havana (often with strangers) for consideration.

Welcome to the land of public Wi-Fi hotspots

No one would deny that Internet access has dramatically improved across much of Cuba in the last decade. But those like Santos-Menendez—everyday Cubans without regular access to reliable Internet—still struggle.

On my last trip to Cuba in February 2020, I found myself in Havana walking along La Rampa, a stretch of 23rd Street in the trendy neighborhood of Vedado. Early spring breezes and classic cars funneled down the wide avenue as salty waves crashed against the malecón ahead. It would be another month before the Western world realized COVID-19 was a threat, so I thoroughly enjoyed the freedom of walking without a mask, greeting strangers from less than six feet away.

And there were plenty of strangers. This two-block stretch is one of the most popular places to gather in Havana—in large part because it serves as one of the city’s public Wi-Fi hotspots. Millennials gather to check social media, business owners email clients, and families video chat with loved ones living abroad.

The 1,095 public Wi-Fi hotspots across Cuba serve as a vital resource to connect the largest island in the Caribbean with the rest of the world. Of the various ways Cubans connect to the Internet, Wi-Fi hotspots continue to be the most popular method. It is worth noting, however, the number of Cubans who must rely on public Wi-Fi hotspots as their primary (or singular) option is dwindling. Beginning in December 2018, phone-based 3G data plans became available in Cuba, allowing digital connections anywhere there was a signal. Until then, connection was mostly limited to public Wi-Fi hotspots, typically a park or plaza, where users stood in the sun (or rain) and connected to the Internet using by-the-hour scratch-off Wi-Fi cards.

Low prices

Between 2015 and 2019, hourly Wi-Fi connectivity rates dropped from $4.50/hour to $1/hour. This lower price—combined with an increased number of Wi-Fi hotspots, cyber cafes, home-based Internet connections, and mobile data packages—contributed to a dramatic increase in Internet connectivity for Cubans. Ted Henken, a professor of Black and Latino Studies at Baruch College and the author of Cuba’s Digital Revolution, believes that Internet access “has improved from about 5-10 percent in 2015 to 40-50 percent in 2020.”

According to government data, seven million Cubans currently have some form of Internet access, but a 2020 Inclusive Internet Index reports that access only reaches 18 percent of Cuban households. Most Internet users, therefore, must still rely on the slow and unreliable connections at public Wi-Fi hotspots.