Googling Cuba: Is The Communist Island Ready To Join The World Wide Web?

Mar 28, 2016

HAVANA - In his historic speech from Havana last week, President Obama called for a number of changes in Cuba. More human rights. More economic reform.

But the one that seemed to elicit the most applause from Cubans was his call for more Internet – which Obama said “should be available across the island so that Cubans can connect to the wider world – and to one of the greatest engines of growth in human history.”

Only 5 percent of the island’s 11 million people have full household access to the Web. That’s one of the lowest –and slowest – Internet coverage rates in the world.

RELATED: U.S. Techies: Wiring Cuba Requires Political Science More Than Computer Science

To understand how frustrating this is for ordinary Cubans, go to any of the 50 or so wi-fi hotspots set up around the country. You’ll find millennials like 19-year-old medical student Juan Miguel Martínez, who’s trying to get online with his new iPad at a hotspot on a street in Havana’s Playa district.

“I’m trying to create an account on Facebook, and I just can’t,” Martínez laments. “Half an hour waiting here to see if I can connect.”

While waiting, he says, he thinks about using the Internet to enhance his future as a surgeon.

“If I have the access, I could get more information from people about school stuff. New experiments, new books that are coming out.”

Sitting next to Martínez is his 20-year-old brother Carlos. As an aspiring filmmaker, he’s even more dependent on the Internet – but right now he’s just staring at an unresponsive smartphone a relative brought him from the U.S.

“Most times I come here and I don’t get a connection,” says Carlos. “So…I’m lost.”

I think this is going to be phenomenal for Miami, because we're going to be the ones going back and forth. If this was totally open, there will be a really huge amount of work. -Manny Medina

This is a daily ritual for Cubans today – as their communist government decides how much of this powerful information tool they can have. It's also expensive: At most wi-fi hotspots it costs $2 an hour to get online – and most Cubans earn about $20 a month.

The Martínez brothers admit that when they leave home each morning they don’t say “Adios” to their mom anymore. They usually say: “¡Voy a conectarme!”

Meaning, “Ma, I’m going to try to get connected!”

But during his visit last week, Obama raised their hopes when he announced that Google – the U.S. online search engine giant – was coming to Cuba. Or at least a small corner of it.

Last Tuesday, Google opened an advanced online tech center for Cubans in Havana at the studio of the artist Alexis Leiva – who’s known as “Kcho” (pronounced KAH-choh).

Kcho’s studio is already a wi-fi hotspot, and he lets Cubans get online for free. Now Google will connect them there at 70 megabytes per second – 70 times faster than what Cubans usually get.

Cubans at a wi-fi hotspot in Havana. The sign above them says, "With Internet I Can."
Credit Tom Hudson / WLRN.org

“This is Google's first manifestation here,” Brett Perlmutter, Google’s head of operations for Cuba, said in Spanish to a crowd at the center’s inauguration.

“It’s our first step toward taking advantage of all the changes happening in Cuba – a demonstration of what happens when you combine Cubans' smarts and impactful tech.”

The government has pledged to bring half of Cuba’s households online by 2020. Like a lot of U.S. tech firms, Google has been trying to strike deals with Cuban officials to be part of that push. So the big question now is whether this first step means Cuba’s digital revolution is finally coming.

Hiram Centelles, the Cuban-born co-founder of Internet sites like Revolico, the Cuban Craigslist, thinks it’s a good sign.

“I think the Cuban government must be open to this kind of initiative,” Centelles told WLRN at the Kcho studio.

Centelles, who now splits his time between Cuba and Spain, says one thing firms like Google will have to look out for are any content restrictions the government will want to impose on the Internet.

“If I was Google,” he says, “any kind of censorship – that’s a deal-breaker to me.”

EL BLOQUEO

But the government insists it really can’t forge ahead with broader Internet deals until the U.S. lifts its trade embargo against Cuba. During the Google tech center’s inauguration, Kcho himself called for an end to the bloqueo, or “blockade.”

“They have to bring it down,” he said, “or the Cuban people can’t move forward.”

Miami tech investment guru and Cuban exile Manny Medina attended the event as well. He says the sooner Cuba gets online the faster South Florida can start benefiting from the island’s ample young tech talent.

Cuban medical student Juan Miguel Martinez waits...and waits to get connected on his smartphone.
Credit Tom Hudson / WLRN.org

“I think this is going to be phenomenal for Miami because we’re going to be the ones going back and forth,” says Medina, who heads Medina Capital. “So I think if this was totally open, there will be a really huge amount of work" for techies on both sides of the Florida Straits.

And young Cubans like Carlos Martínez would like a piece of that action.

“It’s going to be so big,” says Martínez. “We’re really going to be in the world. And be better people.”

Or at least a more connected people.

Cubans sitting along a Havana street near a wi-fi hotspot.
Credit Tom Hudson / WLRN.org