Despite new WiFi access, Havana remains an Internet laggard

Censored WiFi bliss requires determination, patience, sometimes umbrella

Comedian Robertico, an attorney from Havana turned Vedado bar owner and Cuban celebrity, has taken his humor to Cubavision, and his stand-up routine around the island and the world.

When he tackled the issue of Internet access, his YouTube video in Spanish got nearly 22,000 views. He explained users have to buy a card by Nauta, a government company that  provides the user's registration and according to experts sets some of the most draconian restrictions on internet freedom in the hemisphere.

"It's very, very easy, after you are connected, but you have to try to connect several times. We are in Cuba. Take it easy until it happens. Take it easy," he says. "WiFi is complicated. Cubans are getting connected on the streets. I want you to see this, because Godzilla could be walking by and people won't notice. "

Cuba has some of the lowest levels of connectivity worldwide and has been accused of violations of user rights, as users are only allowed to access the government-controlled intranet rather than the global internet. Political content is blocked and there have been bloggers arrested.

The government's ETECSA runs a telecommunications monopoly. And when Google offered to improve the island's Internet infrastructure free of charge, Raul Castro turned them away.

Enrique Santaballa pays the price. He works as a tour guide, making about $15 a month. To use the Internet to stay in touch with his mom, who is in Nicaragua, he has to ride a cab for about 30 minutes, make a long line and pay a $2-an-hour charge.

"If I had more money, I would use it [the Internet] every day," Santaballa said. "At least because I want to know about my mom."

In July, Cuba opened 35 Wi-Fi access areas across the nation for the first time in its history. According to the Freedom House, Cuba has opened over 100 new access points in the last year, reduced prices and increased speeds at state-run cybercafes, but continues to have some of the most restrictive access in the world.

This is why some users in Havana who can afford to pay use underground networks. Black market entrepreneurs spend money on ham radios and satellite dishes --  at the risk of getting caught by government technicians, who sporadically "sniff" neighborhoods.

The latest data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) places Cuba’s internet penetration at 30 percent as of 2014, up from 28 percent in 2013 and only 14 percent in 2009.2

Comedian Robertico, who has traveled as far as Australia to perform his standup routines, poked fun at the Cubans who are having to stand under umbrellas to access the Internet. He also said the Wi-Fi spots that officials picked were not equipped for the large crowds.

"Everyone sits on the sidewalk. Everyone sits on the stairs, over pipes. They lean on bus stops and on cars. It's craziness," he said. "Instead of adding Wi-Fi at the Malecon, where there is a large sitting area and a seat for everybody."

Robertico, who has nearly 21,000 followers on Facebook including some from Miami, joked about Cubans in Miami-Dade County's Hialeah neighborhood, and their struggles to keep up with the cost of WiFi and the lack of account security.

HIS JOKE:    A Cuban in Hialeah shouts at his neighbor. "Come over here! Do you think I have the need to steal your WiFi?

"No, why are you talking to me like that?"

The man shouts another question. "Do you think I can't afford to pay for my own WiFi?"

"Why are you talking to me like that?"

He continues to shout, as if he felt offended.

"Then why did you change your password?"

About the Authors:

In January 2017, Hatzel Vela became the first local television journalist in the country to move to Cuba and cover the island from the inside. During his time living and working in Cuba, he covered some of the most significant stories in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba. 

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.