The Cuban government opened 118 "navigation halls" in June
They allow access to the Internet -- for a price, $4.50 an hour
It's an unimaginable luxury for a state employee earning about $20 a month
Still, a professor says, Cubans "really want to be connected"
To the soundtrack of fingers banging on keyboards, a cluster of Internet users recently caught up on their e-mails, updated their statuses on Facebook and looked for love on Match.com.
The activity would seem unremarkable in any other Internet cafe except there were no lattes for sale and no soft-rock music being piped over speakers, and the owner of “the cafe” is the Cuban government.
The “navigation hall” as such establishments are called here, is one of 118 government-run Internet access points that Cuban authorities opened in June, marking a small step towards greater connectivity in a country with some of the lowest percentages of Internet penetration in the Western hemisphere.
For high school student Arian Bacallao, the opening of the centers meant his first opportunity to see sites like Youtube, Twitter and Google.
“For a while now I have been trying to find a way to get online, which wasn’t that easy to do,” he said. “Now that the government’s done this, it’s a convenient way to find information.”
Convenient, but at $4.50 an hour, hardly cheap.
While Cubans who work in the island’s small but growing private sector or receive remittances from abroad might be able to afford to go online in the navigation centers, it remains an unimaginable luxury for a state employee who typically makes about $20 a month.
“You have to get the money together, it’s not easy,” said Lisbet Rodriguez, a chef in training who said the high cost of going online meant she could only get online twice each month.
“If it could be just a little faster,” Rodriguez said as she glanced back at the on-screen clock, which was slowly counting down the time she had left. “But I’d rather pay four bucks here than $10 to get online in a hotel.”
Before the navigation halls opened, Cubans had to enter – often sneak – into hotels to use expensive Internet outlets set aside for foreigners. Or they had to ask a favor of a friend who had access through his or her job. Or give a thumb drive full of e-mails to a tourist and hope they would send them once they left Cuba.
Even though there are the 118 new halls, there are only a total of 419 computers where people can go online.
While that would appear to woefully insufficient for a country of 11 million people, Tania Velazquez Rodriguez, an assistant director with the state-run ETECSA telecommunications company, said so far government officials say they are meeting the relatively small demand for Internet access.
Velazquez said currently about 1,000 people each day are using the new centers.
But Velazquez said usage is expected to surge should the price drop, a possibility she said Cuban officials were “studying.”
“Obviously its not enough, we understand that, we know that and we have plans to expand access,” she said. “We are working very hard so that by the end of the year we can have more locations.”
More locations would more mean information – a rarity in a country where for most of the last 54 years of the Cuban revolution the only media available was a state-run variety rendered bland and devoid of current events to the point of becoming a running joke in the same populace to which it was force-fed.
But with increasing usage of cell phones by Cubans and information carried in to the country one newspaper and magazine a time by travelers from abroad, slowly gaps have appeared in the information wall.
“Today there is news in every direction,” Miguel Diaz-Canel, Cuba’s first vice president and presumptive successor to Raul Castro, said in May. “People receive it, they know about it. So then the worst thing is to remain silent.”
Cubans who use the navigation halls can access social media, foreign news publications and even blogs written by some of the island’s dissidents who are highly critical of the government.
But before they do, any user of the government Internet has to sign a contract promising not to engage in any subterfuge online that could harm Cuba’s “economy, sovereignty or national security.”
“Obviously, our government promotes certain conduct regarding ethical and moral behaviors,” said state communications official Velazquez.
Ted Henken, an associate professor at Baruch College who was written a book on the emergence of social media in Cuba, said the government is wrestling with the problem of giving greater access while not losing control.
“I thing it’s significant in a kind of cat-and-mouse game between the government and the people of Cuba,” he said, “Regardless of their political ideology (they) really want to be connected to the 21st century and that means the Internet.”
At a Havana navigation hall, retiree Raul Fernandez said he wasn’t interested in politics or societal change but in keeping in touch with a brother living in Costa Rica and a son who had moved to Spain.
“You have to spend money but nowadays everything costs something,” he said of the price tag of his new ability to e-mail with family. “You have to make the sacrifice.”
Still, he said, with his eyes lighting up, what would be even better than a cost reduction would be to one day have Internet service at his home.
“It would be more convenient,” he explained. “Then I could communicate whenever I feel like it.”