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How Cubans make island Internet work for them

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 a lot totally different workflow than creatives within the United States.

Cassandra Brooklyn

As numerous Cubans have proudly instructed me over time, “Cubans invent.” They use artistic workarounds to get by in an surroundings with restricted entry to outdoors sources. Glass beer bottles are sawed off to develop into ingesting glasses; helmets remodel into flowerpots; shoestrings and bottle caps are affixed to doorways as makeshift locks.

And with a rising want for on-line entry to perform within the trendy world, Cubans have been inventing new methods to hook up with the Internet, too.

Jaime Santos-Menéndez, a Havana-based documentary filmmaker, has typically lacked the cash to pay for Wi-Fi playing cards, and so, like most Cubans, he got here up with a workaround. For years, Santos-Menéndez relied on his mom, a state-employed biochemist, to obtain messages for him at her workplace by way of her authorities electronic mail account. Friends had been instructed to electronic mail his mom’s work account, she downloaded the messages to a USB drive, and he or she gave all of it to Santos-Menéndez to view on his house pc. He would then reply to messages, load his outgoing emails onto the USB drive, and depend on his mom to ship them from her workplace the following day.

In 2018, Santos-Menéndez’s mom was chosen as a part of a authorities program that gives docs and different state workers in elevated positions with 30 hours/month of free dial-up Internet of their houses. Though Santos-Menéndez is now in a position to test electronic mail at house with some regularity by way of his mom’s dial-up account, the connection is so sluggish that his time allotment runs out lengthy earlier than the top of the month. Thankfully, his mother continues to be keen to assist together with her outdated routine.

Let’s make a film

Santos-Menéndez’s craft additionally brings just a few extra particular challenges. Filmmakers, theater administrators, designers, artists, and different Cubans in artistic fields have struggled to switch information which can be too massive to ship by way of electronic mail, notably if the connection is sluggish (and it typically is). Small information, reminiscent of occasion flyers, menus, and itineraries, are sometimes despatched by way of WhatsApp. Larger information, reminiscent of logos, movies, and video efficiency clips, typically must be transferred instantly from a reminiscence stick.

So, Santos-Menéndez at all times carries a USB drive with him that holds copies of his movies. “You never know when you’ll have the opportunity to share something,” he says. He’s despatched USB drives around the globe with household, associates, and newly met vacationers who might assist promote his documentaries or go them alongside to movie pageant coordinators for consideration. In some instances, he is despatched vital digital paperwork together with near-strangers just because it appeared the one solution to get them into the appropriate fingers. A pal of a pal took his movie to France to create French subtitles. A person he met at a movie pageant in Havana took a duplicate of his movie to Puerto Rico to display screen there.

In reality, I as soon as purchased a duplicate of Santos-Menéndez’s movie, Rolling in Havana: Bicycle Stories, from a stranger I met whereas wandering aspect streets in Old Havana in 2015. And after watching the movie, I shared it with the founding father of the Bicycle Film Festival, which places on screenings in dozens of cities around the globe. I had no relationship with the pageant aside from serving as a valet bike parking volunteer in 2009, but it surely appeared like an excellent match. Rolling in Havana was added to the New York City pageant the next 12 months, marking the primary US screening for Santos-Menéndez’s movie.

Though Santos-Menéndez has by no means left Cuba—and has hardly ever left Havana—he is proud to have had his movie screened in different nations. His residence in Havana has additionally made it simpler for him to undergo Cuban movie festivals, that are sometimes held within the capital. Many of his associates and colleagues across the nation should ship their work by way of DVD and USB drive to Havana (typically with strangers) for consideration.

Welcome to the land of public Wi-Fi hotspots

No one would deny that Internet entry has dramatically improved throughout a lot of Cuba within the final decade. But these like Santos-Menendez—on a regular basis Cubans with out common entry to dependable Internet—nonetheless wrestle.

On my final journey to Cuba in February 2020, I discovered myself in Havana strolling alongside La Rampa, a stretch of twenty third Street within the stylish neighborhood of Vedado. Early spring breezes and basic automobiles funneled down the large avenue as salty waves crashed in opposition to the malecón forward. It could be one other month earlier than the Western world realized COVID-19 was a menace, so I totally loved the liberty of strolling with no masks, greeting strangers from lower than six ft away.

And there have been lots of strangers. This two-block stretch is likely one of the hottest locations to collect in Havana—largely as a result of it serves as one of many metropolis’s public Wi-Fi hotspots. Millennials collect to test social media, enterprise house owners electronic mail purchasers, and households video chat with family members dwelling overseas.

The 1,095 public Wi-Fi hotspots throughout Cuba function an important useful resource to attach the most important island within the Caribbean with the remainder of the world. Of the assorted methods Cubans hook up with the Internet, Wi-Fi hotspots proceed to be the most well-liked methodology. It is price noting, nonetheless, the variety of Cubans who should depend on public Wi-Fi hotspots as their main (or singular) choice is dwindling. Beginning in December 2018, phone-based 3G knowledge plans grew to become accessible in Cuba, permitting digital connections anyplace there was a sign. Until then, connection was largely restricted to public Wi-Fi hotspots, sometimes a park or plaza, the place customers stood within the solar (or rain) and related to the Internet utilizing by-the-hour scratch-off Wi-Fi playing cards.

Low costs

Between 2015 and 2019, hourly Wi-Fi connectivity charges dropped from $4.50/hour to $1/hour. This lower cost—mixed with an elevated variety of Wi-Fi hotspots, cyber cafes, home-based Internet connections, and cell knowledge packages—contributed to a dramatic enhance in Internet connectivity for Cubans. Ted Henken, a professor of Black and Latino Studies at Baruch College and the creator of Cuba’s Digital Revolution, believes that Internet entry “has improved from about 5-10 percent in 2015 to 40-50 percent in 2020.”

According to authorities knowledge, seven million Cubans presently have some type of Internet entry, however a 2020 Inclusive Internet Index experiences that entry solely reaches 18 % of Cuban households. Most Internet customers, subsequently, should nonetheless depend on the sluggish and unreliable connections at public Wi-Fi hotspots.

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