Jose Labaut does not lead a life that sounds particularly fascinating. He lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and commutes to Miami five days a week where he works at a desk in the office of the Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer Department as a software developer. And yet several times a week, at random moments in his day, he receives video calls from people clamoring for the opportunity to see where he is and what he is doing, and who pay about $2 per hour to do so.
“I am busy at work and they ask me, ‘Please, show me your work. Show me your car,’” says Labaut, describing the frequent requests he receives. “‘Show me something. Find a window and show me outside of your work.’”
Labaut is one of over a million Cuban immigrants currently living in the United States. Many left behind family and friends in Cuba and faced the prospect of never seeing them again. Labaut left his home in the Havana neighborhood Habana Vieja and first went to New Jersey, where his father lives, before eventually moving to Florida for work about two years ago. Although he left behind family and friends in one of the most isolated countries in the world, he now hears from them about once a week, whenever they can get an Internet card to access public Wi-Fi in any of the 17 hotspots around Havana.
Over the last year, the Cuban government made a push to install wireless internet access points in plazas and boulevards in cities and towns throughout the country. Including the 17 hotspots in Havana, there are currently 65 such public hotspots across the country, according to the Federal Communications Commision. In doing so, the mundane daily lives of software developers like Jose Labaut and others have become the most popular shows in Cuba.
“A lot of Cubans are seeing, for the first time, the United States,” says Labaut, “It’s not like TV because on TV you see the TV show, but when you talk with your friend over Wi-Fi, your friend asks something, ‘Can you make a right?’ It’s a remote control. It’s like a window.”
The opening of a window between Cuba and the United States is also an apt metaphor for the normalizing relations between the two countries. After over 50 years of extremely limited official contact of any kind with Cuba, President Obama began reopening diplomatic relations with the authoritarian communist government in December 2014. His aim for doing so, as stated in various speeches on the topic, is that improved relations will ultimately improve the lives of the Cuban people. Skepticism remains about how much foreign investment money will actually filter through the Cuban bureaucracy and into the hands of normal people or the long term effects of a Cuban economy pushed more towards servicing tourists. However, the growth of public Wi-Fi access in Cuba over the last year has had an immediate impact on the lives of Cubans and has the potential to accelerate the improvement of relations with the US.
Since the 1959 revolution, the United States and Cuba have had extremely limited telecommunications access to one another. An underwater cable leftover by AT&T from before the revolution allowed long distance calls between the countries until it eventually deteriorated in the 1980s. Since then there have been various short-lived services for phone calls between the countries, but the most notable development was in 2008 when the Cuban telecommunications authority, ETECSA, legalized the purchase and sale of cell phones and computers. It also made cellular services more affordable. However, there is still no true cellular internet service.
The first Internet access of any kind appeared in Cuba in 1996. But such access remained extremely slow and also extremely limited until recent years. As recently as last year, before the government’s push to create Wi-Fi hotspots in 2015, Internet was generally only accessible in small Internet cafes within ETECSA offices, and through Wi-Fi at a few select hotels, and the price for Internet was about $4 per hour.
However, in 2015 the government lowered the price to about $2 per hour––though still prohibitively expensive in a country where the official salary of most citizens is about $20 per month––and installed Wi-Fi hotspots all over the country. According to ETECSA there are 150,000 daily users in a country with a population of over 11 million people.
Though the Internet penetration rate nationwide remains low, estimated at anywhere from about 5 to 30 percent, the early growth appears to have made an impact. A year ago, plazas and boulevards in towns throughout the country were filled at night with people drinking beers, kids playing, and teenagers flirting. Today, they are filled with small groups of people huddled around phone screens for virtual family reunions and impromptu tours of places such as the office for the Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer Department.
The video chatting app most commonly used in Cuba is IMO, an app that takes up little space in both memory and bandwidth. Apps such as Whatsapp and Facebook function for sending text and picture messages but their audio and video call features, respectively, do not function on the Cuban network because they require more bandwidth than the Cuban network can support.
In February, the Cuban government announced that it would be, for the first time, working with a Chinese company to provide broadband Internet service to private homes in certain neighborhoods of Havana. President Obama has also announced that American telecommunications companies have been given permission to invest in developing the Cuban telecommunications infrastructure.
Google is among them and the company specifically announced that it would begin with some fairly small programs but explore the possibility of growing broadband Internet and Wi-Fi access in the country. However, early reports have hinted at Google being stonewalled on some of those more ambitious goals by the Cuban government, highlighting the largest obstacle for expanding Internet access, which is the authoritarian government in Cuba and its wariness about ceding any control.
In an interview with the Cuban daily Juventud Rebelde, a top Communist Party official said “There are some people who want to give [Internet] to us for free, but not for Cuban people to communicate, but to penetrate us and do ideological work for a new conquest.”
Freedom House, a non-profit that monitors freedoms in different countries, lists Cuba’s Internet freedom status as “Not Free,” citing the poor penetration and the government’s blocking of certain social media sites and political content as well as the jailing of subversive bloggers. Specifically regarding the growth of public Wi-Fi, Freedom House says, “For Cuba this progress in increasing access is historic, but it is still just a drop in the bucket when it comes to alleviating the most draconian restrictions on internet freedom in the hemisphere.”
When Jose Labaut escaped those draconian restrictions of Cuba and came to America, his family took him to Miami Beach and Disneyworld, all in his first three days. But what he remembers first from his arrival was something that might seem a bit less spectacular.
“My first impression was when I sit (sic) in front of a computer,” he says. “Very, very fast.”