Finding internet access in CUBA: “The Island Of The Disconnected”

internet access in cuba - streettrotter

Cuba´s internet is not only one of the slowest in the world, it is also the youngest – and the most wanted. Cubans have been cut off from the rest of the world for too long. Now is their time to take over Facebook and Twitter. They are more than ready for it.

But first, let me tell you a story from my last visit to Habana. I am half Cuban and often visit my relatives on the island. Cubans are famous for being inventive – I mean, thats really all you got, when materials and opportunities are rare. When supermarkets and pockets are empty, the black market flourishes. 

I was walking down a side street of Old Havana, looking for someone to buy from. If I was lucky I’d spot a dealer and be able to stock up. He would most likely mark it up 50%, but at this point I walked so far in the hot tropical sun, that I didn’t care anymore. And there he was. Sun-tanned and well-dressed, gold neckless, big watch and iPhone in his hand. I wondered where he got that from… 

He noticed that I was eyeing him and nodded. I knew better than to buy on the spot. This was sloppy. But, when you’re in another country you just let the madness roll upon you like crashing waves.  We met at the corner of the street two minutes later. No words. We were looking over each others’ shoulders.  He quickly pressed a card in into my palm. I held out three pesos, he snatched. A cop turned around the corner. Something beyond us caught his attention. We ducked into separate side streets. Now all I had to was to find a wifi source, punch in the card’s code, go online and check that e-mail I was waiting for so desperately.

Surprised how the story turned out? Probably, if you haven’t yet been to Cuba. In which case you would already know that the internet is bought and sold, illegally, on the streets by internet dealers. You might even have been in the same situation. Wait…cross out might. You most likely were in the same situation and know what a hassle it can be to find internet access in Cuba, the biggest and most fascinating island in the Caribbean. 

internet access in cuba - streettrotter

Cuba has a turbulent history and continues to keep the world’s news feeds busy. After the death of Fidel Castro, Cuba’s leader of half-a-century, things might seem a bit brighter, but Cubans continue to struggle for the freedom of information – amongst many other rights, but that is another story.

It is easy to assume that nowadays wifi is everywhere. You’ll be surprised how difficult it actually can be to find internet access in Cuba. Famous Cuban dissident Yoani Sanchez calls her home country “The island of the disconnected.” Home connections are practically nonexistent, and only government officials, academics, doctors, engineers, or regime-approved journalists have Internet access at work. Until recently, Cuba was comparable to North Korea in terms of shutting itself out from the Internet. Access was only provided by big hotel chains, often for horrendous sums. In 2015 the government finally decided to install wifi in specific areas of bigger cities, commonly in main plazas.  

Wifi access became cheaper and more accessible. How does it works, legally? You go to an ETECSA office, the state-owned version of Telekom, and you are an internet card that lasts an hour. The cost? Two Dollars, or better: Two CUC’s – the alternative to the forbidden capitalist currency, dollars.  This price is more than most Cubans can afford. Also, the cost of a Netflix subscription in the country is around one-third of the average monthly wage. No joke. 

internet access in cuba - streettrotter

Some ETECSA shops have long waiting lines, especially in Havana. If you want to skip the line, go directly to a main plaza, there will always be a Cuban (illegally) selling internet cards for a dollar or two more.  You might want to bargain, but remember: this is how they make a living. Paying an extra dollar or two more will probably help him more than it will hurt you. Plus, the money goes directly into a Cuban’s pocket, rather than feeding the glutenous government. 

After purchasing a card, the hassle is not over yet.  All you have to do is find a hotspot. Sounds easy? You would think… In theory, hotspots are easy to pick out because you’ll notice many people in a crowd on their phones and tablets talking to relatives and checking their Facebook. Sometimes it takes some luck or a keen nose though. I advise you be prepared to disconnect for a while rather than spend your holiday on a quest for internet access in Cuba.

Don’t expect the wifi to be super fast. It actually operates on a bare minimum. Forget the idea of uploading impressive high resolution pics, not to mention streaming a whole movie. Using Skype can be tough, too. Make sure to download all you need before you take off to Cuba and tell your loved ones not to worry if they don’t hear from you.

internet access in cuba - streettrotter

The limited internet access in Cuba has it’s perks, too. At least for the government. If few people have internet access, you don’t need to censor it that much.  n terms of blocking content, Cuba is no China. News websites like The New York Times are available, as are the sites of Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International and the big social media platforms, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. With such limited access, Cubans have employed more creative methods of surfing. One of the most popular is for people to download online articles onto thumb drives, then pass them around to friends and family.

Rumor has it that locals won’t always have to pilgrim to public hotspots. Cuba’s state-owned telecom ETECSA is soon to be launching a trial for home internet access. About 2,000 homes in Havana will go online for at least two months, with the promise of expansion. The trial coincides with a 25 percent lower internet access fee. But before you get all excited, remember that the Cuban government is still fond of censoring content, and internet speeds will stay sluggish. Nonetheless, this is a big leap forward since internet access in Cuba is yet a relatively rare luxury.
internet access in cuba - streettrotter


About the Author: Jennifer Valdés is a Digital Entrepreneur and the Founder & Manager of the Vegan Nomad Life – a blog about a sustainable and healthy way of eating and exploring the world.

Photo Credits: Jennifer Valdés