LA HABANA, CUBA —
In Cuba, friends must be face to face to have a conversation. This is not a matter of courtesy, but because the Internet and other forms of modern communication are still a luxury on the island.
Although almost everyone has a smartphone, ironically, the devices can only be used to receive and make phone calls. There is no accessing social media, no texting, no sending email.
Internet access on mobile devices is limited to a few public parks. Having it in the comfort of one's home is still only a dream. Except for a small elite — mostly senior government officials — no one has Internet at home.
Getting connected with the Internet begins in small shops called Center Agent Telecommunications. There, vendors who have government authorization sell small pieces of paper, the size of a matchbox, containing Internet passwords.
Each piece costs 2.50 CUC Convertible Pesos, one of the two currencies circulating in Cuba. Each CUC equals about 90 cents.
But that piece of paper is still nothing more than paper if it is not combined with a semi-open Internet connection, located in some parks and a handful of hotels.
In the Park Beach Township 30, for example, about 15 minutes from downtown Havana, hundreds of Cubans come day and night in search of Internet access. Recently, about 50 people were there, each holding a phone, chatting with friends or family abroad or catching up on social networks.
FILE - Internet users go online with their smartphones using the first public Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana, Cuba, July 2, 2015.
The only application that allows video calls from Cuba is Imo. For some reason, the government of Raul Castro has not restricted the service, as it has with other similar applications.
Seemingly big changes
Even though the Internet access here pales in comparison to that of many developing countries, New York native Suki John, a dance teacher who has worked occasionally on the island for many years, calls it a breakthrough.
"I was last here a year and a half ago, and to have Internet then was unthinkable,” John said. “There was none of this. Since President [Barack] Obama and Raul are negotiating, things have changed a lot, have improved. Having Internet in parks has allowed Cubans to take a look at the rest of the world, and know what is happening."
John also visits the park to make use of the Internet. For 50 cents, he bought one of the paper passes from a scalper, giving him access to the government Wi-Fi called ETECSA.
Jaziel Hernandez is among the many older people who use the park to communicate with relatives in the United States. She spoke with her daughter and granddaughter in Miami.
"It is a wonder,” Hernandez said. “Did you see me, how I was talking to my granddaughter? … It would be nice to have Internet in every house ... but this is better than nothing."
FILE - Students gather behind a business looking for an Internet signal for their smartphones in Havana, Cuba, April 1, 2014.
At about $3 an hour, the price for Internet access is still too expensive for many middle-class Cubans, who earn about $30 a month.
‘Charm’ for some
However, John said that limited access to the Internet has its good side.
"Here, people still gather to talk,” he said. “They go to a friend's house to ask him out. They have not lost that human contact we, particularly young people, have already lost. It has its charm. "
But for young people like 17-year-old Yaxon, the “charm” would be to have Internet on your mobile phone — or at home.
"That would be a dream," he said.
At least for now, that dream still seems distant.