How Cubans make island Web 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 in america.

Cassandra Brooklyn

As numerous Cubans have proudly instructed me through the years, “Cubans invent.” They use artistic workarounds to get by in an setting with restricted entry to exterior assets. Glass beer bottles are sawed off to develop into consuming glasses; helmets rework into flowerpots; shoestrings and bottle caps are affixed to doorways as makeshift locks.

And with a rising want for on-line entry to operate within the trendy world, Cubans have been inventing new methods to connect with the Web, 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 through her authorities e mail account. Buddies had been instructed to e mail his mom’s work account, she downloaded the messages to a USB drive, and she or he gave all of it to Santos-Menéndez to view on his residence 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 staff in elevated positions with 30 hours/month of free dial-up Web of their houses. Although Santos-Menéndez is now capable of examine e mail at residence with some regularity via his mom’s dial-up account, the connection is so gradual that his time allotment runs out lengthy earlier than the tip of the month. Fortunately, his mother continues to be prepared to assist together with her previous 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 might be too giant to ship through e mail, notably if the connection is gradual (and it typically is). Small information, comparable to occasion flyers, menus, and itineraries, are sometimes despatched via WhatsApp. Bigger information, comparable to logos, movies, and video efficiency clips, typically have to be transferred straight from a reminiscence stick.

So, Santos-Menéndez all the time carries a USB drive with him that holds copies of his movies. “You by no means know while you’ll have the chance to share one thing,” he says. He is despatched USB drives all over the world with household, pals, and newly met vacationers who may assist promote his documentaries or go them alongside to movie competition coordinators for consideration. In some circumstances, he is despatched essential digital paperwork together with near-strangers just because it appeared the one strategy to get them into the appropriate palms. A pal of a pal took his movie to France to create French subtitles. A person he met at a movie competition in Havana took a duplicate of his movie to Puerto Rico to display screen there.

Actually, I as soon as purchased a duplicate of Santos-Menéndez’s movie, Rolling in Havana: Bicycle Stories, from a stranger I met whereas wandering facet streets in Outdated 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 all over the world. I had no relationship with the competition apart from serving as a valet bike parking volunteer in 2009, nevertheless it appeared like match. Rolling in Havana was added to the New York Metropolis competition the next 12 months, marking the primary US screening for Santos-Menéndez’s movie.

Although Santos-Menéndez has by no means left Cuba—and has not often left Havana—he is proud to have had his movie screened in different international locations. His residence in Havana has additionally made it simpler for him to undergo Cuban movie festivals, that are sometimes held within the capital. A lot of his pals and colleagues across the nation should ship their work through DVD and USB drive to Havana (typically with strangers) for consideration.

Welcome to the land of public Wi-Fi hotspots

Nobody would deny that Web entry has dramatically improved throughout a lot of Cuba within the final decade. However these like Santos-Menendez—on a regular basis Cubans with out common entry to dependable Web—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 Avenue within the fashionable neighborhood of Vedado. Early spring breezes and traditional vehicles funneled down the huge avenue as salty waves crashed in opposition to the malecón forward. It might be one other month earlier than the Western world realized COVID-19 was a risk, so I completely loved the liberty of strolling and not using a masks, greeting strangers from lower than six toes away.

And there have been a lot of strangers. This two-block stretch is without doubt one of the hottest locations to assemble in Havana—largely as a result of it serves as one of many metropolis’s public Wi-Fi hotspots. Millennials collect to examine social media, enterprise house owners e mail shoppers, and households video chat with family members dwelling overseas.

The 1,095 public Wi-Fi hotspots throughout Cuba function a significant useful resource to attach the biggest island within the Caribbean with the remainder of the world. Of the varied methods Cubans hook up with the Web, Wi-Fi hotspots proceed to be the preferred technique. It’s value noting, nevertheless, the variety of Cubans who should depend on public Wi-Fi hotspots as their major (or singular) choice is dwindling. Starting in December 2018, phone-based 3G data plans turned out there in Cuba, permitting digital connections anyplace there was a sign. Till then, connection was principally restricted to public Wi-Fi hotspots, sometimes a park or plaza, the place customers stood within the solar (or rain) and linked to the Web 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 cheaper price—mixed with an elevated variety of Wi-Fi hotspots, cyber cafes, home-based Web connections, and cellular information packages—contributed to a dramatic improve in Web connectivity for Cubans. Ted Henken, a professor of Black and Latino Research at Baruch School and the writer of Cuba’s Digital Revolution, believes that Web entry “has improved from about 5-10 p.c in 2015 to 40-50 p.c in 2020.”

In accordance with authorities information, seven million Cubans currently have some form of Internet access, however a 2020 Inclusive Internet Index reviews that entry solely reaches 18 p.c of Cuban households. Most Web customers, due to this fact, should nonetheless depend on the gradual and unreliable connections at public Wi-Fi hotspots.

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