HAVANA, Cuba—Baseball is Cuba’s official sport, but surfing the web is fast becoming the national pastime.
Internet was late in arriving to the communist-led island, but it’s spreading fast through dozens of 24-hour WiFi hotspots set up in parks, plazas and hotel lobbies throughout the country. While Cubans aren’t supposed to go into hotel lobbies to access internet, the parks have quickly become of the most popular hangout spots in Havana, as mostly young Cubans and tourists crowd onto benches and huddle under trees where the signal is the strongest.
To connect, Cubans have to buy a $2 “Nauta” scratch card with a cumbersomely lengthy login and password. Each card lasts for 1 hour of internet time, but can be stretched over 30 days if users can log in and log off fast enough.
Internet is extremely expensive by Cuban standards, considering 1 hour of Facebook time can cost as much as 20% of a normal Cuban monthly salary. But with an increase of dollars on the island due to remittances and tourism, the high cost of getting online doesn’t appear to be a deterrent for those who already have cellphones, laptops and tablets.
The signal is pretty strong, even when there are 50-plus people in the park sucking off the same bandwidth. On a recent Tuesday, the signal in one Havana park was good enough for Fusion to broadcast a live Facebook video, with only minimal interruptions to the feed.
Most Cubans, however, are using less bandwidth to communicate with family overseas.
“Most people connect once or twice a week, and more if they have family living abroad,” says Claudia, a 24-year-old member of a Havana dance troupe. “Most people are on Facebook to talk to family in the United States or wherever.”
Others come to the park for work, like these two guys with their laptops.
Still others come to download games or watch videos.
In any event, the Cuban park bench is no longer a place for deep conversation about life—at least not with the person you’re sitting next to.