Cubans hope U.S. ties bring better Internet access
Rick Jervis, USA TODAY 3:03 p.m. EST January 24, 2015
HAVANA — The line outside the Internet cafe in the Miramar neighborhood
of this city forms early each day with patrons waiting up to two hours
for a chance to send e-mails, chat online or update their Facebook page.
The service may be slow, unreliable and expensive, but still they come.
"I need to keep up," said Carlos Lopez, 71, who rents out rooms in his
home to tourists and checks his e-mail twice a month for reservation
requests. "I don't have Internet at home, so I have no choice."
The topics of improving telecommunications on the island and connecting
more Cubans to the Internet — major tenets of the United States'
diplomatic strategy here — were discussed this week during high-level
talks between the U.S. and Cuban government in Havana.
On Friday, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson visited the
offices of independent blogger and journalist Yoani Sánchez, a pioneer
when it comes to using the Internet as a form of expression in Cuba.
"This is a critical part of our new policy," Jacobson said about telecom
improvements on the island. "Access and the ability for Cubans to get
information is really, critically important."
Josefina Vidal, the Cuban diplomat who has been Jacobson's counterpart
in the talks, said the Cuban government is willing to meet with U.S.
firms to discuss improving their telecommunications network.
"We confirmed (during the talks) we're ready to receive U.S. telecom
companies to explore business opportunities — business that could be of
benefit to both sides," she told reporters this week.
How soon and how far-reaching changes will be to Cuban's telecom network
remains to be seen. Just 5% of Cuba's 11 million residents have access
to the Internet — one of the lowest rates in the hemisphere. Cuba's
state telecom company, ETECSA, maintains a monopoly on Internet service.
Two years ago, more than 100 cybercafes opened across the island, but
connections remain frustratingly slow and expensive. An hour of Internet
service costs around $5 — equal to a week's salary for the average Cuban.
Even more enticing to Cubans is the prospect of Web and e-mail access on
smartphones, currently unavailable to island residents.
Alejandro Robaina Cardoso, owner of Havana's La Casa paladar, or
privately run restaurant, said allowing Internet access on smartphones
would boost his business. Tourists visiting his eatery often request
Wi-Fi, which he doesn't have. Cardoso owns a Samsung Galaxy smartphone
but can use it only to make and receive calls because the other features
are not possible in Cuba.
A few years ago, Cardoso hired a social media manager to keep his
restaurant updated on sites such as TripAdvisor.com and Facebook and to
run a blog. But until Cuba's technology catches up, his business will
suffer, he said.
"We are like in another world, like in the time of the dinosaurs,"
Cardoso said. "That has to change. Everyone's waiting for it."
The Cuban government will need to loosen reams of rules and restrictions
to implement an effective telecommunications network, said Ted Henken, a
Baruch College Latino studies professor and longtime Cuban author and
scholar. Cuban officials will have to decide how much access to the
world they will allow their citizens and how fast they want to move in
that direction, he said.
The Obama administration "is eliminating as many obstacles to the
Internet, to commerce, to all the rest as fast as it can," he said. "The
onus is now on the Cuban government to respond to the demands of the
Across Havana, Cubans followed news of this week's U.S.-Cuba meetings
closely for signs that their Internet connectivity could soon improve.
Joana Ramirez, 28, a Havana waitress, has to catch rides to a cybercafe
then wait in line to check her e-mail. She said she hopes improved
relations with the U.S. will soon change that.
"The people of Cuba want change," she said. "A lot of people don't have
computers, don't have Internet. It's a big problem."
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