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 completely different workflow than creatives in the US.

Cassandra Brooklyn

As numerous Cubans have proudly advised me through the years, “Cubans invent.” They use artistic workarounds to get by in an surroundings with restricted entry to outdoors sources. Glass beer bottles are sawed off to develop into ingesting 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 hook up with the Web, too.

Jaime Santos-Menéndez, a Havana-based documentary filmmaker, has usually 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. Mates have been instructed to e-mail his mom’s work account, she downloaded the messages to a USB drive, and he or she gave all of it to Santos-Menéndez to view on his house laptop. 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 medical doctors and different state workers in elevated positions with 30 hours/month of free dial-up Web of their properties. Although Santos-Menéndez is now capable of verify e-mail at house with some regularity by way of his mom’s dial-up account, the connection is so sluggish that his time allotment runs out lengthy earlier than the top of the month. Fortunately, his mother continues to be keen to assist along with her outdated routine.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 are too giant to ship through e-mail, significantly if the connection is sluggish (and it usually is). Small information, comparable to occasion flyers, menus, and itineraries, are sometimes despatched by way of WhatsApp. Bigger information, comparable to logos, movies, and video efficiency clips, usually should be transferred straight from a reminiscence stick.

So, Santos-Menéndez at all times carries a USB drive with him that holds copies of his movies. “You by no means know if you’ll have the chance to share one thing,” he says. He is despatched USB drives around the globe with household, buddies, 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 vital digital paperwork together with near-strangers just because it appeared the one technique to get them into the precise arms. A good friend of a good friend 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 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 Previous 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 around the globe. I had no relationship with the competition aside from serving as a valet bike parking volunteer in 2009, however it appeared like a very good 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 hardly ever 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 usually held within the capital. A lot of his buddies and colleagues across the nation should ship their work through DVD and USB drive to Havana (usually 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 battle.

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 stylish neighborhood of Vedado. Early spring breezes and traditional vehicles funneled down the large 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 menace, 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 lots of strangers. This two-block stretch is without doubt one of the hottest locations to collect in Havana—largely as a result of it serves as one of many metropolis’s public Wi-Fi hotspots. Millennials collect to verify social media, enterprise homeowners e-mail purchasers, 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 assorted methods Cubans connect with the Web, Wi-Fi hotspots proceed to be the most well-liked methodology. It’s price noting, nonetheless, the variety of Cubans who should depend on public Wi-Fi hotspots as their main (or singular) possibility is dwindling. Starting in December 2018, phone-based 3G data plans grew to become out there in Cuba, permitting digital connections wherever there was a sign. Till then, connection was principally restricted to public Wi-Fi hotspots, usually 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 lower cost—mixed with an elevated variety of Wi-Fi hotspots, cyber cafes, home-based Web connections, and cellular knowledge packages—contributed to a dramatic enhance in Web connectivity for Cubans. Ted Henken, a professor of Black and Latino Research at Baruch Faculty 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 response to authorities knowledge, 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, subsequently, should nonetheless depend on the sluggish and unreliable connections at public Wi-Fi hotspots.

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