An Object Of Desire: Hope And Yearning For The Internet In Cuba : Parallels Without a doubt, the Internet in Cuba is tough. The politics are thorny; getting it is difficult. But there are signs that change is on the horizon.
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An Object Of Desire: Hope And Yearning For The Internet In Cuba

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An Object Of Desire: Hope And Yearning For The Internet In Cuba

An Object Of Desire: Hope And Yearning For The Internet In Cuba

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

On Friday and Saturday nights, Havana's G Street swells with crowds of young Cubans. They're dressed to impress even if they're going nowhere in particular.

Under the streetlights, stylish teenagers and 20-somethings walking, hugging, kissing, stroll up and down G street's broad median strip with its park benches and topiary trees trimmed like umbrellas. I was in Havana the week before last. This is a scene - cruising minus the cars, clubbing minus the money to get into the clubs. It's a scene with smartphones minus the smarts. They have no connection to the web.

What are things that you hope might be better - all of you - if there were a better relationship with the United States?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGEL: Internet?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGEL: Unlimited Internet. They are giggling because what they've described is a dream world. Most Cubans have no access to the Internet. It's in the big hotels. It's in government offices, and some public sector employees have dial-up connections from home. Otherwise, it's a luxury. And that poses problems for Cubans of many walks of life, including those engaged in newly legalized forms of commerce.

I'm standing just outside the office of EspacioCuba, or espaciocuba.com, actually. It began as a real estate portal started by a computer scientist named Yosuan Crespo, a young man out of university - saw a future in it. It now is actually a real estate agency. Mr. Crespo has five agents working for him, and when we walked in, one of them, Nadie Galindo (ph), was taking information from a woman who is offering to sell her house.

NADIE GALINDO: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGEL: When the real estate agent entered the would-be seller's information into a laptop, that's as far as it went. The office has no Internet connection nor does Yosuan Crespo's home. Even so, he started posting pictures and information about properties on offer before people could even buy and sell homes - when they had to trade.

YOSUAN CRESPO: It's a real estate portal.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Well, I mean, the difference between a real estate portal in America and a real estate portal in Cuba is that in America everybody can go online and look at the real estate portal.

CRESPO: Yeah. It was tough.

SIEGEL: It's still tough. Let's say Yosuan has a new property to list, and he wants connected Cubans at government offices or overseas to see it on the Internet.

CRESPO: I should go to ETECSA.

SIEGEL: It's the telephone monopoly.

CRESPO: Yeah. I should go there and list the property in every website using their service.

SIEGEL: Going to ETECSA to use its service may sound easy, but for my colleague Eyder Peralta and me, it was a short drive to a long wait at a converted private home painted blue and white with four payphones on the front lawn and four computers inside behind a door manned by a security guard.

I'm sitting on the lovely porch with about 20 Cubans. They're all waiting for some kind of service here at the phone company, and there's a line of about 10 people waiting just for access to computers to check email, perhaps some of them to access the Internet. These are things they just can't do at home.

MONSIGNOR STEFANOS: (Speaking Spanish).

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: So he's never been on the Internet. He has email.

SIEGEL: That's Eyder interpreting for Monsignor Stefanos, a quiet Afro-Cuban who seems capable of smiling through anything. He's a priest of the Ecumenical Catholic Church of Christ. Stefanos and his fellow clergyman Father Fanurios told me that they spend about 45 minutes getting to this place, then they waited in line for access to a computer inside, only to find that the connection was down. They do this to check email every few days.

Forty-five minutes to come to the place where you can then wait for an hour.

FANURIOS: Yes.

SIEGEL: To get to a computer - maybe two.

FANURIOS: Yes.

SIEGEL: So checking email is a half a day's work. Twice a week - that's a lot of time.

FANURIOS: Yes, I know.

SIEGEL: So today when the day is over, you'll say what you did today was you looked at your email. That's the task for today.

FANURIOS: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGEL: "We're Cubans." That was Father Fanurios. In his clerical collar, he looked skyward and said perhaps someday he, meaning God, will send us cell phones that connect to the Internet.

Why is Internet access in Cuba so scarce? Ask a Cuban official, and he'll say it's because of what Cubans call the blockade - the U.S. embargo. The needed infrastructure, they say, is too costly. Ask 18-year-old Christian, one of those kids socializing on G Street, and you get a more cynical response.

CHRISTIAN: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGEL: "Cuba," he says, "doesn't want us to know all the information that's out there." Cubans can access the Internet on the black market. Public-sector workers who have dial-up access and a password might sell a share of their access clandestinely, or Cubans could go to a hotel lobby and spend $5, the equivalent of about a week's pay, for an hour on the web. In the midst of this digital desert there is an oasis.

I'm standing in the neighborhood of El Romerillo. It's a pretty poor neighborhood of Havana, and at the center of it is a studio complex, and there's a poster outside before you enter the courtyard which says, steps to connect to the Wi-Fi, and it tells you the password, and the password for everyone is aqui no surrende nadia - here nobody surrenders anything. And it's a revolutionary slogan. Here, within this complex, there is free Internet service for everybody who goes in, and it's a place where the digital revolution is connected to the Cuban revolution.

This is the headquarters of an artist born Alexis Leiva Machado, but known in Havana and on the international art scene as K'Cho. K'Cho is a believer in the Cuban revolution and a bear of a man with a graying beard. His works, typically large installations made from boat parts, win competitions and sell abroad. Under recent reforms, K'Cho can keep the proceeds. A Rolex watch is testimony to that, and so is this compound with its gallery, library coffee shop, and above all, free Wi-Fi.

I'm very impressed with your place here.

ALEXIS LEIVA MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: (Laughter) He says, "I too am impressed with the place."

SIEGEL: K'Cho told me that this free revolutionary hotspot gets some support from the government. The walls of the compound courtyard are ringed with dozens of young people in the shade, all engrossed in their smart phones and tablets.

MACHADO: (Through interpreter) The Internet was invented to use it. So there's this big kerfuffle here in Havana that K'Cho has Internet in his place, and, you know, there's nothing to it. It's just me who's willing to pay the cost and give Internet to people.

MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He says it's sharing something with people the same way that my country does.

SIEGEL: Well, but you seem to be a very unusual person who has recognized the necessity for people to have Internet. Most people in Havana have a great deal of difficulty getting connected to the Internet.

MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He says, "I've always worried that people have what they need just like the revolution worried. And so I'm trying to give people a place to grow spiritually - a library, an art studio. All those things are important."

And at first he just had this Internet in his studio, and he wasn't using it all, so he decided to open it up to the people.

MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: So he says, "If it's so important for young people to have the Internet, I want to give them the Internet, and I want to give it to them better and more of it."

MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGEL: In February, Cuba's vice president and heir-apparent to the presidency, Miguel Diaz Canel Bermudez, assured Cubans that Internet access is coming. One Cuban economist whom I asked about the Internet pointed out that Cuba never moves without experimenting first. K'Cho says, I am not an experiment - I am a builder.

There is a lot more building to be done in Cuba, and with telecommunications on the U.S.-Cuban agenda, many Cubans are hoping that their connections with the rest of the world will soon have the speed of the 21st century.

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