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Warming ties with the United States have stirred hope among Cubans for improved telecommunications. The government has promised citizens better Internet access. The few Cubans who now manage to get online find it expensive and slow. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn found, Cubans have devised an ingenious work-around - or walk-around - to stay connected.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: On Havana's Malecon, roaming guitarists play for the crowds resting against the iconic sea wall. In this nightly gathering spot, it's old-fashioned interacting - no one is on a cell phone, no eyes glued to smart phones.
UNIDENTIFIED GUITARIST: (Singing in Spanish).
KAHN: While Cuban's tout their revolution's free health care and education, they've missed out on the digital one. Fewer than a fifth of the population owns a mobile device. Internet access is even lower, and cable and satellite TV is banned in private homes. But surprisingly, Cubans are plugged in. During a lull in the nightly music, the conversation turns to this week's latest installment of some of the U.S.'s most popular TV shows.
JULIO RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Julio Rodriguez and his wife, Kadiuska Lara, rattle off their favorites - "Person Of Interest," "The Mentalist." Another couple shouts they love "Caso Cerando," the Telemundo courtroom drama, and, oh, the Discovery Channel. Without high-tech offerings, Cubans have found an ingenious way to get nearly real-time entertainment, as well as the latest magazines, apps and even video games. It's called the Weekly Package, and it's passed, bought and sold hand-to-hand on external hard drives and memory sticks throughout the island.
RODRIGUEZ: (Through interpreter) Rodriguez says 80 percent of the country watches the Package.
KAHN: That's his unscientific opinion, of course. But it couldn't be simpler. All you need is a DVD player, which is legal on the island.
IYAWO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: In the living room of his small apartment outside Havana, Iyawo sits in front of a computer screen. He won't tell me his full name since what he's doing is illegal in Cuba. He says on Saturdays he goes to his distributor, who has downloaded the entire Package - about one terabyte - from a satellite. By the time he's back to his house, there's already a line outside. That day he charges 5 CUC, about $5.75, for the whole thing. By Monday the price drops in half. Smaller memory sticks full of preselected shows are even cheaper.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED TV SHOW)
KAHN: On the week I saw the Package, the offerings included everything from the latest episode of Showtime's "Homeland," Univision's "Sabado Gigante" and even anti-virus software updates. There were also advertisements for Havana restaurants and a local kids' party decorator. Looks like capitalism to me.
IYAWO: (Through interpreter) Capitalism with the face of socialism, snaps back Iyawo, because what I'm doing is making things better, not worse. I'm providing a service, says Iyawo.
KAHN: And he insists it's pure entertainment. The Package doesn't include anything political or pornographic. That's why he speculates the government permits it. And the government says it will permit more access to the Internet in 2015. In a state newspaper last week, officials announced improved services, including Internet access and mobile devices, although no timetable was given. For now, Cubans continue to line up and pay up. On this busy street in Old Havana in front of the state-owned telecommunications company, Danier Lopez waits in a long line to get inside on one of a dozen computers.
DANIER LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) The connection is expensive, says Lopez, about $5 an hour.
KAHN: That's about a quarter of a monthly minimum salary. And it's slow. Lopez says he spends most of his time waiting for pages to load. Cuban censors also routinely block some websites. Lopez says he has a Facebook page but hardly ever sees it. Reinaldo Escobar, an independent journalist for the prominent website 14ymedio.com, eagerly awaits better service too. Sympathetic Western embassies allow him to use the Internet free, but he says he pays a political price for the service. The government publishes photos of him entering the embassies using them to argue his work is subversive, but he says change is coming.
REINALDO ESCOBAR: (Through interpreter) The changes are moving in the right direction, says Escobar. Unfortunately, he adds, they're not moving at the speed or the depth we need.
KAHN: Just last week Escobar and several other activists were detained by state security forces hours before they planned to attend a free speech protest. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.
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