This is what Havana’s growing WiFi revolution looks like

This is what Havana’s growing WiFi revolution looks like

A nation gets online... sort of — After years of disconnection, Cuba's government has introduced 35 WiFi hotspots across the country, providing outdoor hubs that offer a portal to other worlds. Cuban writer Osdany Morales takes us inside that vortex – and the pixelated dreams that live there.

I’m in an unfamiliar park in Havana with a phone that’s not mine.

It’s 10 in the morning, it’s cloudy and it’s raining lightly; people are trying to take shelter under the park’s few scattered trees.

This is the only time I’ll check my email during a three-week trip and it feels as though I were hacking my own Gmail account.

I have to abide by the following instructions just to use the phone: connect to the State network, input a username and password then, finally, top up the balance.

The account information wasn’t created by me: it’s saved in a photo on the phone. I have to memorise it because if I minimise the application to look for the photo, when I return to the page it will have reloaded and I’ll have to start again from the beginning.

I take out a phone that is mine, which in this country only functions as a clock or camera, and take a photo of the photo with the account information.

This is the only way I can manage to remember the password and log-on successfully. But that’s not where this ends.

It’s necessary to reload the account with a 12-digit number from a card, which I also have a photo of on the same phone, so I have to repeat the whole “photograph the nearly connected phone with the unconnected one” operation.

The card is good for a one-hour connection and costs a little more than two dollars. Calling Cuba from a distance is no easier; connections to and from the island pass through a filter of improvisations.

The first time I called my parents in Havana after arriving in New York City in 2011, I did it with a prepaid phone card. But it was impossible to manage a normal conversation.

Our voices were delayed, the balance of money and time eaten up by ghostly variations of sound. Days later I located an internet café.

It was from there that I placed my calls on a limited number of important family occasions during the two years I lived in the same place.

I perfected a system of superstition to locate the best booths from which to call (21 and 23), while avoiding the worst (19 and 6).

Calls to Cuba from any part of the world are expensive, hovering around a dollar a minute, and so communication can never establish itself as a natural event.

Each second is valuable and precarious. And yet, since less than a year ago, messages from Cuba have somehow been popping up on my phone. Free video and chat apps have become portals to other worlds.

Imo is a simpler and more user-friendly version of Skype. It takes up less space and works acceptably well with low internet speeds.

This also means that its interface is more limited. In Imo, one cannot set a status: you are permanently available to those on the other end of the line.

In New York City, people also Skype in public, but they do it while walking down the sidewalk, dodging traffic and the kind of metal hatches that lead to restaurant basements.

Imo, on the other hand, is immobile. If you walk too much, you might lose the connection. Sometimes people walk about indecisively, testing for an area where reception will be better to sync up the image on the screen.

They tend to go about in pairs – a setup determined by the use of headphones. They need them to hear better – otherwise the voice would get lost in the noise of public space – but the earbuds have to be shared.

The resulting pairings make for Siamese twins tethered to a telephone by a single set of ears. They are always the ones who make the call because they are the ones who have gone to the place where it’s possible to make contact.

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s futuristic movie Stalker, from 1979, there was a guarded zone where any visitor who managed to reach it could fulfil a wish.

The Zone is a place in which the laws of reality no longer apply. Its map extends through the capital in urban nodes, and in the villages of the provinces, it occupies the previously semi-vacant central park.

There, demands overlap out loud like a public protest in which each person calls in their wish for a different future to come true.

The stories of the crowd emerge, each with its own voice, volume and hopes for a life that might some day include them.

From the other side, they are shown rooms, the view from a window, the neighbourhoods where their children or siblings have managed to settle.

They see objects they haven’t touched. They see cities and people they don’t know Upon responding to a call from the island, first sound emerges, then a luminous image broken into pixels.

Some parts become clear and sharply defined, but others are stuck for minutes in an abstract blur.

Sometimes people are seen but not heard; other times, when the voice arrives in present tense, the image has remained frozen in a gesture-in-progress, in a mask of laughter or a blot smeared across the screen by a sudden movement.

The time comes when they get tired of holding the screen at face-level, and they rest the phone or tablet on their knee.

It looks as though their faces were inclined over the edge of a balcony, an abyss from which we are looking up at them.

If they take out the headphones to try to hear better, they have to bring the edge of the phone to their mouth to talk.

Suddenly, the world opens up behind them, filling up the screen where a face used to be. From the other side, one sees the island sky, in pixels, the branch of a framboyán tree, a palm frond, as though we were entering a futuristic dream and lying face-up in the park of our childhood.

Osdany Morales is the author of two collections of stories, Minuciosas Puertas Estrechas and Antes de los Aviones. Papyrus, published by Sudaquia, is his first novel.

This article appears in Huck 58 – The Offline Issue. Buy it in the Huck Shop now or subscribe today to make sure you never miss another issue.

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