Since arriving in Cuba just two years ago, mobile internet has revolutionized life here – it helps people find food, fuel and even medicine among crippling shortcomings and helps them organize protests in a country where waving a poster can end up in big problems.
Many in America’s only communist-ruled state now wonder how they have ever lived without it.
On the WhatsApp group Red Solidaria (Solidarity Network), there are questions about basic necessities: “Flour please ??”, “Has anyone seen toilet paper?”, Or even “Does anyone know where to find milk?”.
Other online groups allow people to sell or exchange products that are difficult to reach: a user who passes by Gaby wants to exchange shower gel for toilet paper and soft drinks, while Leo offers cooking oil and soap in exchange for baby food.
Even more online groups are seeing people rely on the endurance of product scouts. On a platform called Que hay? (What’s up?), Photos of toothpaste, soap and cheese are uploaded from a supermarket by a user who had been queuing for four hours just to get in.
“There are a lot of things here,” recommends the client, Wendy, other prospective clients, some of whom thank her for sharing Intel.
Until December 2018, when mobile internet first came along, Cubans who wanted to use the internet were finding one of several dozen Wi-Fi hotspots in public parks or squares and paying dearly for an unreliable connection.
And even the first access became possible only in 2015.
Today, with most people now using 4G services, more than a third of all Cubans – about 4.2 million of the island’s 11.2 million inhabitants – surf the web from their smartphones.
“It seems so natural to us today, but sometimes I stop and think we did not have it two years ago, and I think, ‘How was that possible? “, Says Marta Deus.
For the 32-year-old, the internet opened the door to entrepreneurship.
A revolution ‘
Since July, Deus has run an Internet and mobile app-based home delivery company called Mandao – a first for Cuba.
Mandao’s delivery bikes and their light yellow cooler bags are already everywhere on the streets of Havana, delivering about 100 meals daily from 70 client restaurants – a business model increased significantly when city dwellers were ordered to stay at home to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Mobile internet “has been a total revolution,” Deus said.
In addition to food and tips on where to find gasoline, some online groups are dedicated to helping people find medications that are constantly lacking.
“It’s much easier today to find someone who has what you need: without these groups, this would have been impossible. It would have been a stroke of luck,” said Ricardo Torres, an economist at the University of Havana.
The sea change in internet use in Cuba has also given new shops for recreation and friends.
Yasser Gonzalez, 35, wanted to organize a group of cycling enthusiasts. He says that thanks to Facebook access, he started organizing events.
The first major ride through Havana came in 2015 … with four cyclists participating. Now more than 100 people show up for monthly rides.
And it’s not just riders who visit his Facebook page. One day, he received a message from a city employee about plans for a new bike path along the Malecon, which stretches along the coast of Havana.
“I can now sometimes attend meetings where they discuss urban infrastructure plans,” Gonzalez told AFP.
Of course, there are also disadvantages – the government can see what is happening in the public groups. Authorities in Havana suspended one of Gonzalez’s cycling events in October, officially due to the pandemic.
“How can they cancel an event that we can really show is safe for humans?” he asked.
Gonzalez tweeted directly to Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel about the event. A few days later, he was questioned by the police, who he said warned him not to pursue the matter.
While mobile internet has helped make daily life easier in Cuba, it has also opened up new forms of protest.
In November last year, a group of artists and intellectuals called the San Isidro movement caused a stir both nationally and abroad with an online campaign seeking the freedom of rapper Denis Soli.
He was sentenced to eight months in prison on contempt charges after he livestreamed himself talking back to an officer who tried to enter his home without permission.
Members of the group went on hunger strike, were broadcast online – which received a spontaneous and very rare protest outside the Ministry of Culture by about 300 Cuban artists.
Demonstrations in Cuba are seldom allowed, seldom announced and are usually quickly interrupted by the police.
This time the police were caught off-guard. Not only was the protest allowed to play, but a government member later met with a delegation of group members.
But if the Internet has provided more opportunities to express itself, it will also help in monitoring efforts by a state that is keen to control the new phenomenon.
Filming for protection
Camila Acosta, 27, a journalist on the opposition’s news website Cubanet, said that mobile internet has made her work easier – but also made her a target.
After posting a picture on Facebook spitting at the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, a video of a large queue outside a supermarket and a photo of her police call following a protest, Acosta was fined 3,000 pesos (about $ 125).
Her crime? Publish online “information that is contrary to individuals’ social interests, morals, decency and integrity.”
She refuses to pay, risks six months in prison and has promised not to stop her critical services, even though she is on her guard.
“When I go out, I have my phone ready to record live,” says Acosta – if she is detained.
“There is some protection we have,” she told AFP.
“I think the internet is the worst thing that has happened to this government … The internet has become the space for participation that we Cuban citizens have not had in more than 60 years.”
In recent weeks, many Cubans have complained about curious connection errors that have prevented access to Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp.
In October, with the Telegram messaging system down, NGOs questioned the possibility of government intervention.
“The government knows that the internet is a necessary tool for development,” said Veronica Arroyo of Access Now, a group that defends people’s digital rights.
“But there are certain things that can slip through your fingers. That’s why it tries to exercise control.”