Of democracy, dogs and WiFi: Scenes from Cuba

Private internet connections are scarce in Havana, but people can pay to connect to the web in public parks scattered through the city. (Vangmayi Parakala/MEDILL)

This is the continuation of a multi-part series on Cuba. Read the previous collection of vignettes: “Connecting with Cuba: Exploring Havana in the 60th year of revolution”

Finding clarity elusive

HAVANA – Sprawled on the beds at our guest house, we preach to each other about what we do and don’t get about Cuba, as though we could understand anything after three or four days.

After a failed attempt to connect to the internet at one of the public Wifi access spots, one of us says, “How can they live like this? Do they know the Arab Spring started over social media? How would they start a new revolution?”

We wonder whether Cubans are excited at the potential of a new political age after Raúl Castro steps down later this year, as he has said he will. And then we ask them, Do you want change? Does the government represent your point of view? Can you express yourself freely here? Do you want to stay or leave?

The young people we ask seem amused. We agree with most of what the government does, they say. Nowhere is perfect. Everywhere has problems. We have our free healthcare, our free education. Yes, they’re expensive to maintain, but they’re non-negotiable, a part of what it means to be Cuban. We don’t want to be like you, they say, nodding toward their visitors from the United States.

Is democracy their unrequited love? Is it easier not to want what they feel they can’t have? Or do they truly not want it?

America taught us that nothing comes above our right to free expression and representation. Cuba taught them that nothing comes above their right to health and knowledge. We talk right past each other.

–Ilana Marcus

Conversations on the Malecon

HAVANA — You haven’t really been to Cuba until you’ve come to Havana’s sea wall to sit and talk. It’s a very Cuban thing to do, says David, a young English teacher, here with his friends as the day’s heat melts into the evening.

On the northern edge of the city, at the place called the Malecon, there is no beach, just concrete walls separating Cubans from the sea and, over the horizon, the United States.

According to David, and his fellow foreign language teachers, Josh and Daniel, you can stay out here all night sitting on the wall, hearing the sea’s waves collapse against the concrete below, chatting with friends and smoking cigarettes. The city’s living room, some call it.

All night? A couple of American journalism students tried. Some asked about foreign policy, the economy and politics, I wanted to know what music they listened to. David: death metal. Josh: hard rock. Daniel: rap.

I played them Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” and Chance the Rapper’s “Angels” on my phone.

I asked them what films they liked. Finally, I asked if they believe they could express publicly everything they were telling us privately, on the Malecon, about the Cuban government and society.

“I don’t think I can express myself openly,” said Josh, a thin 20-something with perfect white teeth, light brown eyes and brown hair with blonde tips.

I tell him Daniel thinks he can.

“You do?” Josh asked him.



Daniel nods. “You don’t?”

“No,” Josh said, shaking his head.

One Cuban told me they feel they can offer “constructive criticism” of the government so long as they don’t actively overthrow or dismantle it. Daniel told me he can say anything without any fear. To him, Cuba is changing, a little, with this generation.

I asked Josh and Daniel if they felt that this place-the sea wall-was a place they could express themselves.

Sure, they said.

— Em Steck

Once we were rich

HAVANA – In a scuffed classroom not far from the sea, a tour guide speaks in somber and reverent tones of Cuba before the “special period” of the 1990s, a stretch of economic misery that changed the island’s trajectory. That earlier time, before things turned sour, appears in memory as a living thing, full of vibrant energy and the warmth of a community collective.

“In those times,” she said, “we did not know how rich we were.”

The image is a city inhabited by women in flowery dresses and streets echoing with the passionate rhythms of salsa, mild nights near the salt-kissed breeze of the sea, everywhere the aroma of hand-rolled cigars.

In the mind’s eye, restaurant plates were piled with spiced rice and oil-cooked creatures washed down with abundant sweet drinks and rum.

All for the cost of a couple of coins.

But then the Soviet bloc began to crumble. East Berliners swung pick axes for liberty. Czechs and Slovaks, Hungarians and Poles marched in the streets and carved new futures for themselves. In 1991, the Soviet Union itself dissolved and the umbilical cord that sustained Cuba’s economy was severed, triggering the island’s “special period.”

Those earlier times are discussed now, much like a eulogy read.

–Neil Fotre

How to find WiFi in Cuba

HAVANA — As I prepared to visit Cuba for the first time, my family and friends back home wondered if I would be able to stay in touch. I had read that WiFi access was limited and didn’t know if iMessages and phone calls would work. One of the first things we were told upon arriving to Cuba was to “just try to live without the internet for a week.”

They do work, sort of. But internet connections are rare in homes, cafes and restaurants. For most Cubans and many visitors, the internet is only available in public spaces scattered through the city. And they cost money.

Most WiFi spots are located in public parks. Some hotels also have them. If you have no map, one way to locate a signal is to look for a group of people with their heads down looking at their phones. Around there, you’ll likely find a person on the street selling a tarjeta de navegacion (access card) for $1.15 to $3.45, valid for one hour on the internet through ETECSA, the Cuban government telecom company.

To log on, you enter the card’s 12-digit usario (login) and 12-digit clave (password). Cuban internet has all the capabilities of that in the U.S., but it is slower and less reliable. When that happens, you log back on and resume your time. The internet will still be there.

–Caroline Tanner

Close encounters with Sausage, the dog

By Giulia Petroni

HAVANA – Over the last few days in Havana the sausage dog has followed me everywhere. Frantic in its movements, persistent and sometimes inappropriate, he identifies the curb, the stairs or the bench where I sit, comes close, looks at me, and pees. He always pees.

He insistently seeks attention from whoever happens to be on the streets of his barrio, but nobody seems to care enough.

My first encounter with Sausage occurred Sunday. I am outside my host father’s house, at the corner of Calle 2 and Calle 21 in Vedado. He is there looking at me. He is not as thin or harried as some Cuban dogs seem. He is quite chubby and doesn’t seem flea-bitten. I decide to come closer and pet him.

He starts following me on my way to the bus. His intermittent, strident barking is so annoying. After a couple of minutes he understands that I won’t take him with me and eventually walks his way back.

I forget about him.

On Monday, I am in the middle of a quite good talk with two old local men, when I notice Sausage’s paw on my foot. Are you stepping on my foot? I keep talking. I am too deep in the conversation.

Ten minutes later Sausage is still there, running from one tree to another. He looks at me, and pees.

Later in the day, right after dinner, I decide to have a walk around the neighborhood. At the corner between Paseo and Calle 2 there’s a pastry shop. I get a chocolate brioche and go sit under the semi-arch of what seems to be an abandoned construction – its neoclassic columns remind me of home in Rome.

The moment I realize that the bench where I am sitting is full of resin, and that my pants are all sticky, Sausage shows up. He starts running with his short and yet fast paws, comes right in front of me, and pees. Is this dog making fun of me?

Tuesday morning, I wake up and go outside to look for him. I realize I might write about Sausage and so I need to take a picture of him. I walk around a little bit, but I can’t find him. Now that I need him, that pesky dog seems to have disappeared.

At this point I am pretty sure I’ll find him again Thursday morning, when I’ll have already filed my story. Without a picture. Sausage is probably waiting to show up in the next most inappropriate moment only to look at me straight in the eyes. And pee. Again.

–Giulia Petroni

A dog in Havana, much like “Sausage,” the pooch that seems to find me wherever I am. (Giulia Petroni/MEDILL)

Cuba: A Coin with Two Faces

HAVANA – Cuba’s motto since the “special period,” a time of struggle, extreme poverty and grief in the post-Soviet 1990s, has been this: “When you don’t have plan A, you have B, C and all the rest of the alphabet.”

Resilient, or merely stoic, residents proclaim that this country in the 60th year of its revolution has advanced. How is advancement defined? A 99.8% literacy rate, the government reports, with free healthcare and education. Everyone gets the same basic rations and the same start in life, with the same chance to succeed.

But there are bumps along the road. Many, many bumps. it’s a tough road.

See, Cuba is a coin with opposing sides: a beautiful face and an ugly one.

On the pretty side, Cubans have access to everything the government offers and everyone is equal. On the ugly side, not everything is as it seems and every advance has its setbacks.

Running water and bathrooms, but little access to toilet paper or soap. High employment, but salaries far below a living wage. Free schooling, but higher education rarely translates into better-paying jobs. Housing for all, but many people living modestly, plus many in slums.

The constant battle between good and bad has created a special type of strength among Cubans. Innovation is a hallmark. By necessity, Cubans have learned to make the best out of what they are given. One example: Cars from the 1940s and 1950s are still on the road, some with newer engines, many more chugging along with whatever parts the driver can scrounge.

Cubans know how to turn negatives into positives. As for the two-headed coin, one has to wonder how it will land.

— Kiara Brantley-Jones

Feeling alive in Cuba

HAVANA — I can’t say that I’m in love with every inch of this city. The past and the present, the beauty and the ugly are mixed together, creating a contradictory and mesmerizing place.

The sense of family and community that exists in Cuba is beyond description. It is evident in the way people interact with each other. Families have strong ties because most members live in the same house, regardless of their age. Streets are never empty. At any time of the day, people are walking, talking to one another as children play different games.

The neighborhood where I’m staying is called Vedado. Many people well into adulthood have been living here since they were born.

The social gatherings on the corner have become a tradition. After returning from work, neighbors and children spend time together hanging out around the block, talking loudly, laughing and listening to music. No one seems to complain about the sounds that echo in the night.

–Loumay Alesali

Heat lightning rumbles in the distance

HAVANA – Our late afternoon flight to Havana appeared to have been scrubbed from the schedule on account of a wounded plane, the second time in as many days.

Someone mentioned bad luck. I picked at unripe citrus fruit stacked in a plastic beer cup. It was a hiccup in the airline’s scheme, I thought to myself, replaying the last time the carrierʼs slapstick incompetence had left me stranded. Iʼd burned 36 hours in Dallas, wringing a hotel voucher out of a vacuous desk clerk and somehow being befriended by a Texas retiree named Bonnie Valentine. He followed professional surfing.

This time, we were to have landed in the early evening. Iʼd have bartered for a 15-peso lift to Vedado and slipped out for a run by the ocean. Maybe I would have seen some old friends at Roma later that night.

I thought about McCoy Tyner comping for Coltrane on “Body and Soul” and a girl I dated two years ago, eyeing the croissant in a paper bag at my feet. I sat against a concrete pillar, waiting without expectation.

I was still stateside, but perhaps the closest to Cuba I would get.

–Nathan Rizzo

Shrug if you’ve ever tried the internet in Cuba

HAVANA – If you ever had a dial-up computer connection in the mid-1990s, you’ll know the trials and tribulations of connecting to the internet from home in Cuba. A screech, another screech, a dial tone, a few beeps. A few minutes later, you’re on line.

But spend time in Havana’s “internet parks”- a playground, a street corner or a public square with a government-provided modem – you might learn more patience than dial-up internet ever prepared you for. When it works, it goes something like this.

At the WiFi park near the Melia Cohiba hotel, an employee of ETECSA, the Cuban telecommunications agency, sitting in her little porta-cabin with a desk and chair, will sell you a prepaid WiFi card. The official cost is about $1.15 per hour in a country where the median monthly wage is about $25. But if she isn’t there and you don’t want to stand in line at a phone company store, a freelancer will sell you one for $2.30 or $3.45, depending on your bargaining skills.

Then, you activate the WiFi on your phone or laptop and wait for it to detect the ETECSA network. You meander through the park, waiting, as your Fitbit buzzes in joy at meeting the last step of your daily goal. When the signal is weak, you find yourself raising your phone, Lion King style, hoping it catches something.

You punch in the 12-digit username and 12-digit password and tap acceptar. A blinking wheel-icon starts to turn, as does your hamster brain, racing with everything on your to-do list of emails, follow ups, checking in with family. You may even indulge in the fantasy of a little social media time.

“No,” you tell yourself. “Focus.”

An error message pops up. “Unable to connect to ETECSA.” It has been 20 minutes since you bought the card.

When the public wifi works, Havana residents can catch up on news of friends and the world. But the connection can be finicky. (Vangmayi Parakala/MEDILL)

A family of three-father, mother, and son have joined you in the little park now, with a tablet and a smartphone. They go through the same motions. The little boy gives up, and starts playing with pebbles instead. Mom and dad, though, are trying to instill in him the values of not surrendering.

“Por favor,” you say, sticking your phone and limited Spanish into the ETECSA official’s cabin. She points nearby, to a place with better reception .

“Gracias,” you say.

As you leave the cabin window, a 17-year-old boy named Mauro joins the line. He tries to convince someone buy him an hour of wifi. He can’t buy one till he’s 18. “Please?” he says in English, pushing back long curls that fall into his eyes. He needs to get on his social media.

Mauro is holding a skateboard. His lithe frame radiates a sense of speed. Even when he’s standing still, in a queue, to get a WiFi card that may not even connect him to the slow WiFi signal.

Another 20 minutes later, there is no signal and you give up.

“It works, but somewhat, sometimes,” Mauro says. He shrugs, just like the lady inside the ETECSA cabin, and crosses the road to leave.

–Vangmayi Parakala

Read the next collection of vignettes from this series: “Deciphering Cuba: Of streets, gardens, churches and kitchen tables”

Photo at top: Private internet connections are scarce in Havana, but people can pay to connect to the web in public parks scattered through the city. (Vangmayi Parakala/MEDILL)