February 1, 2016


Cuba for sale: 'Havana is now the big cake - and everyone is trying to get a slice' (Oliver Wainwright, 1 February 2016, The Guardian)

In central Havana's Parque Fe del Valle, at the end of a street bustling with the usual scenes of queues for the bakery and clapped-out 1950s cars weaving between piles of rubble, is a glimpse of a very different Cuba. Every bench, wall, dustbin and plant pot in this tree-lined square is occupied by bodies hunched over laptops and gathered around smartphones, as people swipe at tablets and gesticulate at their screens.

Three generations of one family are huddled around a phone, the children fighting over who gets to wear the headphones while the granny holds a baby up to the camera - so that relatives in Miami, who they haven't seen for years, can inspect the family's new arrival. Nearby, two brothers scroll through Facebook to check the latest enquiries for their bed-and-breakfast business, their laptop balanced on a makeshift desk of crates, while a gaggle of teenage girls stream music and practise dance moves under a tree.

This lively scene, which looks like an impromptu secondhand technology fair, is the result of a new phenomenon in Cuba: Wi-Fi hotspots. In a country where the internet is still forbidden in private homes and an hour checking emails at an internet cafe can cost nearly a week's wages, the arrival of five designated Wi-Fi zones in Havana has been nothing short of revolutionary.

Walk along La Rampa by night, the long people-watching road that slopes up from the seafront into the neighbourhood of Vedado, and you'll see huddles of ghostly faces, illuminated only by the glow of screens. These sprawling open-air internet lounges have also spawned a new informal economy. Wi-Fi touts wander the streets like drug-pushers, re-selling the state telecom company's prepaid $2 scratch-off cards for $3 apiece, muttering "cards, cards?" instead of the usual "hashish? girls?". Snack stalls and drinks stands - private enterprises that would have been forbidden five years ago - have sprung up to fuel the spontaneous street-corner parties, where people gather around to watch the latest Hollywood trailers on YouTube.

"We are seeing a whole new quality of public space," says Miguel Antonio PadrĂ³n Lotti, a Cuban professor of urban planning, who worked at the country's National Physical Planning Institute for 45 years. "Cubans have always socialised on the streets, but now we can interact with the wider the world at the same time."

The wider world is arriving here in ever bigger droves, and not just through the internet. On the cobbled streets of Habana Vieja, the beautifully restored old town, it can now be hard to move for the throngs of package tour groups. They follow their flag-toting guides between cafe-lined squares, shuffling from the Museo del Chocolate, past living statues and outposts of Victorinox and Diesel, to boutique shops housed in majestic old mansions where handmade watches are on sale for $12,000.

Posted by at February 1, 2016 6:04 PM