Google Jumps Through Hoops In Cuba / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

Uniformed officers from MININT leave the Google+Kcho.MOR site this Wednesday. (14ymedio / Luz Escobar)
Uniformed officers from MININT leave the Google+Kcho.MOR site this Wednesday. (14ymedio / Luz Escobar)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, 7 April 2016 — Google may be the Internet giant, but in Cuba it has had to jump through hoops. This Wednesday, the newly inaugurated Google+Kcho.MOR site opened its doors late because the employee who keeps the keys arrived late and because fumigation against the Aedes aegypti mosquito –carrier of dengue fever and the zika virus – had filled the place with thick gray smoke. Not even these setbacks caused the dozen users waiting outside to connect to the internet to leave.

The process to access the place is reminiscent of the lines to acquire products in short supply, like an interprovincial bus ticket or a dozen eggs. “You have to come early to mark your place in line, because you are going to spend the whole morning here,” said a young woman who said she had used the new infrastructure twice since it opened to the public this Monday.

And in spite of everything the brand new Google project has also bowed to the government and blocked websites. Sites such as Cubaencuentro, Revolico and 14ymedio remain blocked. The censorship is due to the provider of the connection, the telephone company ETECSA, a state monopoly that maintains control over what can and cannot be seen on its servers.

However the lines never end and every hour only 20 numbered tickets are issued. Prior to entry, users must leave all their belongings in lockers, with the exception of their ID cards without which entrance is denied. They cannot enter with cameras, phones, USB memory sticks or laptops. All published photos of the interior have been taken by the official press and a few foreign correspondents who have been allowed to publicize the new project.

Although initially there was talk about the possibility of being able to use storage devices, such as flash drives or external hard drives to take information home and to upload materials to the web, as of this Wednesday this is still not permitted. This limitation gives the surfing room the aspect of a museum: look, touch and go, but without taking anything, the employees warn. The novel experience is reduced to navigating the internet from one of the 20 Chromebooks in the place.

Fabian, a young man who has been three times between Tuesday and Wednesday, tells14ymedio that “at first they let you make calls and talk but then they prohibited it because people were shouting and it bothered everyone nearby.” The place is crowded and users have no privacy as they move around the World Wide Web. Several employees supervise every move and look over users’ shoulders at the pages open on their screens.

“The problem is that this is a library and you can’t speak in a loud voice,” one of the workers explained to this newspaper. As for the schedule, the young man said that so far it is open “from 7:00 AM to 12:00 PM, but the early hours are reserved for previously coordinated visits.”

A group of agents from the Immigration and Nationality section of the Interior Ministry (MININT) left the center on Wednesday just before the first 20 people in line were admitted. “Yesterday the ones dressed in green came, from MININT in fact… now, what I don’t understand is why these people have some priority,” said Dorian, a neighbor of the Google+Kcho.MOR center.

Yuli, a third year medical student returned to mark er place in line after having used the Chromebooks because she didn’t have enough time to find the information she needed. “Because you can’t copy anything, what I do is send it to my Gmail account and later download it take it to another site,” she detailed. Her boyfriend, a fine arts student at the Higher Institute of Art (ISA), said that the day before he had been able to visit several sites with “impressive virtual reality thanks to the cardboard glasses.” He was referring to “Cardboard,” a virtual reality platform for mobile phones, also donated by Google.

Particularly striking is the slow navigation speed in the new facility, as it had been announced that the place – integrated into the Organic Romerillo Museum (MOR) belonging to the artist Kcho – would have a connection speed 70 times faster than that offered in the WiFi zones in the rest of the country. Several users commented outside that they felt cheated because of the problems watching videos on Youtube or using other services that require a higher bandwidth.

Despite the obstacles, the wait, the numbered tickets and inability to take digital content home, users seem mesmerized by simply sitting in front of the screens and moving their hands at full speed over the keyboard so as not to lose a single second of their access to the web.

Looking on from the wall is a huge picture of Fidel Castro with a Cuban flag. An electronic marquee installed at the site shows one of the last phrases the former president wrote to Barack Obama: “We do not need the empire to give us any gifts.”