"For you, the Internet is like water," our tour guide told us as we barreled through Havana's storied La Rampa neighborhood after a night out. "For us, it is like caviar."
She motioned out the bus window where packs of happy-looking Cuban youths were clustered together around the magic blue-green glow coming from their iPhones, the light piercing through the man-made darkness of yet another local power outage.
Like the open presence of Miami tourists and the American flag over the nearby U.S. embassy, civilian Internet access in Cuba is an absurdly recent phenomenon. Only last year did the omnipresent government open a few dozen wireless shops where Cubans can buy access to the information superhighway for the dear price of $2 an hour, roughly 8 percent of the average monthly salary. And yet there were more people standing in line outside one Internet store I saw in downtown Havana than there were customers inside a large supermarket across the street. Of course, there's little incentive to throng a market selling only one kind of cheese.
Raul Castro's communist dictatorship does its level worst to keep the virtual experience as comparatively miserable as Havana's crumbling bricks-and-mortar reality, but corralling the Internet is like tackling water from a fire hose.
The government tries to herd most consumers into a state-controlled intranet (complete with its own top-down knockoff of Wikipedia), but the desire for access to Skype and other video links to relatives in the States is just too strong in a country where few have phones that can make international calls. Airbnb is already becoming a major force in Havana tourism and real estate, as the government shruggingly acknowledges it has no money or competence to build the infrastructure necessary to accommodate the sharp increase in much-needed tourists. The joint liberalizations of Cubans finally being allowed to buy and sell property and Americans finally being allowed to send money back to relatives left behind have combined to create some startlingly handsome home and business renovation projects. Now those ubiquitous '50s American cars don't have to be held together with rubber bands and scrap metal; Uncle Roberto in Miami can send real parts.
Most intriguing of all are the mysterious paquetes semanal ("weekly packets"), small storage drives containing American, Cuban, and international movies, television, and sports that are spread around by "data mules"...