A New Opportunity for Cuba’s “Entrepreneurs”

By Progreso Semanal

Connected to the WiFi. Photo: Juan Suarez
Connected to the WiFi. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Public pay-for Wi-Fi services in Cuba continue to make news and we are starting to see both the marvelous inventiveness of Cubans and the beginning of illegal practices arise. Let’s start with the latter.

Appearing and Disappearing Pre-Paid Cards

To connect to the Wi-Fi networks, users must purchase a Nauta pre-paid card. One-hour cards are sold at ETECSA locales at the official price of 2 CUC. These Nauta cards, which are ultimately navigation permits, are also procured under a half-pirate, half-corsair flag, an eminently Cuban invention. Let’s have a look.

On Tuesday, October 6, during the airing of the Cuban evening news, journalist Boris Fuentes joined the line of people waiting outside the ETECSA office on Aguila Street, Centro Habana as one more customer, without a microphone or camera.

He asked the door person / custodian (we don’t know whether he gets paid for both jobs) if any pre-paid cards were available. The answer was “no.” Immediately, he came back with the cameras and microphone and asked the same question. This time around, the answer came from the manager, who said that there were cards available. The door person told the cameras he hadn’t been informed of that. The manager said she had delivered 200 cards to each clerk early in the morning and that these had run out, so that she made a second delivery.

The door person / custodian, who deals directly with customers and represents the last link in the chain, thinking the chain would break because of him, insisted he had not been informed of this, several of those present told Progreso Semanal.

The customers waiting in line there and other places visited by the journalist had harsh things to say about the services offered. One of the people interviewed said that the person ahead of him in the line had bought 100 pre-paid cards and that, when he got to the counter, they had run out.

Obviously, the moneyed buyer (who paid 200 CUCs) is one of the many who stand on corners where Wi-Fi services are offered, reselling the cards for more at key hours. However, people don’t see the solution to be found in limiting the number of cards sold to each customer, but instead to produce enough cards to meet the growing demand.

Journalist Fuentes asked why the cards were suddenly available when he showed up with the cameras, when they hadn’t been moments before. Needless to say, the inefficient employees and their accomplices suddenly saw their faces on the TV and got a good scare.

Pirates and Corsairs

Fotos for sending from the La Rampa WiFi hot spot. Photo: Juan Suarez
Fotos for sending from the La Rampa WiFi hot spot. Photo: Juan Suarez

At Havana’s Rampa area, the Fe del Valle Park, Marianao or any place with a Wi-Fi hot spot, you are likely to run into these characters whose style, voice and ability to vanish in the blink of an eye recall the drug dealers we see in numerous films. In the movies, these fellows say something like “I’ve got some good shit.” Wi-Fi card resellers say “I’ve got cards.” Are they selling the same cards that appear and disappear at ETECSA locales as if by magic? They put their own value added tax that can range from 1 to 2 CUC over the official price, depending on the time of day and how desperate the buyer seems.

People are of the opinion that this rare blend of pirate and corsair “has suppliers in some of the official sale points.” That, at least, is what Anibal, who has been waiting for more than an hour to buy a card to speak with and see his brother, tells us.

“It’s bigger than that,” a young man named Orlando interjects. “There are (official) sellers who hoard up around 10 or 20 cards to sell them to these unofficial vendors.” Opinions we’ve heard abound and seem to be spreading with greater speed than that afforded by the Wi-Fi networks. That, incidentally, is another problem users complain about: the unstable connections.

A Market Niche

They say Cubans can do just about everything under someone’s nose. As it turns out, it’s not always exactly “under.” As we walked down the San Rafael Boulevard at around 11 at night and neared the intersection with Galeano Street, where the Fe del Valle Park is located, we stepped on an electrical cable. It caught our eye. Indeed, it was a thick, electrical cable, and it cut across the boulevard, leading to the park area, a Wi-Fi hotspot. We looked in two directions, trying to see where the cable ended and where it was coming from.

The cable came down over the wall of a place that was completely dark, cut across the street and ended at a “hub” with four plugs. There, several users had connected their laptops, not having to worry their batteries would run out, something that happened to Adolfo and Cristina. They had been chatting with their daughter in Miami via IMO and, “a few days ago, while conversing, the battery run out. That won’t happen again.” That’s important, considering he was telling his daughter things such as “I’ll be sending the okra you like so much with your aunt Hilda.” Though the couple did not hesitate to tell us about the personal matters they were talking about with their relatives, telling us how much they were paying for the electrical plug (and who charged them for it) was like crossing a line. “I pay for the time I use,” Adolfo said with a smile on his face.

We approached other users interested in meeting and interviewing the Cuban who had found this niche in the market, a stone’s throw away from home, but to no avail. We left thinking about that popular phrase, “Cubans sure know how to make a buck with anything.”