Cubans embracing the digital age

Story highlights

  • More Cubans have access to the Internet than ever before
  • Wi-Fi hotspots were installed in major city parks last year

(CNN)Giorgio Palmera first visited Cuba 20 years ago and fell in love with the island country and its people.

So in recent years he's watched with interest as the country's communist-run government has gradually welcomed technology that makes the nation more open to the world.
    "A year ago, when I came back to Cuba after 20 years, Internet existed only in large tourist hotels where it was forbidden for Cubans to buy Internet cards," the photographer said in an email interview. "Now that the squares are covered by Wi-Fi and the cost of an hour's connection (has) dropped to 2 euro, Cubans have the option of having the world's information in real time."
    Photographer Giorgio Palmera
    In June, the state communications company installed 35 Wi-Fi hotspots in the parks of the country's major cities. Suddenly, the country was fully ushered into the digital age.
    Some of Palmera's photos could have been taken in almost any modern city. In one, two teens are hunched over devices in the darkness, screen light reflecting on their faces. In another, a woman stares at her phone, headphone wires dangling. Teenagers in colorful clothes hang out in a city square, talking and texting.
    But there are unmistakable signs of the old, familiar Cuba, the one more closely associated with 1950s bulgemobiles and 19th-century architecture than smartphones and Internet.
    In the second photo above, three young adults sit in a late-'50s Chevrolet. Two of them chat casually, as if passing the time on a Saturday night; the third, a woman in the front passenger seat, focuses intently on her phone.

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    For now, Palmera says, Cubans are using Wi-Fi to talk with relatives in the United States or elsewhere. But they've also started using social networks, such as Facebook, and creating their own blogs, such as jovencuba.com (Young Cuba), which features contributions from university students.
    Almost a year after Wi-Fi appeared, Palmera still sees a sense of wonder.
    "My feeling went back to the first time me and my friends were discovering the Internet and smartphones," remembering, he said, how they behaved like children. "The Cubans are acting the same, with the big difference that we had the opportunity to express all of these emotions in private places. However, for Cubans, all this takes place in the square, creating an interesting and colorful live theater."
    The recent improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations has sparked chatter at how American money might change Cuban politics and infrastructure. Is Wi-Fi having the same effect?
    Palmera is still watching.
    "The new ability to access Internet could be an important factor for the creation of a new Cuban generation able to face the changes, taking the best from capitalism and socialism in order to create their own new economic model," he said. "Let's hope."