When President Obama said in Havana last month that Google would be working to improve Internet access in Cuba, I wondered what Google might do in Cuba that other companies could not.
Today, Cuba is an Internet desert where only 5% of trusted elites are allowed to have (slow dial-up) Internet connections at home, and a paltry 400,000 people access the Internet through sidewalk Wi-Fi hotspots. These hotspots have existed for only a year or so. Also, some 2.5 million Cubans have government-created email accounts, but no Web access.
I spent a month in Cuba until last week, and I was there when the president spoke. I'm here to report that those government Wi-Fi hotspots are rare, slow and expensive. While in Cuba, my wife, son and I spent about $300 on Wi-Fi. In a country where the average wage ranges from $15 to $30 per month, connecting is a massive financial burden available only to a lucky minority with private businesses or generous relatives in Miami.
And this is why I think the possibilities of what Google might accomplish in Cuba are misunderstood.
It's not as if Cuba would have ubiquitous, affordable and fast Internet access if it just had the money or expertise to make it happen. The problem is that Cuba is a totalitarian Communist dictatorship.
The outrageous price charged for Wi-Fi in Cuba can't possibly reflect the cost of providing the service. The price is really a way to restrict greater freedom of information to those who benefit from the Cuban system.
The strange Wi-Fi card system is also a tool of political control. In order to buy a card, you have to show your ID, and your information is entered into the system. Everything done online using a specific Wi-Fi card is associated with a specific person.
The Cuban government allows people to run privately owned small hotels, called casas particulares, and small home restaurants, called paladares. The owners of these small businesses would love to provide their guests with Wi-Fi, but the Cuban government doesn't allow it. Nor does it allow state-owned restaurants, bars and cafes to provide Wi-Fi.
Google is connected to the global Internet through satellite networks. Cuba is connected to the Internet by an undersea fiber-optic cable that runs between the island and Venezuela. The cable was completed in 2011, and it existed as a "darknet" connection for two years before suddenly going online in 2013.
So here's the problem with Google as the solution: The Cuban government uses high prices and draconian laws to prevent the majority of Cubans from having any access to the Internet at all. The government actively prevents access as a matter of policy. It's not a technical problem. It's a political one.
In other words, Cuba doesn't need Google to provide hotspots. If the Cuban government allowed hotspots, Cubans would provide them.
Everyday Google tech is 'Art' in Cuba
While I was visiting Cuba, a permanent "exhibit" called Google+Kcho.MOR was on display at an art and cultural center in Havana that also promotes technology. Kcho (pronounced "KAW-cho") is the nickname of a brilliant, enterprising, prolific and self-promoting Cuban mixed-media artist named Alexis Leiva Machado. Kcho lives at the center, which he deliberately built in the traditionally poor Havana neighborhood of Romerillo, where he grew up. The M-O-R at the end of the exhibit's name are the initials of the walled, multibuilding compound: Museo Orgánico Romerillo.
I took a Cuban death-cab to the Museo Orgánico Romerillo. And, no, the cab wasn't one of those awesome American classico beauties from the 1950s that you see in all the pictures of Cuba. The vehicle was a tiny, charmless Eastern European clunker from the 1970s with a top speed of about 45 mph, stripped on the inside of all paneling and lining (presumably by a fire, because everything was black inside) and held together by wire, tape, glue and optimism -- and I swear the exhaust pipe was somewhere inside the car. (Oh, what this correspondent isn't willing to do for his cherished readers.)
The exhibit is an astonishing oddity to Cubans who have never traveled abroad, but it's packed with oldish, cheap, everyday Google gear: 20 Chromebooks, Google Cardboard goggles powered by Nexus phones -- and something that has never, ever existed anywhere in Cuba: free Wi-Fi.
Of course, there's no such thing as free Wi-Fi, especially in Cuba. Kcho reportedly pays the Cuban government some $900 per month for the access. The free Wi-Fi, which I saw scores of locals using with their phones, is really subsidized. The Cuban government still gets paid. (The password for the free Wi-Fi is abajoelbloqueo -- which translates, roughly, to "down with the embargo.")
The free Wi-Fi is the same slow, unreliable connection that a minority of Cubans elsewhere get to enjoy, minus the cost and the cards. The Chromebooks, on the other hand, offer a magic Google connection some 70 times faster than regular Cuban Wi-Fi. Only 20 people at a time can enjoy the fast-connection Chromebooks, and each for just one hour at a time. When I was there, every Chromebook was in use, and each user's focus on the screen was total, as you can imagine.
The "exhibit" also had Google Cardboard viewers. (I had read the center has 100 of them, but I saw only about a dozen.) To use them, you ask a guy working there, and he grabs a Nexus phone from a drawer and walks you through the process of launching the Cardboard app and starting it. Each Cardboard viewer has preloaded content -- in my case I enjoyed a Photosphere of Tokyo.
During the half hour I spent in the Google+Kcho.MOR space, nobody else tried Google Cardboard. And that makes sense. With no ability to create or explore Carboard content, it's just a parlor trick to be enjoyed for a minute or two. I got the feeling that all the people there had "been there, done that" with Cardboard and resumed their obsession with Internet connectivity.
It was, however, obvious that the two people helping us were used to minds being completely blown by the Google Cardboard and Chromebook experiences. I didn't have the heart to mention that I've owned several pairs of Cardboard for two years and Chromebooks for three years.
The Google+Kcho.MOR installation is called an "exhibit," but it's not. In reality, it's a co-marketing, co-branding effort.
For the Kcho "brand," it's a "gateway drug" to lure Cuba's youth to the museum and get them excited about art, culture and the world of Kcho. Along with a cheap snack bar, the free Wi-Fi and the hour a day on the fastest laptops in Cuba successfully bring hundreds of Cuban kids to the center each day, and the Google+Kcho.MOR is the main event.
For Google, it's a massive branding effort. (Google declined to comment for this story.)
Nobody was willing to talk about it, but it's clear that Google is spreading some cash around here. There's so much Google branding on everything in and on the Google+Kcho.MOR building, it looks like it could be at the Googleplex itself.
Even elsewhere in the compound, the Google logo is everywhere. It's in several outdoor spots where the free Wi-Fi is used, including all over the snack bar that serves coffee and soda.
If you're reading this, you probably live in a country awash in marketing, co-marketing and branding on every surface. But the ubiquity of Google branding at the entire Museo Orgánico Romerillo compound may be unique in Cuba. This is a country without a single Coca-Cola sign or billboard, zero ads anywhere for anything (other than political propaganda for the revolution and its leaders and ideals).
During the month I spent in in Cuba, I saw exactly six major public consumer branding units, and all of them were at the Museo Orgánico Romerillo, and all of them were about Google (and Kcho). That makes Google by far the most heavily branded and marketed company in Cuba -- in fact, the only one.
As far as I can tell, Google is getting away with it only because Kcho is massively favored by the Castro regime and the marketing is all presented as "art" or in the promotion of art.
What Google is really accomplishing in Cuba
Google appears to have begun its entry into Cuba in June 2014, when its executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, visited Cuba after slamming the U.S. embargo in a Google+ post. The visit was not reported in Cuba at the time.
Schmidt was accompanied on his trip by Brett Perlmutter, who was later appointed Cuba lead for Alphabet, Google's parent company, as part of the Jigsaw organization, a "think tank" that actually initiates programs for making the world a better place, and was formerly known as "Google Ideas."
In January 2015, Perlmutter, as well as Jigsaw's deputy director, Scott Carpenter, toured Cuba together.
One of their goals on that trip was to visit computer science students at the University of Information Science, as well as young Cuban Internet users. Another goal, it's easy to guess, was to meet with cultural figures like Kcho, and also key figures in the Cuban government.
Put another way, Google has been making friends and laying the groundwork for a future when the Cuban government allows greater and better Internet access.
No, Google isn't laying fiber, launching balloons or installing equipment all over Cuba. It's not planning to sprinkle fast, free, magic Google Wi-Fi all over the island.
The best Google can do for now is make friends and influence people.
Cuba won't join the rest of the world in ubiquitous Internet access until the Cuban government either becomes less repressive, or falls out of power. When that happens, Google, as the dominant and best-connected tech brand, will be ready.
Until then, no amount of magic Google pixie dust can help the Cuban people.