Kcho+Google Offers Internet to Cubans, with Limitations

A big announcement out of Cuba a few months ago was the launch of Google’s internet center at Kcho’s studio. Kcho, famous Cuban artist Alexis Leiva Machado, a close friend of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, gained permission from the Cuban government to provide internet access and, perhaps just as importantly, Google-supplied Chromebooks at his studio in Havana. Google had earlier approached the Cuban government with a plan to extend mobile data coverage throughout the island but that offer was turned down. Allowing Kcho to turn his studio into a free public wifi spot appears to be a small scale experiment on expanding public access to the internet.

The center provides free wifi that can access inside and outside the facility. The wifi password when we visited was “contraelbloqueo” or “end the blockade” as Cubans refer to the US embargo. It also houses an indoor space workspace filled with the laptops and Google Cardboard, the virtual reality headsets. The laptops use a higher-speed connection, though Cubans are unable to take any devices, such as USB sticks, in with them, so they’re difficult to use for actual work.

It certainly isn’t perfect, as several articles have pointed out, it still seems to be a step in the right direction. We recently visited the Kcho studio to see for ourselves and though we didn’t get a complete picture, it’s an interesting concept. We traveled to the space on a Monday, a day when it’s closed to Cubans but open to tourists. This meant we were able to join a private tour of the facility after a short wait.

The space is large, housing a small library and gallery, and a large prep space. The studio was in the process of assembling a large installation for a museum in China, focused on the US embargo and the “wet food/dry foot immigration” policy. Beyond this was Google’s center, which we were able to enter immediately, bypassing the multi-hour wait that’s necessary on days when the studio is open to everyone. The space itself was spacious and modern and felt like a the library of a small private school, with printed logos Google logos on the wall—alongside Facebook, Apple and Safari.

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It will be interesting to see where the project goes from here, if anywhere. It seemed clear that Kcho is leading this project, with Google supporting and supplying the devices. A lot less Google+Kcho and a lot more Kcho+Google.

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