Equipped with laptops, the room in the Havana neighborhood of El Romerillo resembles an internet cafe or a co-working space, but is chiefly home to the studio of Cuban artist Alexis Leiva Machado, who works under the pseudonym Kcho. The sculptor has partnered with Google to bring high-speed wifi to the Cuban public at rates nearly 70 times faster than services currently available — and at no cost to users. For a country long accustomed to strict restrictions to web-browsing, this is a game changer delivered in a pretty unexpected but creative way.
As the AP reported, President Barack Obama made the announcement during his historic visit to Cuba, noting that the partnership, titled “Google+kcho.MOR,” is part of larger efforts to improve internet access in the country. According to watchdog nonprofit Freedom House, the internet penetration rate is as low as 5%, making the island home to one of the world’s lowest connectivity rates. Most places that offer public wifi — largely government-controlled centers or hotels — also charge about $2 an hour for sluggish service, making Kcho’s studio quite a hotspot in more ways than one.
Kcho, who has long fostered close connections with the Castro government, actually started offering free internet at his studio in 2013 with permission from the Culture Ministry because of his status as an artist. With the help of Google, however, his creative space now resembles a tech hub. Aside from the laptops, Google also provided cellphones and mountains of Google Cardboard, allowing locals to experience virtual reality if they wish. The rapid connection is provided by Cuba’s state-run telecommunications company, but Kcho is personally footing the bill. The space will remain open to all five days a week, from 7am to midnight, with the capacity to hold up to 40 net surfers at a time.
“The internet was invented for it to be used,” Kcho told NPR last year. “There’s this big kerfuffle here in Havana that Kcho has internet at his place. There’s nothing to it. It’s just me, who is willing to pay the cost and give it to the people. It’s about sharing something with people, the same way my country does.
“I’ve always worried that people have what they need, just like the revolution did, and so I’m trying to give people a place to grow spiritually. A library, an art studio — all those things are important.”