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By Mimi Whitefield and Patricia Mazzei, Miami Herald (TNS)

HAVANA — On a recent Sunday afternoon, entire families — grandparents, newborn babies and teenage girls snapping selfies in their most-fashionable clothes — were gathered on the steps, walls and curbs of a plaza in the Playa neighborhood.

But they weren’t there for a social event. What brought them together was the quest for connectivity. In July, the government began rolling out 35 new and improved Wi-Fi hotspots. In most cases, the Cubans at the Playa hotspot were paying more attention to their cellphones and other gadgets than each other.

To say Cubans have embraced connectivity doesn’t begin to describe their new love affair with Facebook, imo — a video call application — and phone connections robust enough to send photographs and selfies to friends and family abroad and around Cuba. They perch on park benches tapping at laptops, lean against building walls staring at tablets or sit on curbs with their cellphones as traffic whizzes past.

What’s interesting to Ted Henken, a Baruch College professor who has studied the Internet in Cuba, is that Cubans are living out some of their most personal moments — family reunions and introductions to new babies and spouses — not in the intimacy of their own homes but in public plazas and parks. “It’s all happening out there in a public place,” he said.

Blogger Yoani Sanchez calls the 35 new hotspots a “social phenomenon.”

Marlene Velarde, her husband and grandson recently visited the office of ETECSA — the state telecom monopoly — in Playa, and plunked down 6 Cuban convertible pesos (around $6) for three hours of Internet service. They spent the first hour or so learning the imo application so they could make a video call to Miami.

The new Wi-Fi sites are proving popular across Cuba.

“Thank goodness they brought the Internet,” said Armando Aguilera, a 19-year-old college student at the main square in Holguin, a city in eastern Cuba, who was sending Facebook messages and trying to video-chat with his mother in Angola. “Here, we’re a thousand light-years away from other technology.”

Imo, a video app Cubans use because Skype isn’t available, has opened up new opportunities for those who could only reach out to friends and family before through phone calls or perhaps an occasional email.

At Holguin’s Park of Flowers, Beatriz Ricardo paced under the shade of a tree, trying to get rid of her cellphone’s glare by covering it with her hand. She spoke for 25 minutes with her husband, who recently moved to Nicaragua. He showed off his new place on video.

“I saw his kitchen and his bedroom and everything!” a beaming Ricardo said at the end of the conversation. “Email is cheaper. But then you can’t see where they live.”

Still, imo has its limitations, said 21-year-old Xiulee Ochoa, a medical student trying to reach her boyfriend in Canada from a sidewalk bordering the Park of Flowers, one of two new hotspots in the city of about 300,000. “It’s kind of obsolete,” she said. “You also can’t download a movie or a music video.”

Briseyda DeLeinia, a 32-year-old dentist, traveled 45 minutes to Santiago, the country’s second-largest city, to video-chat with her husband, who recently moved to Miami. “Everybody is excited about these places,” she said. She was trying to connect from Santiago’s Cespedes Park, one of three city hotspots. But demand is so high, she said, people need more Wi-Fi connections. “Sometimes (they) have to travel a long way to get here,” she lamented.

The new service is open to anyone with a Nauta.cu account that allows customers to get email on their mobile phone, tablets or personal computers. Rather than an entirely new service, WIFI-ETECSA is a new path where connections are a bit speedier that those offered at most hotels or state cyber cafes. The connections allow 50 to 100 people to navigate at the same time and the government says speeds could reach 1 megabit per user.

Although prices are still high for most Cubans (a little more than $2 per hour), they are about half what they used to be. “At least it’s cheaper than by phone,” said Aguilera, the Holguin student, who compared the Web fee to the $1.60-a-minute charge to call Angola.

But with the scant number of new Wi-Fi (pronounced WE-fee in Spanish) sites, hotels — where Cubans buy Internet access or try to piggyback on the signals bleeding outside — still do a brisk Internet business.

Pirating signals can be a hit-or-miss proposition. So many locals discovered the password to a free, special government connection for journalists during Pope Francis’ visit to Holguin on Sept. 22, for example, that the telecom agency was forced to change the code.

Back in Havana, patrons of the ETECSA office in Playa waited in line to buy scratch-off cards containing their Internet access codes. Most toted their own cellphones, tablets and laptops and connected outside because all 18 computer stations inside were full.

Some of the users were very tech savvy, but there also were a lot of first-timers learning to post selfies, connect on imo and set up Facebook accounts. “No country is going to ban Facebook and with Facebook you can do a lot,” Henken said. “I would guess that it’s secure.”

ETECSA, by the way, has its own Facebook page.

Some complained of dropped calls and the need to reconnect over and over with distant lands, or said they’d like to see faster Wi-Fi connections. So many people try to log on during popular hours — weekday evenings, for example — that overwhelmed hotspots often boot them off.

But in general, they like the new service.

“This is marvelous,” said Velarde as she connected via cellphone with her son Erick Corredera in Miami. Although she could see and hear him, the image on the Cuban end of the call froze. “In Miami when you can’t see the image, we just call the company and they fix it,” said Corredera via his mother’s cellphone in Havana.

“This is a little step. Before we couldn’t see each other at all,” he said.

“Adios, Papi,” his 4-year-old son Samuel said as the call ended. Then with a bit of prompting from the adults, he signed off in English: “I love you.”

Nearby, a man cradled a newborn that the family hoped to introduce to relatives abroad via imo.

On another weekend, 13-year-old Gilberto Rafael Perez Cabrera and his uncle, Franciso Romar, sat on a wall in the same plaza sharing earbuds. They were speaking with Gilberto’s mother, who had just arrived in Nigeria to join his stepfather who was on medical mission in the African country. But their call kept dropping and they kept dialing a cellphone with a lime green cover.

But Estel “Merci” Rodriguez Ortiz was a video call novice. She borrowed the cellphone of her ex-husband’s wife, to make a video call to her son, Jorge Michel, in Hungary. He’s been working in Herceghalom, a town outside Budapest, as a forklift truck driver and has been home only twice in 18 years.

“It’s the first time I did it (imo), and to see him is just tremendous for a mother. I’m almost without words,” she said as tears streamed down her cheeks. “And thank God, the pope is also coming today.”

The separation has been tough on her. “I have grandchildren I don’t know,” Rodriguez said. “Every night when I go and look at the moon, I know my son is in the sun over there. But it doesn’t matter. It’s the same moon here as the one there.”

Communication between families must improve, she said, but the new Wi-Fi connections are “an enormous achievement. “Imagine it, we’re making a small step toward the development we haven’t had,” said Rodriguez. “To be able to see a little more toward the world outside is very important.”

While most are using the Wi-Fi connections to surf the net or stay in touch with friends and relatives, others have figured out how to make money. After purchasing a Wi-Fi card, they use software such as Connectify Hotspot that allows several connections that can be resold at a discount compared to the ETECSA rate.

Among those who tote around a tablet is Miguel Diaz-Canel, first vice president of Cuba’s Council of State and Cuban leader Raul Castro’s heir apparent.

Although some U.S. companies, including Google, seem eager to help Cuba build up its Internet capabilities, the government still hasn’t tipped its hand on how much help it wants from the United States.

“Cuba should skip technology generations,” said Larry Press, a professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills. But to do that it needs money, he said, and it needs to overcome its fear of losing control.

———

(Miami Herald staff writer Jim Wyss contributed to this story from Santiago. Mazzei reported from Holguin.)

Photo: Cubans gather at a hotspot in Playa by the ETECSA office to receive open WiFi service on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015 in Havana, Cuba. Since July the Cuban government has rolled out 35 new WiFi hotspots around Cuba. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS)

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