Gaspar, the Cuban people who revolutionize with their own Facebook

Cuban youngsters use WIFI on their cell phones in a park in Gaspar, a small city in the province of Ciego de Avila, in central Cuba, on April 18, 2017. ADALBERTO ROQUE AFP/Getty Images

GASPAR, CUBA In the heart of an agricultural province in eastern Cuba, a group of young people created their own version of Facebook with a pirate connection. A revolution tolerated in one of the least connected countries in the world.

With 7,500 inhabitants, Gaspar is a village of fertile lands plagued by drought. The teens fill Paseo, a central avenue surrounded by modest homes and dilapidated three-story buildings.

Sitting on cement benches, they drumming on their mobiles. Unlike other parts of Cuba, they are not connected to the paid wifi provided by state-owned Etecsa, but to Gaspar Social.

It is an illegal but tolerated initiative, like so many others on the socialist island.

The internet in Cuba is expensive and is under strict state control. But the young people have managed to install some thirty intranet neighborhood networks in several cities.

One of them is in Gaspar, in the province of Ciego de Avila, 460 km from Havana.

Without official permission from the Ministry of Communications, these networks are allowed by the authorities as long as they are low-profile and do not disclose counter-revolutionary or pornographic content.

For the most part, they allow you to chat, play online and exchange files. But in Gaspar, Osmany, Yoandi, Jorge Luis and Sergio dared to take the experience further.

“At first it was a network to play”, until “a friend gave me the idea” to insert the social network that I had created for schools, says Osmani Montero, a 23-year-old computer scientist working at the Municipal Directorate of Education .

Gaspar Social, similar to Facebook, opened to the public in October, two months before Etecsa enabled a Wi-Fi zone in the village. In spite of the low rank of its signal, it was successful among the rural youth.

In less than a month, it reached 500 users eager to exchange texts, photos and videos, without having to pay the dollar and a half per hour charged by Etecsa. Such popularity soon saturated the server.

“One of the main antennas was near my house. The users stayed in front of my portal until two, three in the morning, covered with sheets, with bedspreads, “jokes Yoandi Alvarez, 30-year medical student.

Yoandi bought a server and an antenna abroad. Users then enriched the network with four other repeaters.

Now, Gaspar Social is less saturated, creators included an information portal and evaluate new applications, such as small ads, local information and medical consultations from a distance.

“It seems perfect, magnificent what these guys did here,” says Arletty Guerra, a 22-year-old official who frequents Paseo.

While watching the passenger lorries, Guerra believes that the initiative is a “healthy change in a slightly dull town”.

Under the US embargo that prevents free Internet access, Cubans have created their own version of Wikipedia, called Ecured, and buy and sell through Revolico.

“More than 90% of the students” of the last year of high school accede to Gaspar Social, according to Reinaldo Meneses.

This pre-university history teacher communicates with students and parents through the same tool. It is a window “into the future,” he says.

Experts are keen to see these neighborhood networks, which could help the government meet the goal of providing the Internet to the entire island until 2020.

“That would be for me the alternative to infrastructure problems,” said Yudivian Almeida of the department of artificial intelligence and computer systems at the University of Havana

Internet could come by “cable to a particular home and a part of a set of network access connection” for local people and without digital connection (ADSL), aims.

Launched in July 2015, public Wi-Fi today has 317 connection points. Home service is reserved for scientists, doctors and journalists.

The Internet plan was recently concluded and the market for 3G connections should be opened.

The dizzying success of Gaspar Social did not escape the authorities or the leaders of the Communist Party, who called the four young people in mid-April. Initially, they feared for the future of the network, but only received a warning.

“Of course, they made it clear that red is illegal,” but they will not remove “any of the antennas,” Yoandi explains.

That yes the police users comply with the rules, so the penalty of expulsion: no politics or obscenities, and the news are only the only means of the state.