You’ll be sitting in the magnificently beautiful ruin of Havana, surrounded by decaying stonework and pastel-coloured Detroit rolling iron, and you’ll be ignoring it all to swipe down on your Facebook feed like a cocaine addict licking his mirror – which you are, of course: a depraved cokehead trying to get a hit. And you will scroll over the same content you swiped more than 15 minutes ago, pretending that it might have refreshed and that it might rovide the dopamine rush your brain is demanding. Yet it does not refresh. It will not refresh.
Your fix will come in the form of a small green scratch-card, almost like a lottery ticket and usually costing a quarter of the average weekly Cuban wage. Some quick work with a coin will reveal two horribly long strings of numbers, and along with a hunched-over clutch of other addicts, you’ll enter the digits into the password page of ETECSA, Cuba’s government-run telecommunications monopoly, whose design aesthetics are solidly 1997. And then… nothing. Your phone will fail to connect, or its signal will quickly fade, since your chosen hotspot, like most of the city’s hotspots, is overwhelmed by demand. (The government claims there are 60 hotspots in Havana, up from a handful a few years ago. That’s one for every 35,000 Habaneros.) You’ll try again for a secure connection.
Then again, going on five minutes.
Then ten minutes.
Sweet Holy Jesus.
The joy when your phone startles awake with a burst of delayed notifications will be obscene and quasi-sexual. The screenful of bubbles from every app you use – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email – will seem like an orgiastic feast on the order of George Costanza’s sex-pastrami-baseball trifecta. Madly, you’ll swipe, swipe, swipe, trying to get the pixel hit you need, the dose you thought you could never go without. And then … failure. The website freezes, the app crashes. The shaky ETECSA network can’t handle the up-to-date versions of FaceGoogleInstaSnapTwitter, and so you’ll have to restart the app and pull down on your feed frantically, again and again and again.
In Cuba, where Wi-Fi is both slow and terrible, you will be an emissary from the future, a hint of the degeneracy to come. You’re a full-on mainlining internet junkie with the world’s uproar piped into your head 24/7, your emotional landscape terraformed and buffeted by whatever some narcissist just posted on Instagram or some windbag on Twitter. But like the “not even once” warnings around drugs such as meth, you know that after the internet is in Cubans’ pockets, it’s over. Even backward, bitter-ender communist Cuba will become part of the vast data Borg, tied via arterial fibre-optic cables and Wi-Fi to the same pandemonium that gave us cat videos, livestreamed murders and President Donald J Trump. The real irony is that if the internet does topple the government and bring democracy to this democracy-starved island, it’ll happen just as democracy itself is being undone by Facebook and other filter-bubble-creating, political- polarisation-amplifying, algorithm-optimised feeds. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, and also oversimplifying, because the Cubans – the very resourceful Cubans – haven’t exactly been sitting around sipping mojitos as the digital revolución passed them by. They have workarounds. Oh, do they have workarounds.
Before my visit earlier this year, I’d never been to Cuba, though Cuba had certainly been to me. The Miami of my 80s childhood was a suburban reboot of pre-revolutionary Cuba, filled with people who still toasted El año próximo en La Habana (“next year in Havana”) at important occasions. Everything from family letters to fresh-off-the-raft waiters kept us apprised of the increasingly desperate conditions. In Miami, even the dogcatcher had to have a foreign policy towards the island, and Cuba seemed to be all anyone ever really talked about.
In Silicon Valley, where I worked at companies such as Facebook and Twitter for the earlier part of this decade, Cuba was generally regarded, when it was regarded at all, as a technological curiosity. This socialist worker’s paradise was a time capsule where techno-capitalism’s “Make the world more open and connected” idealism hadn’t yet delivered its liberal-democratic fruit. The underlying assumption held that, whether it was Facebook pages for Cuban businesses or Airbnb tourists from Texas, the internet’s arrival would lead to a near-instantaneous transformation of Cuban society from Soviet-era holdout to just another part of the globe requiring a dedicated user-support team.
It seemed like only a matter of time. Yet other than a few rumoured experiments beginning in the 90s, the Cuban government had a highly restrictive internet policy until 2015, when ETECSA’s first Wi-Fi hotspots started popping up throughout the capital. Walk down a street in Old Havana and you’ll note a flock of smartphone-clutching loiterers either standing or squatting in a park as they try to get on ETECSA Wi-Fi. This is Cuban internet, where access to non-state-sanctioned websites is blocked, the government snoops on anything unencrypted and the service is grindingly slow, when it exists at all. (I’m told that fast internet access is the exclusive domain of state institutions such as universities and very large, mostly foreign corporations such as hotels. Short of a few government professionals, nobody can check their email or surf the web, legally, at home without permission from the government.) There are even some startups capitalising on the rarity, shoddiness and expense of Cuban internet: Knales, a mobile-messaging platform co-founded by Diana Elianne Benitez Perera, packages online weather reports, horoscopes, sports scores, foreign exchange rates, and other basic news into text messages that Cubans can read on their phones.
Given the rickety and expensive nature of Cuban connectivity, nobody wastes time or bandwidth trying to stream an episode of Game of Thrones or a YouTube video. ETECSA Wi-Fi, when you can get it, is purely social and communicative: chatting with the uncle in Miami who sends you $200 (£153) every month via aremittance company, the nephew who moved to Spain, the cousin outside the capital – that is what the ETECSA hotspot is for.
Which brings us to the first workaround. Every week, more than a terabyte of data is packaged into external hard drives known as el paquete semanal (“the weekly package”). It is the internet distilled down to its purest, most consumable and least interactive form: its content. This collection of video, song, photo and text files from the outside world is cobbled together by various media smugglers known as paqueteros, and it travels around the island from person to person, percolating quickly from Havana to the furthest reaches in less than a day and constituting what would be known in techie lingo as a sneakernet: a network that transmits data via shoe rubber, bus, horseback or any other measure.
Oddly, it works. Cubans can be as conversant as any Netflix-and-chill American about popular shows such as House of Cards or Black Mirror, and they drop allusions to the Lannisters and Omar Little constantly. It’s been reported that as many as three million Cubans access content via the paquete. And to understand the paquete – as well as the other epic acts of Cuban hackery I’m going to describe – you need a Spanish lesson you didn’t get at school. An important word to know in Cuba is resolver. While literally meaning “to resolve”, in practice it’s closer to Silicon Valley’s notion of lifehacking, but without the humblebraggy posturing.
Need to navigate the endless hurdles involved in obtaining a small-business licence? Resolver.
Need to bribe a doorman to get into a popular bar or nightclub such as the ever-teeming Fabrica de Arte Cubano? Resolver.
Need to string 200 metres of cable and an antenna through neighbours’ patios so you can siphon a nearby ETECSA park’s Wi-Fi signal and maybe check your email slowly (and illegally) from home? Resolver.
Cubans are the kings and queens of resolver, the virtuosi of resolver. It’s the only thing that’s kept them afloat since the “Special Period” in the early 90s, when the Soviet Union and its subsidy disappeared, leaving Cuba’s economy stranded and Cubans themselves hungry.
But arrayed against the forces of resourceful resolver lies another important word: complicado. Want to talk to the dissident journalists who scoff at Cuban censorship and are routinely harassed and jailed? Es complicado.
Want to get a passport and visa to travel abroad? Es complicado.
My last Spanish lesson: No es fácil. It’s not easy. This is the closing refrain to almost every practical Cuban conversation, usually uttered with a resigned shrug. The island is one immense battlefield of resolver vs complicado, with a decaying colonial ruin for a stage and no es fácil as the Greek chorus.
Centro Habana is the arse-end of a Potemkin village the government has renovated for tourist consumption. Just west of picturesque Old Havana, and east of modern Vedado, gutted shells of colonial-era buildings stand among the odd pile of collapsed rubble or uncollected garbage. Squint, and on some blocks you’d be in a post-apocalyptic city instead of Cuba. Even the taxi driver gets lost in this overlooked part of the city and drops me blocks from my destination, forcing me to walk the hot streets with my offline mapping app open.
Trying to tease out the numbering, I note a hand-painted sign over one ramshackle door announcing itself as the seat of the local Comité de Defensa de la Revolución (CDR) chapter. The organisation’s logo features a Cuban-flag-clad patriot raising a machete to strike, emblazoned with the motto Con la guardia en alto (“With one’s guard up”).
This unique product of the Cuban revolution is worth a detour. The CDR is Robespierre-ian in both name and function and serves as a nationwide network of informants and agents monitoring the population from every balcony and porch. Convening a group of intellectuals to discuss dissident politics, or even hackers to discuss an open-source project? You’ll have a uniformed agent from Minísterio del Interior de la República de Cuba (MININT, charged with law enforcement) knocking at your door, courtesy of your snooping neighbour. Incredibly, the government has actually erected a museum to the CDR in Old Havana to commemorate the network of local rats that has helped keep it in power.
I finally figure out where the hell I am and realise my destination is an incongruously tidy, well-painted two-storey building that doesn’t look like it just got hit with an artillery shell. I knock, and my contact, Yuri, opens the door and lets me into an ample front room, empty save for a fatigued-looking, sweat-covered man in a tank top seated on a lone chair. Unusually for the ever-sociable Cubans, Yuri doesn’t introduce me and continues to the back of the house. The bare walls and almost total lack of furniture give the place the feel of a safe house.
Arriving in a windowless back room, I see the raison d’être for this operation: a large tower computer, the likes of which only hardcore western gamers maintain. The cover is off, cables snake out to racks bristling with external hard drives, and two monitors display what appears to be sophisticated file-management software. It’s the source for one of Cuba’s paquetes, a vital connection to the outside world.
What Yuri and his competitors and conspirators do isn’t strictly illegal – alegal is the preferred Cuban word for this: un-legal – but it’s not so un-legal that I couldn’t track down Yuri through a few discreet inquiries to acquaintances in Havana’s small tech community. My sources tell me there are half a dozen paqueteros with nationwide distribution, most of whom typically avoid reporters and self-promotion. (The paquetes sell themselves.) But Yuri, who says he recently fell out with his partners in a major paquete operation and decided to strike out on his own, was open to talking. After a few phone calls and a quick get-to-know-you, Yuri is taking me through his workflow, ably and quickly hopping around the file structure of this week’s media shipment. With a few keystrokes and clicks on various pop-up windows, he copies a new file into the going paquete, arranging content in a standard and orderly directory structure. Películas clásicas (classic films), interesantes y variados (mostly ripped YouTube videos), deportes semanales (weekly sports, everything from NHL to Formula One and even e-sports), and telenovelas (soap operas).
I ask him if any of the content is physically smuggled from Miami and he denies it, claiming it would be too expensive; in any case, customs would catch much of it.
“But how do you download this much data, then?” I ask, somewhat aghast at the week’s worth of global internet output he’s accumulated in this dark back room. He points to a pile of green ETECSA scratch cards next to his monitor and claims he pays people, including a family member, to sit in public parks with Wi-Fi and download content for five hours a day. That’s who the sweaty man in the front room was, evidently, back from a long, hot day of downloading.
I do the mental maths. One estimate found that ETECSA Wi-Fi hotspots have a bandwidth of one megabit per second. Even assuming this is true, and assuming Yuri and his employees manage to suck up all that bandwidth by sitting in public parks at odd times, it would still take more than 2,400 person-hours of constant downloading to capture the terabyte of data that goes into a single week’s paquete. This seems at the very least improbable. It’s more likely that Yuri is lying, in the way that so many Cubans lie about how they survive. Perhaps he’s paying someone with fast internet – a network administrator in some ministry, a hotel worker with access to expensive commercial internet – to download large swathes of the paquete for him. But he denies it.
The business end of paquete distribution is relatively simple, and a drug-trafficking comparison might be helpful. Yuri sells his master copy to a distributor in every province, who then resells to regional distributors in Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba, Pinar del Río and wherever else, and eventually to the guy on the street. Thus does data-on-wheels radiate out from that room to every corner of Cuba, and a river of money trickles back, forming an eventual torrent, the usual bits-for-money internet alchemy becoming a physical one.
And the government’s take on all this? While initially hostile, the paqueteros and the authorities have reached a liveable détente, with one side agreeing to ban all political and religious content and the other monitoring the output but mostly taking an uncharacteristic laissez-faire attitude. Cubans are on their third generation raised under the suffocating weight of an all-seeing, all-knowing government, and many of them reflexively avoid any topic of conversation or media consumption that smacks of political dissent. The paqueteros just channel that subconscious urge and conform to the government’s control of the media. Resolver beats complicado this round. It almost always does. Especially when there is real money to be made.
With his angular features and slicked hair streaked with blond, Roger Juaristi Guede reminds me visually of a young Vanilla Ice. His demeanour, however, is completely un-rapper-like, and he works in the recently renovated front room and hallway of what appears to be his parents’ home in Vedado. Juaristi runs the somewhat cheesily named Highvista Promotions, one of Cuba’s pioneering internet ad networks. In a landscape largely devoid of advertising (other than for the government), Cuba’s jerry-rigged media world has digital inducements to consume.
As a demo, Juaristi “browses” the paquete for me, navigating a Taiwanese-made external hard drive loaded with that week’s content as if it were some interactive browser. Inside every file directory is a selection of image and video ads alongside the actual content; the typical Cuban user might open the ads accidentally as they browse, and they’ll soon no doubt develop a blindness to them. Highvista can also superimpose pre-roll banners on the videos themselves, messaging that is that harder to avoid.
Without knowing it, Juaristi has reproduced the business model of internet advertising circa 2007, before Google’s DoubleClick and programmatic advertising technology crushed it. Namely, you have a “rate card” that is just that: a list of prices for a list of ad placements, based on some vague, mythological notion of the value of each: Run of Network (the entire paquete); Premium (the reality show folder); the low-rent Remnant (cat videos), and so on. This model was the bread and butter of online advertising in the jackass, low-tech pre-Facebook/Google days. I mention as much to Juaristi, and he looks at me blankly, as if he has no idea what I’m talking about – which makes it only more impressive. Highvista clients also receive a weekly report detailing where in the labyrinthine directory structure of the paquete their ad appears. Lack of network connectivity makes ad attribution impossible, and my internal ad technology man winced at its untrackability.
This is the fascinating thing about Cuba’s emerging digital class, especially coming from Silicon Valley: Their major issues mimic our own, albeit in cruder and more improvised form. Like some weird species in an isolated redoubt such as Australia, Cuba has been evolving convergently (if mostly independently) to the outside world, even if several technical generations later. Turns out if you connect narcissistic, boredom-prone humans via digital media, no matter how makeshift the plumbing, they behave in exactly the same way.
If the logistical effort of transporting a physical piece of hardware to millions of people so they can keep up with Silicon Valley sounds ambitious, it pales in comparison to the makeshift technical marvel that makes up Cuba’s other internet workaround. Named SNET, short for street network, it is a homebrewed intranet stretching across the capital and parts of the provinces that reproduces much of the consumer internet we know in the free world. With no fast, affordable access to Facebook, Instagram, or online audio streaming, the Cubans have simply created their own versions of these sites and services internally in a wholly separate network, and they are quickly rushing into the same minefield of acceptable-use policies, cyberbullying, porno-graphy filtering, memes and general online mayhem that the Americans have been suffering for years.
I set out to meet two of SNET’s administrators in the epicentre of Havana, the corner of L Street and 23rd Avenue, right in the heart of Vedado. My contact, Ian, appears from out of the crowds milling in the street. Thin and bespectacled, he is an economics student at the University of Havana, and when not talking about SNET he likes expounding on Cuba’s economy. His companion is more out of nerd central casting. With a pasty complexion – the “monitor tan” stood out in a sunny climate – and a corpulent physique accompanied by a trollish laugh, this is the subreddit inhabitant known the world over.
We pile into an overpriced yellow taxi and Ian instructs the driver west to the outskirts of the city. An hour later we arrive at the dilapidated far end of Havana. A number of clustered, low-slung buildings with metal roofs serve as family compounds. We converge on one that features an immense antenna tower on the roof. It bristles with what seem like dozens of antennas pointed in all directions. This structure is known as a pilar.
Strolling into the house, Ian introduces me to a group of a dozen or so men who scrutinise the American visitor whose presence they collectively approved. The assembled SNET dignitaries begin a patchwork account of how this beast came into being.
The whole thing started back in the early aughts with handmade antennas so that gamers wouldn’t have to carry their desktop machines to each other’s houses to play StarCraft or Counter-Strike. The nine original wireless gaming networks started spreading like a moss over all of Havana, and they joined forces in 2015 to create a city-spanning whole that could be loosely administered in a sort of controlled chaos. They would eventually start communicating with smaller and smaller antennas. It’s a semi-improvised but functional hierarchy, completely analogous to our internet, with the pilares uniting the various far-flung regions of the city.
Below the pilar in this hierarchy is a node, which is a miniature version of a pilar in that it features servers and antennas pointed in multiple directions. (A node most closely resembles an ISP that serves one local neighbourhood within a larger region.) A node in turn provides short-range connectivity to a set of subnodes, which are the final access points, almost like the internet setup in a typical western household. This entire SNET edifice we’re describing lives in isolation from the internet we know, an island literally and metaphorically from the buzzing internet continent we take for granted. Enter google.com in a browser on SNET and you’ll go nowhere. But enter the URL of a file and your subnode will route your request to a parent node and then a pilar, then to the regional pilar whose nodes and subnodes have the requested file or service.
What speed do users get? Ian pings his own pilar in Habana del Este, clear on the other side of the capital. It returns with a latency of 11 milliseconds. Faster, probably, than pinging Google on an average UK home broadband connection.
And what’s actually on SNET, other than gaming servers? There is an Instagram clone called Foro Wifinet; a Reddit clone called Netlab with themed subreddits and trolls. There is the Facebook clone, Sígueme (“follow me”), as well as forums powered by phpBB, that ancient code project that runs every forum from knitting to Jeep repair. To conform to SNET’s aggressively enforced terms of service, none of these service providers or site administrators can display consumer advertising or charge users to access their sites. Their creators launch these services just for the sake of creating and gaining status points on SNET – like the bygone internet pioneers, before Silicon Valley became about 6,000-word Medium think pieces and $50 million funding rounds. As with the paqueteros, the admins pre-emptively self-censor, banning political or religious content. Accounts vary, but the SNET admins insist that the network never veers into illegality, and the final vindication was a post in CubaDebate, a government-affiliated blog, in 2016. Complete with names and photos, the same blog that once published Fidel’s speeches praised the gamers.
With no money, and working in a dictatorship’s grey zone, the gamers have created a faster network than anything this socialist worker’s paradise has produced. I sit in admiration as Ian shows me clones of US internet entities. All existing in near-isolation from the outside world. By God, what could they accomplish if they didn’t have the government gorilla sitting on their faces?
The unsolicited guidance on how to bring home a visitante nocturno from my Airbnb hostess is worth recording for posterity: I should call the hostess once I know I’m coming home with someone, so she can be there to officially register them and send their identification details to the state. Should my new friend rob me in my sleep, the señora will report them to the police, and the full machinery of Cuban state suppression will be engaged to hunt them down. And hunt them they will: The señora reported that a guest of hers had a bottle of expensive cologne stolen, and the police found the thief and returned the cologne. Totalitarianism has certain advantages.
One big disadvantage is dictatorship’s inability to create a propitious business environment, which helps explain why Cuba’s startup culture remains half-hidden. When President Obama was making noises about Cuba in early 2016, a conga line of tech heavyweights mustered to help “open” Cuba. Most of that amounted to nothing more than angling for a photo op with a popular president. Since then, only a handful of US companies have made headway, most notably Google and Airbnb, the former investing in servers and the latter really going the distance.
Airbnb drafted off an existing cottage industry in casas particulares (“private homes”) and conspired to hack a payment scheme in a country without accessible payment systems. Airbnb complies with the Treasury Department’s formerly pro forma travel restrictions, asking which of 12 very fuzzy reasons for Cuba travel an American uses as tourism cover. Guests will then remit payment to Airbnb, which then transmits the money to a remittance payment firm in Miami, which then sends bagmen to deliver cash payments to Airbnb hosts on the island. It’s an impressive workaround. But most of the American entrepreneurship machine made a few visits and disappeared without trace.
I didn’t meet a single Cuban who felt the Obama policy had changed much. The only event they were eagerly awaiting was the planned resignation of Raúl Castro as president of Cuba in 2018. Even the most optimistic startup founders estimate that Cuba will be stuck in offline mode (ie, no home internet) until at least 2020. That was before Trump’s move to roll back Obama’s concessions, which only puts better internet even further off.
The most surprising thing about Cuba was the lived-in-the-moment nature of totalitarianism. In Orwell’s fiction, political dictatorship remains an abstraction, some moral fable cloaked in binary judgments and populated by villains and heroes. But the reality in Cuba is more mundane. There really is a banality of tyranny. People realise they’re being ruled by autocrats, and do whatever necessary to get by. They reframe “freedom” to mean the little square of movement the government grants them, and consider themselves free as a result.
Here’s the tragic reality that Silicon Valley optimists don’t realise: technology won’t save or ruin Cuba any more than tourism. If the world has learned anything from Cuban economic liberalisation, it’s that what happens inside Cuba is almost unaffected by anything the international community does. My impression from the interviews I conducted is that change will come at a glacial pace, if at all. The centuries-old colonial façades will crumble while people stagnate in a suffocating political repression.
In the meantime there’ll be ads, memes and cyberbullying too. The busy minds behind el paquete and SNET won’t stop and will spring forth with whatever technology they contrive. The aces of resolver will triumph over complicado, and one day maybe they’ll even win out over the source of all the complicado, the government itself.
No es fácil.
Antonio García Martínez is the author of autobiography Chaos Monkeys. This is his first article for WIRED