Cuba

Cuba Gets Connected

A yellow submarine breaks the information embargo

|

"For you, the Internet is like water," our tour guide told us as we barreled through Havana's storied La Rampa neighborhood after a night out. "For us, it is like caviar."

She motioned out the bus window where packs of happy-looking Cuban youths were clustered together around the magic blue-green glow coming from their iPhones, the light piercing through the man-made darkness of yet another local power outage.

Like the open presence of Miami tourists and the American flag over the nearby U.S. embassy, civilian Internet access in Cuba is an absurdly recent phenomenon. Only last year did the omnipresent government open a few dozen wireless shops where Cubans can buy access to the information superhighway for the dear price of $2 an hour, roughly 8 percent of the average monthly salary. And yet there were more people standing in line outside one Internet store I saw in downtown Havana than there were customers inside a large supermarket across the street. Of course, there's little incentive to throng a market selling only one kind of cheese.

Raul Castro's communist dictatorship does its level worst to keep the virtual experience as comparatively miserable as Havana's crumbling bricks-and-mortar reality, but corralling the Internet is like tackling water from a fire hose.

The government tries to herd most consumers into a state-controlled intranet (complete with its own top-down knockoff of Wikipedia), but the desire for access to Skype and other video links to relatives in the States is just too strong in a country where few have phones that can make international calls. Airbnb is already becoming a major force in Havana tourism and real estate, as the government shruggingly acknowledges it has no money or competence to build the infrastructure necessary to accommodate the sharp increase in much-needed tourists. The joint liberalizations of Cubans finally being allowed to buy and sell property and Americans finally being allowed to send money back to relatives left behind have combined to create some startlingly handsome home and business renovation projects. Now those ubiquitous '50s American cars don't have to be held together with rubber bands and scrap metal; Uncle Roberto in Miami can send real parts.

Most intriguing of all are the mysterious paquetes semanal ("weekly packets"), small storage drives containing American, Cuban, and international movies, television, and sports that are spread around by "data mules" and sold on the cheap. Nobody seems to know who came up with or executes the idea, or what role the government plays (in a country that still has a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution on every block, it's hard to believe that the packets are spread in successful defiance of the police state), but the results provide a welcome relief to the artificial cultural and informational starvation that the Castro brothers have cruelly inflicted on this country since 1959.

To a degree not fully appreciated by Americans not of Cuban extraction, Havana was the dominant commercial and cultural capital of not just the Caribbean, upon which the landmass of Cuba sits like a cocked revolutionary beret, but also the Gulf of Mexico, toward which the city's fine natural deep-water harbor faces. From its founding in the early 1500s all the way through the mid-20th century it was Havana, not Miami (or even the culturally similar melting-pot port city of New Orleans), that most influenced the broader region's music, literature, sports, and trade.

Port towns don't just derive a fringe benefit from international exchange, they subsist on it like oxygen. By choking off the Cuban economy through the disaster of state ownership, centrally planning trade relationships not with neighbors but with the faraway Soviet Union, and imposing all sorts of censorial controls and physical scarcity on everything from newspapers to popular music, the Castros alienated Havana from its own deeply felt sense of self, effectively smashing a pillow in the face of a people's entire cultural identity.

But culture has a funny way of outliving even the longest-lasting dictatorships. When I first traveled to Cuba, in 1998, the single most shocking thing in a country full of constant jaw-drops was the informational black hole. Because the Castros censored even so much as a mention of Cubans living in the United States—the Cuban-American musical legend Celia Cruz was not permitted to be broadcast on the island's radio stations until 2012, for example—my interactions with the locals were dominated by requests for basic information about people like Gloria Estefan, Andy Garcí­a, and Liván Hernández. The main government newspaper, Granma, was six or eight pages long and widely used as toilet paper (since there were constant shortages of the latter). Most information of value was transmitted orally, like a game of telephone, rather than through any official channels. "Say, where can I get my hands on a baseball schedule?" I would ask Cubans. The question confused them.

I vividly remember attending a hush-hush gathering in a private home with a handful of Cuban longhairs and a middle-aged American lefty who had assembled for the semi-clandestine purpose of listening to, talking about, and singing along with The Beatles. Yes, that's right: Such was Fidel Castro's vice-like grip on the means of production and consumption for that you could not listen to "Yellow Submarine," nor for that matter wear your hair long as a man, for much of the 1960s and '70s without running afoul of the cops. And God help anyone caught in the act of being a homosexual, an aberration punishable by forcible relocation to a quarantined camp.

Yet now not far from that house you can visit a nice little neighborhood park that was rechristened in 2000 by Fidel Castro himself as "Parque Lennon," complete with a life-sized statue of the sitting ex-Beatle. "What makes him great in my eyes is his thinking, his ideas," the caudillo said at the unveiling ceremony, obscenely. "I share his dreams completely. I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality."

Well, not quite. The rehabilitation and attempted co-opting of the man who wrote the immortal lines "But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / you ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow" was more a grudging acknowledgment that even totalitarianism cannot forever tamp down on the human insistence on cultural exchange. Local musicians had been defiantly playing Beatles songs and trading memorabilia in that park for a decade before Castro jumped on the bandwagon. The demise of the Soviet Union cut off the island's figurative sugar daddy, forcing the regime to reorient toward Western tourists, who are not exactly fond of gratuitous musical censorship. The Ministry of Culture even opened up a nearby music club and bar five years ago called the Yellow Submarine.

What will Cubans do with their newfound latitude? Critics of lifting the embargo scoff that President Barack Obama's opening to the island has not yet produced democratization, and claim that exposing Cubans to more U.S. dollars will only enrich, instead of undermine, the regime.

But they are wrong about the latter. As Sen. Jeff Flake (R–Ariz.), who accompanied Reason Foundation on a recent trip there, and who has been visiting and agitating for change on this communist island for 16 years, pointed out in an interview with reason.com's Nick Gillespie: "You have about 25 percent of Cubans who work fully in the private sector….The big change is the number of Cubans being able to not have to rely on government and therefore can hold their government more accountable. I would say that we've passed the point of no return."

Totalitarians will always try, but you can't keep a great culture down.

NEXT: Will the GOP Face Facts And Embrace Donald Trump as One of Their Own?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality.”

    By this time Castro is probably so senile he thought he was honoring *Lenin.*

    On an unrelated note, I observe that Google Translate says the Spanish term for “woodchipper” is “astilladora de madera.”

    1. Talk about turning dreams into reality.

    1. Why do you want people to go to links so early,it’s not even beer 30 yet.

      1. It”s something safe you can tell people to watch while they hold your beer.

        1. No one touches my beer.

  2. Of course, there’s little incentive to throng a market selling only one kind of cheese.

    Nobody needs 28 kinds of cheese. Obviously there’s no cheese lines because workers in a socialist paradise already have all the cheese they want.

    1. Is it real cheese or that fake crap?That blended orange shit people in Philly eat on their ‘cheese ‘ steak? I don’t even want to know what the one kind of ‘beer’ would be.

    2. You seem to know so much, how many kinds of cheese do we need ?

      Your intelligence is so standout that everything you believe is “obvious”.

      1. Another wasted sarcasmic moment…

    3. Too many different types of sneakers for someone like Bernie to figure out what to wear.

  3. Once I saw the draft of 2500 bucks, I admit that my sister was like really generating cash in his free time with his COM. My aunt has done this for only 6 months and by now repaid the loan on their home and bought a new BMW..J3.

    ——- http://www.WorkProspects.com

  4. Havana was the dominant commercial and cultural capital of not just the Caribbean, upon which the landmass of Cuba sits like a cocked revolutionary beret, but also the Gulf of Mexico, toward which the city’s fine natural deep-water harbor faces.

    I always thought Havana faced the Florida Straits and that La Palma was closer to the defining point of the Gulf vs the Florida Straits.

  5. before I looked at the draft saying $9453 , I have faith that my mother in law woz like truley erning money part time at there computar. . there mums best friend haz done this 4 less than 14 months and just repayed the dept on their apartment and purchased a brand new Honda . read here …..

    Please click the link below
    ==========
    http://www.selfcash10.com

  6. …ordinary Cubans are able to consume culture beyond their shores through mysterious paquetes semanal (“weekly packets”), hard drives filled with movies, shows, newspapers, and other contraband, which are ferried around the island by “data mules.”

    I’m sorry, but am I the only one concerned with the corporate intellectual properties that are apparently being disseminated without compensation for the creators? Billions of hours of work went into creating Fantastic Four and they deserve to get what’s coming to them.

    1. and they deserve to get what’s coming to them.

      ::cracks knuckles::

      And we’re just the guys to give it to them.

    2. Error 503 Service Unavailable

      Service Unavailable

      Guru Meditation:

      XID: 1951318335

      Varnish cache server

    3. Well, it’s a communist society and one’s labor belongs to the people in a communist society?

  7. the man-made darkness of yet another local power outage.

    Not to quibble, but electric power and lighting are man-made. Darkness is the natural nighttime state of a place that has rejected civilization and voluntary cooperation.

    I wonder if Guillermo Portabales music has been relegalized East of Gitmo…

    1. Sort of like the man-made silence of a freeway at 3 AM with no traffic?

  8. Allison . if you think Rachel `s artlclee is exceptional… last week I bought audi after having made $5844 thiss month and just a little over 10-k this past month . without a question it is the easiest-work Ive ever done . I actually started eight months/ago and immediately started to earn at least $86 per-hour . Read Full Report…

    ? ? ? ? ? ? http://www.MaxPost30.com

    1. Maybe it’s just me, but I think you could train even a squirrel to recognize these posts as spam, since they follow the same format:

      distant relative/associate
      bought a new car for about 20 percent of the going price
      made a month’s wages in a few hours at a consultant’s hourly rate that equates to 80 hour work weeks
      link to questionable website

  9. “I vividly remember attending a hush-hush gathering in a private home with a handful of Cuban longhairs and a middle-aged American lefty who had assembled for the semi-clandestine purpose of listening to, talking about, and singing along with The Beatles.”

    Shouldn’t that American lefty be lecturing the ungrateful Cuban peasants about how lucky they are to have free healthcare, equality of income, and a culture unspoiled by McDonalds and Wal-Mart? I mean, a little censorship (for the good of the people) is just the price of civilization, right?

  10. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail.
    +_+_+_+_+_+_+_+_+ http://www.factoryofincome.com

  11. Start making more money weekly. This is a valuable part time work for everyone. The best part work from comfort of your house and get paid from $100-$2k each week.Start today and have your first cash at the end of this week. For more details Check this link??

    Click This Link……….

    =========?[??]? http://www.MaxPost30.com

    1. Can’t they include these entrepreneurial opportunities in the weekly packets to Cuba? They need the jobs there more than we do.

  12. I am making $89/hour working from home. I never thought that it was legitimate but my best friend is earning $10 thousand a month by working online, that was really surprising for me, she recommended me to try it. just try it out on the following website.
    ============ http://www.Path50.com

  13. Allison . if you think Rachel `s artlclee is exceptional… last week I bought audi after having made $5844 thiss month and just a little over 10-k this past month . without a question it is the easiest-work Ive ever done . I actually started eight months/ago and immediately started to earn at least $86 per-hour . Read Full Report…
    ? ? ? ? ? ? http://www.MaxPost30.com

  14. Only last year did the omnipresent government open a few dozen wireless shops where Cubans can buy access to the information superhighway for the dear price of $2 an hour, roughly 8 percent of the average monthly salary.

    You think THAT’s expensive? Some of us remember AOL with their “free trial” CDs to get you hooked on chat rooms.

  15. I’ve made $76,000 so far this year working online and I’m a full time student.I’m using an online business opportunity I heard about and I’ve made such great money.It’s really user friendly and I’m just so happy that I found out about it.

    Open This LinkFor More InFormation..

    ??????? http://www.Centernet40.com

  16. my best friend’s mom makes $74 an hour on the computer . She has been without work for five months but last month her payment was $19746 just working on the computer for a few hours. find more information …
    ?????????? http://www.factoryofincome.com

  17. Facebook gives you a great opportunity to earn 98652$ at your home.If you are some intelligent you makemany more Dollars.I am also earning many more, my relatives wondered to see how i settle my Life in few days thank GOD to you for this…You can also make cash i never tell alie you should check this I am sure you shocked to see this amazing offer…I’m Loving it!!!!
    ???????? http://www.factoryofincome.com

  18. Facebook gives you a great opportunity to earn 98652$ at your home.If you are some intelligent you makemany more Dollars.I am also earning many more, my relatives wondered to see how i settle my Life in few days thank GOD to you for this…You can also make cash i never tell alie you should check this I am sure you shocked to see this amazing offer…I’m Loving it!!!!
    ???????? http://www.eliteline7.com

  19. I made $4000 last week tracking down annoying spammers and feeding them through woodchippers for donations You could too.
    http://completerippoff.com

  20. up to I looked at the check of $4791 , I did not believe …that…my neighbour could actualie earning money in there spare time on their laptop. . there friend brother has been doing this for less than 7 months and resently cleard the morgage on their mini mansion and purchased a great Bugatti Veyron . you could look here ……..

    Click This Link inYour Browser….

    ?????? http://www.Reportmax20.com

  21. And one of those applications is Showbox app. It is one of the best online streaming application for watching Movies and TV Shows. In the starting, this application has been released for only a few of the mobiles and allows users to watch shows online.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.