"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.