Inside Cuba’s D.I.Y. Internet Revolution

You’ll be sitting in the magnificently beautiful ruin of Havana, surrounded by decaying stonework and pastel-colored Detroit rolling iron, and you’ll be ignoring it all to swipe down on your Facebook feed like a cocaine addict licking his snort mirror—which you are, of course: a depraved cokehead trying to get a hit. And you’ll scroll over the same content you swiped over 15 minutes ago, pretending that it might have refreshed and that it might provide the dopa­mine rush your brain is demanding. Yet it does not refresh. It will not refresh.

Then again.

Then again, going on five minutes.

Then 10 minutes.

Sweet Holy Jesus.

YES!

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 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 you’ll 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 like 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 fiber-­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 every other filter-bubble-­creating, political-polarization-amplifying, algorithm-optimized feed. 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.

Havana residents use Ethernet cables and antennas to connect to an ad hoc Cuba-only intranet.

“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-off 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 guy in the front room was, evidently, back from a long, hot day of downloading.

I do the mental math. One estimate found that ETECSA Wi-Fi hot spots have a bandwidth of 1 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. What seems more likely is that Yuri is lying, in the way that so many Cubans lie about how they manage to 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 swaths 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 back room to every corner of Cuba, and a river of coins and bills 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 livable 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 total control of the media. Resolver beats complicado this round. It almost always does. Especially when there is real money to be made.

 

Roger Juaristi Guede sells ad space on paquetes through his Highvista ad network.With his angular features and slicked hair streaked with blond, Roger Juaristi Guede reminds me visually of a young Vanilla Ice. His demeanor, 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, as we do to banner ads. Highvista can also super­impose preroll banners on the videos themselves, messaging that is that much 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 any real ad attribution impossible, and my internal ad technology guy winced at the untrackability of it all.

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 like Australia, Cuba has been evolving convergently (if mostly independently) to the outside world, even if several technical generations later. Turns out if you connect twitchy, narcissistic, boredom-prone humans via digital media, no matter how makeshift the plumbing, they behave in exactly the same way.

A group of SNET admins near a pilar on the outskirts of Havana.

There is an Instagram clone called Foro Wifinet; there is a Reddit clone called Netlab with themed subreddits, trolls, and the whole armamentarium of weaponized, amplified, and threaded nerdy pissiness you see elsewhere. There is the Facebook clone, Sígueme (“follow me”), as well as internet forums powered by phpBB, that ancient workhorse code project that runs every hobby forum from knitting to Jeep repair, all hosted locally.

Gamers have cobbled together a faster network with more services than anything this socialist worker’s paradise has produced.

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 in-office kombucha taps, 6,000-word Medium think pieces, and $50 million funding rounds. As with the paqueteros, the admins preemptively self-­censor, banning any political or religious content from the very outset. 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 late 2016. Complete with names and photos, the same blog that once published Fidel’s speeches praised the plucky gamers.

With no real money, and working in a dictatorship’s gray zone, the gamers have cobbled together a faster network with more services than anything this socialist worker’s paradise has managed to produce. I sit in mute admiration as Ian shows me clones of billion-dollar US internet entities. All of it existing in near-­isolation from the outside world, just a hundred miles from the US. As often happens with outside observers of the Cuban reality, my two recurring thoughts are: By God, what could these people accomplish if they didn’t have the government gorilla sitting on their faces, asphyxiating everything? Or if they had easy access to all that Silicon Valley has to offer?

People wait across the street from where street vendors sell scratch-off cards for internet access.The detailed and unsolicited guidance on how to bring home a visi­tante nocturno from my Airbnb hostess is worth recording here 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 the tech startup culture in Cuba remains half-­hidden in the shadows. When President Obama was making noises about Cuba in early 2016, a conga line of tech heavyweights mustered to help “open” Cuba. Months later, most of that amounted to nothing more than angling for a photo op with a popular president and his big foreign policy success. Since then only a handful of US companies have made any headway, most notably Google and Airbnb, the former investing in servers within the country and the latter really going the distance.

Responder

Introduce tus datos o haz clic en un icono para iniciar sesión:

Logo de WordPress.com

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de WordPress.com. Cerrar sesión / Cambiar )

Imagen de Twitter

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Twitter. Cerrar sesión / Cambiar )

Foto de Facebook

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Facebook. Cerrar sesión / Cambiar )

Google+ photo

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Google+. Cerrar sesión / Cambiar )

Conectando a %s