Freedom of Speech and the Time I Spent 9 Days in Cuba without Internet

My Cuba abstention also extended to technology. The place is not merely a time warp because of the 16th century buildings and 1950s Chevys. It’s also a time warp because Fidel basically missed the Information Age.

My U.S. phone worked fine there, thanks to a deal between T-Mobile and the Cubacel / ETESCA, but data networks are basically nonexistent. In a country both undeveloped and given to political paranoia and repression, Cuba is one of the least connected countries on earth.

These days, they do have Internet. They don’t have computers or cable Internet but most young people seem to have a fairly recent smart phone. At WiFi parks (literally parks and town squares with WiFi) and some Belle Epoque hotels (like the Hotel Nacional in Havana), you can buy a card with a username and password for $1-3 and get one hour of Internet. Both locals and gringos cluster in these hotspots with their screens. If you still remember Pokemon Go, these gatherings make it seem like everyone has discovered a Pikachu.

In the town of Viñales I was sitting next to some hombres del barrio who had rolled up to the town square with outdated road bicycles. They were all sharing one username and password. Unsurprisingly, it seems security isn’t tight. Next to me, a guy with chin-length dreads was thrilled to be Skyping with a woman. He was talking about the sunshine in Cuba, so I couldn’t decipher if he was reconnecting with a friend or family member or expanding his horizons by speaking to a stranger (flirtatiously, of course).

But I didn’t connect once, because I wanted to save $3. That’s what my finances had been reduced to: walking 30 blocks to save $5, eschewing Internet to save $3 and always haggling my ass off with drivers to save $5-10. [I did however, give money for beggars, money for honesty, money for service by overworked waiters and money for musicians forced to play “Chan Chan” for the 3,256th time.]

I also thought connecting just once or twice would stress me out. I feared I would discover some action item in my inbox that I could not truly act on from abroad and then feel it hanging over my head for days, ruining my trip. The Internet leads to obsessive compulsion. So I stuck to SMS and didn’t post once on Instagram, despite all the photogenic scenes.

The couple of times I forgot reading material at home, the lack of connectivity became boring when I sat in bars by myself with literally nothing to do.

Chatting with locals was one good diversion, but not always possible. Normally if alone at a bar I might talk to the bartender. The “bar” areas of Cuban watering holes do not usually have seats, and if they do the bartenders are too busy making drinks for fifty people to chat with you. The bars all run a very tight ship.

So instead of turning to el feis when bored, I read books. Besides my guidebook which was one of my only information sources in a world without Internet (and also a world where some locals seemed to feign ignorance about prices and how-to’s in order to maximize tourist revenue for their community), I read a book called Island People: The Caribbean and the World, by my former Berkeley T.A. Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. It includes one chapter on Cuba.

In fact, I wonder if Cubans are highly educated not only because of their free education but also because like prisoners in solitary, they spend a lot of time reading. [However, I mainly observed people using leisure time to watch TV with family members, to hang out in el barrio catcalling me, to drink Cristal, Presidente and Bucanero beers with friends and to dance at the salsateca.]

Returning to the States, it felt like walking into an episode of Black Mirror. Cubans seemed so sociable and friendly. The ones I saw spent their time doing the above social activities, in addition to their daily doctoring or taxi driving or sugarcane cutting or serving of mojitos to tourists. Frankly, it makes Americans look insane, individually staring at their screens.

Of course, the act of using one’s phone or computer isn’t antisocial. It often consists of expressing yourself with a photo on Instagram, sending a Snapchat video to a loved one, sharing an opinion for discussion or showing support with likes, comments, etc.

The Cuban government funds all sorts of arts programs, but it hardly seems like true freedom of expression when your art must be rubber-stamped by the State. So the idea of expressing yourself online seemed bizarre, bold and individualistic after facing the communal, restrictive atmosphere of Cuba.

Free-flowing information and opinion seemed bizarre after going to Cuba. The mere existence of a digital world–essentially The Matrix–seemed bizarre after going to Cuba. The service economy and the legacy of Silicon Valley seemed bizarre after going to Cuba.

Ironically, I now work at one of these social networks, and I earn money by coding and analyzing data with computers.

In mid-January, the social networks were ablaze with outrage and fear over the upcoming inauguration. In many ways, this vacation of mine was also a vacation from the news cycle, from U.S. politics and even from Trump’s existence. [God, I needed that.]

At first, much of the conversation seemed petty to me. On my first day back, while I was consumed with the feeling of richness after a week of living in poverty (but actually not at all living in poverty on $60/day while Cubans earn about $20/month), a college acquaintance of mine posted about how Aziz Ansari would be the first Indian-American to host SNL. Her commentary? An angry “seriously how is he the first?”

First of all, the return to racial discord struck me. In Cuba, I am sure anti-blackness often rears its ugly head, but I did notice the darkest skinned Afro-Cubans hanging out with the lightest-skinned whites quite often, while the majority of people (varying city to city) seemed mixed-race.

Second, I sympathize with this outrage in the age of identity politics (and neo-Nazis), but it suddenly seemed so ridiculous to be angry when we live in the land of riches. Plus, Aziz Ansari is not a person of color who got the short end of the stick materially. He is rich–he lives a couple blocks from me–and successful and it’s excellent news that he will host SNL. Why you so mad?

A large chunk of traditional and social media these days seems to be, essentially, “He said WHAT?!” So. Much. Outrage.

And after my break from the Internet, it seemed clear that much of Donald Trump’s words, if not also some of his actions, are diversions from the material essence of how he and the Republicans are dismantling democracy and turning back the clock on civil rights.

Settling in with my Black Mirror

I found all the information and links and opinions and possibility at my fingertips distracting and almost stressful, but eventually I settled back in, getting back into the groove of opening apps and browser tabs, into the cycle of Internet addiction. I was ecstatic to have access to streaming multimedia, with its immediacy and recommendation algorithms again (in Cuba, people were limited to whatever pop music they could get their hands on). I caught up on a couple weeks’ worth of news and Twitter. I dealt with my deluge of emails. [Advice: if you go to Cuba for nine days, set up an automatic reply for your personal email.]

As soon as I landed, I sent a mobile payment and grew furious when Venmo, by surprise, froze a $200 payment with the message “Cuba” due to OFAC regulation. We think we’re freer than the Cubans, but really our communication networks come coupled with mass surveillance.

We currently are freer than the Cubans, though, because we can express ourselves in myriad ways; we can organize over those networks; we can search for truth rather than be blanketed with propaganda; we can dissent loudly and proudly. We aren’t economically free, with the threat of medical bills and/or loan payments hanging over our heads. Whereas we lack the reassurance of the state caring for our basic needs, we have the reassurance of due process, elected lawmakers and other hallmarks of a democracy. It’s messy and a pain-in-the-ass and full of stressful outrage, but we must cherish our nation’s greatest strength. When crony capitalists and fascists threaten our institutions, we must rally to protect and preserve the United States of America.

You happy with my patriotism, State Department?

Related Reading
Donald Trump wants to ‘close up’ the Internet
Lawmakers in Eight States Have Proposed Laws Criminalizing Peaceful Protest
Fidel Castro’s Sister, an Outspoken Critic, Takes No Joy in His Death




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