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In the town of Viñales I was sitting next to some hombres del barrio who had rolled up to the town square with outdated road bicycles.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




Food after Cuba

At Newark on the way to La Migra, the scent of fatty food from United’s terminal of iPad restaurants wafts through the air. “It smells so good,” moans a Southern-born Brooklynite who sat next to me on the plane from Havana. All of us returnees have food–spicy, fatty, seasoned, Guy Fieri-approved food–on our minds.

But also: “I need to eat a salad,” says a returning Jewish girl. She is probably well-versed in the ways of Sweetgreen, but in Cuba you’d be lucky to get iceberg shreds and a tomato slice with your plato of pork, rice and beans.

We’ve come from a land of austerity and rationing. The government controls the food supply, and it’s been strapped for cash since losing access to the Soviet gravy train in 1991 (Soviet aid comprised 90% of state revenue).

As a result, each family gets a limited allocation of victuals. Grocery stores are nonexistent; Cubanos pick up their food supplies from a local depot and their tab goes in a register. They max out at five eggs per month. (Sorry, no brunch culture.)


Local butcher in Centro, Habana

I did see men coming ‘round the neighborhood with garlic, onions and shallots, singing their song of “cebollas, cebollas”. Havana had small farmer’s markets as well. But despite the budding markets, the economy is still broadly planned. Planning is hard, and shortages are common. It doesn’t help that a large amount of the food is directed to the tourist trade.

The austerity extends not only to the quantity of food but also the quality. Anyone in a sunny clime can grow herbs and chilis on her windowsill, but Cuban food suffers from a mysterious lack of seasoning. I don’t know why; perhaps it’s the communist favor for drab, for an almost Buddhist monk-like asceticism. I had some decent dishes, like arroz marinero (rice with mixed seafood), that would have vastly improved with a little chili. If I have a single recommendation for visitors to Cuba, it would be: “Bring your own bottle of hot sauce.”

With a dearth of cooking oil, you can forget about caloric comforts like fries. And going to the local store to purchase local snacks, one of my favorite travel activities, is surprisingly hard to do. The place barely even has stores. A Mexican from Veracruz whom I met at a bus station offered me some chocolate Oreo-style cookies once. I examined the label to discover they came from Brazil. I work at tech companies with baskets of free snacks. In Cuba, they live in a world without snacks.

For my first couple days in Cuba, I sorely missed Mexico with its everything picante and ancient indigenous food so delicious that it has buoyed the country to the status of “only non-Anglo nation in the Obesity Top 5”. I will say the Cubans, despite possible lung disease from a years of smoking and choking on Lada exhaust, looked pretty healthy, as they were mostly very physically fit.


Not from Cuba. Carnitas, cochinita pibil tacos and duck in mole negro from Restaurante El Bajio in Polanco, Mexico D.F.

In fact, I lost three or four pounds there. It was not only from my diet of ham and cheese sandwiches; it was also because I had to ration money. American ATM or credit cards do not work there, so I was limited to the $450 I brought for nine days (I had already prepaid all my stays at casas particulares). This turned out to be plenty of money, even enough to buy a $50 bottle of Santiago rum aged 12 Years on my way out. But I was constantly paranoid that I would run out of money and end up in a jam.

As a result, 50 cent ham sandwiches, skipping meals and walking 30-60 blocks at a time to avoid cab fare was my Cuba M.O. This was a big lifestyle change for someone who considers herself a “foodie” and eats $50 meals a couple times per month. Actually, I think it would be a struggle for anyone from the USA, where obesity not starvation is the killer; hence our collective airport salivation. At one point, I drank a national brand Cuban cola instead of water mainly for the calories.

p1140559Menu at a kiosk favored by taxi drivers by the Hotel Nacional. The exchange rate is 24 pesos to a $1. However, these Havana prices would be considered expensive elsewhere.

What an effect just nine days of pauperism will do to you. (And I recommend it to any rich American, so they can learn what it’s like to be poor and check their privilege so hard.) On the plane home, I dreamed mainly of my first meal back in America.

I was with Salad Girl. My diet in Cuba felt lacking in plant fiber and I craved vegetables more than I craved picante or pizza. I ended up hitting three birds with one stone. My first night back in New York, I ate brussel sprouts with anchovy, chili and lemon, heirloom carrots with dill, capers and shallots and a Neapolitan-style pizza topped with rapini, crescenza, fresno chili and lemon. I actually felt sick eating that much flavor after my week when food was fodder.

The next morning I also ate Saturday brunch, having not consumed an egg in ten days. Yet, still craving fiber and actually fearing a large egg-based meal, I ordered a dish of yogurt, granola, quinoa, sweet potato and pomegranate seeds. This didn’t taste “healthy” in a bad way; it tasted delicious. Meanwhile, home fries bummed off my husband’s plate tasted like an explosion of flavor in my mouth.

In my apartment, I still had treats leftover from Christmas: chocolates from New Zealand, Ohio and San Francisco, Chinese black sesame cookies, cheesy potato snacks from Japan. Between that and a trip to Whole Foods and my closet full of winter clothes and the fact that I could play anything I wanted from Spotify on my phone, I kept exclaiming, “This is the land of riches!”

I can totally see why brown bears keep stealing our food instead of hunting, and why Cubans would gamble to cross the 90 miles to Florida in rickety rafts.