Strife Feature – The Internet as a Tool for Self-Actualization: The Cuban Experience

By Jack Revell

“Over the last five years, the government has undeniably and irreversibly lost control of the dissemination of information. Hidden in water tanks and behind sheets hanging on clotheslines, illegal satellite dishes bring people the news that is banned or censored in the national media – Yoani Sanchez

Havana at sunset. The scaffolding on the Capitolio Nacional, centre, has been in place since 2012. It was removed during Obama’s visit but promptly replaced soon after. Photo by Rod Lewis

Baracoa is a small city on the far side of Cuba. Closer to Jamaica than Havana, and cut off by treacherous mountain roads, Baracoa has a distinctly Caribbean feel unlike anywhere else on the island. Despite its remoteness, Baracoa has perhaps the island’s only vegan restaurant. The owner is an eccentric former photojournalist for the Granma, Cuba’s national paper. Due to the nature of his work, he is part of the small minority of Cubans allowed to travel abroad. What he returned with, besides his pictures, was an awareness of Western culture that few Cubans understood. His home-cooked vegan cuisine served in coconut shells has made him somewhat of an outsider. The food was a welcome relief from the plates of rice and beans I survived on during my month-long stay and the owner knew it. He implored us to explain to his 17-year-old son that diversity is valued by Westerners, something to be capitalised upon. He recognised that one day when Baracoa’s beaches are filled with tourists, his restaurant would be a draw for yumas like us.

Vegan food in Baracoa. Passion fruits were picked from the tree above us and served as juice minutes later. Photo by Jessica Lundholm.

There is clear interest in academic and political circles, not to mention the business and tourism sectors, in assessing what changes Cuba will undertake in the coming years. I traveled to Cuba in May 2016 after President Obama’s historic visit but prior to the death of el comandante en jefe – Fidel Castro. In this article, I seek to highlight some of the more hidden routes toward economic and political stability that are evidently emerging on the ground. What is apparent is that the steady rise in internet usage is enabling enterprising Cubans to construct their own political and social identities, outside and beyond the authoritarian state. Not only this, but the internet has enabled those in the private sector to expand and promote their businesses in ways unthinkable just a few years ago.

Woman crossing road near The Malecón, Havana. Photo by Jack Revell.

Cuba currently stands in a very delicate position. Official economic growth forecasts for 2014 were 1.4%, the lowest growth rate since 2009.  This is a significant indication that the 2011 economic reforms pursued by Raúl Castro – who succeeded Fidel in 2006 – are yet to have any effect. Raúl himself considered a growth rate of at least 5% necessary to re-establish economic stability. In addition, the country is still coming to terms with the death of Fidel, and with politics and economics intertwined here more than most, the argument that Él must be de-mythologized before Cuba can progress is a strong one. Raul will hand power to his Vice President, Miguel Diaz-Canel, 56, in one year’s time, bringing almost six decades of Castro rule to an end. It is hoped that Diaz-Canel will push forward with social and economic liberalization, in an effort to bridge the widening gap between youth politics and the party, but nothing can be said for certain.

Internationally all eyes are on the erratic Trump administration. It is unclear whether the new President will continue with the Obama doctrine or revert to Cold War-era travel bans. With characteristic inconsistency, Trump has both supported and rejected opening up to Cuba. Rafael Hernandez, director of the socio-political journal Temas, has said that Trump’s business instincts will likely dominate negotiations and that ‘lifting the blockade is nothing more than responding to the interests of business’. While it might make sense economically, it is unlikely the Republican Senate will allow it. Mayer Brown, the international legal firm, has advised U.S. companies planning to engage in Cuba to ‘proceed with extreme caution’. Again, only time will tell what the future holds.

Cuban industry in Havana. Photo by Rod Lewis.

In the recent Third World Quarterly focus on Cuba, Vegard Bye outlines a number of possible scenarios for Cuban development. Following Linz and Stepan’s framework for liberal democratic transition, Bye suggests Cuba could end up resembling the neo-patrimonial states of Vietnam and Russia, with authoritarian capitalism as its guiding principle. Equally, it could become a ‘mini-Florida’ if the present state is dismantled or withers away under the pressures of free-market neoliberalism. Bye himself leans more toward a social-democratic model practised by other Latin American countries as the most likely transition. These varied possibilities depend on whether or not the Cuban state acts on its ‘window of opportunity’ opened by the Obama administration – something which could be rapidly closing.

Cuban pay phones at Calle 19 in Havana. Photo by Jack Revell.

Within the Cuban political landscape exists a growing tension between the private sector and the party’s old revolutionary vanguards. Obama aggravated them when he made overtures to small businesses owners by increasing the limits on American investment in Cuba. Conservatives within the Communist party responded with a backlash of hostility. Fidel himself scolded comrades by stating we do not need the empire to give us anything’. Private businesses in Cuba are not technically legal and operate in a grey area of regulation and restriction. Yailenis Mulet Concepción’s survey of self-employment in Cuba concludes that the main obstacles to the formalisation of private enterprises in Cuba are the concepts and culture still ruling in the establishment and political system. Nevertheless, the non-state sector is on the rise and currently accounts for an unprecedented 28% of the workforce. In the wake of Obama’s visit, Raul abruptly changed his tune from one of welcoming to suspicion. In his address to the 7th Party Congress, held just weeks after Obama’s visit, he stated:

‘We are not naïve, and we do not ignore the aspirations of powerful external forces who are betting on what they call the ‘empowerment’ of non-state forms of management, with the purpose of generating agents of change, hoping to do away with the Revolution and the socialism in Cuba by other means’

The establishment fears that once the non-state sector gains a foothold and the wheels of structural effect start turning, rampant free-marketeering will eventually dismantle the socialist state. The future they are keen to avoid might look something like Bye’s ‘mini-Miami’ model of Cuban development. Against the wishes of the Communist party, Bye argues that a more robust non-state sector is a ‘sine qua non for the economy to survive’. Unless it boosts small businesses, Cuba will find itself in a weaker position when it comes to negotiating the trade embargo with the U.S. This, may in turn, facilitate the very outcome that the establishment is trying to avoid.

International Workers Day parade in the Plaza de la Revolución, Havana. In Cuba, the first of May is a celebration of unions and workers’ rights. Photo by Jessica Lundholm.

In order to work through this paradox, what has not been thoroughly considered is the role the internet is now playing in helping small businesses to grow and develop. Parallels between the internet and the non-state sector are strong in that both are treated with suspicion by the state and operate in a legally dubious area. The internet was only introduced to Cuba in 1996 and has been heavily restricted since then. Currently, Cuba ranks 129th in the world in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Development Index, just behind Lesotho. Most Cubans now access the internet via smartphones – legalized in 2008 – as only the wealthiest can afford a computer. Getting online in Cuba is an experience in itself. The routine entails finding a crowd of Cubans hunched over their phones, generally outside a Western hotel, and waiting there until a dubious-looking gentleman sidles up to you and enquires if you want the internet like he’s offering you drugs. A three-dollar piece of paper with a code on it will grant you internet usage for an hour but the cost is prohibitive for the majority of Cubans whose earnings averaged $25 a month in 2015.

Getting online in Cuba. Photo by Rod Lewis.

In spite of these difficulties, internet usage has doubled from 15.9% in 2010 to 30% in 2015. The tourism sector is one area that clearly benefits from greater internet freedoms. Traditionally, tourists visiting Cuba stay in government licensed casa particulares, private homes acting as Bed and Breakfasts (B&B). Generally, this meant arriving in a city and asking around for someone with a room; however, these casas are now able to advertise their services on global sites like AirBnB and TripAdvisor. There are even casas with their own Instagram pages for attracting guests. Outside of tourism, Cubans buy and sell goods on the state-regulated site Revolico, an incredibly important market mechanism for those able to utilize it. In recent years, gray area sites like PorlaLivre have also sprung up in competition with Revolico. PorlaLivre developed out of the necessity to strengthening the small business market by empowering the self-employed through technology. It angles itself as a legitimate buy-and-sell site ‘for all Cubans’, including state organizations and employees, in opposition to the booming online black market. Much like in the west, tech-savvy Cubans exploit dark-web networks facilitate trade in prohibited items and prostitution. This is well known on the island and used to legitimize government restrictions on internet access. Through the creation and use of sites like PorlaLivre, Cubans are slowly changing both this perception and the mechanisms of trade itself.

Casa Flora, a casa particular in the upmarket Vedado neighbourhood, Havana. Photo by Jessica Lundholm.

It is not only within the non-state sector that the internet has enriched the lives of Cubans. Yoani Sanchez, a prolific Cuban blogger, knows more about the power of the internet for political change than most. Her popular blog, 14yMedio, hosts critical appraisals of Cuban life on a server in Mexico. Before 2008 Yoani had to disguise herself as a German tourist to be allowed into hotels where Wi-Fi was available for foreigners only. Once abducted and beaten for her critical views, Yoani now enjoys relative freedom from state persecution. Bert Hoffman calls this a ‘startling change’ considering 2003 saw the imprisonment of 75 independent journalists for their dissident views. Yoani argues that it is precisely the ‘emergence of bloggers who are critical of the system’ and ‘the maturation of independent journalism’ that has ‘eroded the state’s monopoly on power’.

Yoemnis, a Cuban artist, using his computer. The computer has no internet but is filled with pirated Western films and TV shows. Photo by Rod Lewis.

However, new technology is not a panacea for the ills of the island. Hernandez rejects this construction by arguing that to suggest so is to deny the ingenuity and skill of the Cuban people, portraying them as some sleeping beauty who will awaken to the benefits of neoliberalism once kissed by the internet’s Western charms. He argues that it is only deep reforms across the political system, the media, the communist party, and civil society groups that will enliven the Cuban economy. The internet, therefore, should not be seen as opening a window of opportunity for Western involvement in Cuba. It is merely a means for the Cuban people to engage with the rest of the world on their own terms. This means acknowledging the privileged position Cuba’s isolation has given it in world politics as it is able to reflect upon the actions of other nations and decide for itself the best path to take.

The Capitol building as seen from the streets of Cuba. Photo by Jack Revell

Fidel was right in his response to Obama’s visit. The country does not need gifts from the empire, whose embargo has profoundly stunted Cuba’s ability to construct its own economic position. The power of Cuba lies in its highly educated, highly motivated population, and their capacity to adapt to changing global relations. Facilitated by growing technological interconnectedness, subversive ideas, black-market, and pink-market economies are being emboldened. This non-state sector will no doubt find new strength and new avenues of development online and, in doing so, may force the government’s hand in enacting change. What remains to be seen is whether the new U.S. administration will recognise this potential. With Diaz-Canel’s ascendancy only a year away, the road to reform is close to its end. While the future remains uncertain, the survivalist instincts of the Cuban people, empowered by new technology, may help steer the island toward a stronger economic future.

Jack Revell is a current International Relations MA student in the War Studies Department at King’s College London. His background is in English Literature and he focuses on sustainable development, international ethics, international poverty, and democracy. 


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