Cuba and the Internet: Digital Santería

Danae Tapia
May 7 · 8 min read

While under Western standards Cuba is an unconnected nation, their people has developed a set of unconventional and resourceful practices that had allowed them to access digital technologies under their own terms. Traces of Cuban political and religious history can be found in these practices, and with the imminent popularization of mobile connections, the communist island is at a crucial moment of their digital history.

A central component of the history of Santeria is its syncretic character that merges elements from the Yoruba and the Catholic religions. Colonisers didn’t allowed the Afro-Caribbean slaves to do their rites and only Catholicism was permitted. In this context, the early practitioners of Santeria had a strategy of maintaining Yoruba beliefs while apparently being worshipping Catholic saints. This resulted in a hybrid system in terms of content and aesthetics.

Colonisers assessed this practice superficially and interpreted that their victims were converted into the dominant faith, that the use of African elements was mere decoration, that their job as the superior race was well done.

This perspicacious scheme can be related to the strategy of obfuscation. This is a method recommended by several digital security trainers and it consists of purposely providing untruthful information to the tech giants in order to avoid massive surveillance and mislead the vigilant oppressor. A dimension of the efficacy of this practice has been demonstrated by people who has faked pregnancies online and in a couple of hours they start receiving ads of products related to maternity.

It is possible to think about many practices of Cuban society as major exercises of obfuscation. For example, to a capitalist-centered economic paradigm, Cuba and its influence seems insignificant. The strict US embargo prevents Cuban government to trade freely with the rest of the world and has sentenced the island to poverty. However, a closer look will reveal that Cuba is a country that overflows with excellence, we see this excellence in their musicians, their writers, their medical practitioners, their athletes. This excellence is no secret to many Latin Americans who have benefitted themselves by the cultural and medical support from the professionals of the island.

But the coloniser doesn’t see what’s underneath the facade.

The Cuban Digital Way

The analogy about obfuscation can also be extended to the use of digital technologies in Cuba. Their connectivity and access is very limited compared to neoliberal societies, where people is permanently connected even for the most banal reasons, for example the fridge that sends you a notification when you are out of groceries.

This type of hyper-connected scenario is probably never going to happen in the island, first for material reasons related to the embargo, and second because the Cubans are experiencing the internet in ways that are very different from the case of societies influenced by the United States.

For example, the boom of piracy we enjoyed at the first years of the popularization of the internet is still alive in the island. Cubans have created an autonomous solid culture of sharing and piracy through instances as el paquete semanal, a 1TB hard drive full with movies and TV shows that is delivered weekly to Cuban homes. These files can also be accessed at centers of distribution, where you can request from latest releases as The Favourite by Yorgos Lanthimos to classics of Cuban cinema as Lucia, directed by Humberto Solas.

This type of knowledge distribution scheme at this large scale could never exist in the “connected” West. Extremely conservative copyright regulations have succeeded in many aspects of our social life. We can see this in the strict enforcement of laws that involve charging enormous fines for torrenting films and even incarcerating people who share scientific papers. What is worst, is the successful implantation of a discourse that equates piracy with robbery and the consequently sad offer on entertainment that we are able to get through the legal means: the limited catalog of Netflix packed with series about murders and bakers which can be accessed only through the payment of a monthly subscription.

Another example of the divergent digital practices in Cuba, compared to neoliberal societies, are the different instances in which people access to an internet connection. The legal way for obtaining internet in Cuba is to buy prepaid cards and go to a public WiFi spot, usually a square where Cubans of all ages dedicate their time mostly to talk with their friends and relatives abroad, users stay in the square until very late, a blue hue is in their faces, they are not worried about being robbed because there is practically no crime in Cuba.

However, since these WiFi spots do not cover all the Cuban territory, people can also access the internet at non-official WiFi zones using secret networks and credentials previously set by these local providers. In both cases the setting is practically the same: people of all ages using the public space chatting with their friends and family, many of them doing video chats, not a single policemen around, everyone being super mindful about the time they’re spending online in order to not waste a single second of connection. Usually the young people stays at the WiFi spot after logging out and do offline stuff with their friends and acquaintances.

Cubans have managed to allocate specific hours of their routine to be online, this usually happens at night and the attention to the online content is absolute, on the other hand, in Western societies permanent connectivity is the way to go, most of the time our attention has to be divided in offline and online tasks. Cases of addiction are not uncommon and several people is struggling in programs of data detox.

Finally, it is central the relative official oversight around the illegal pirate connections and the extensive exchange of copyrighted content, those are clandestine operations that involve community trust and the commitment to not disclose information about your provider. These operations would never exist in our societies, not just because of the decreasing levels of community organization proper of neoliberal settings, but mainly because if a big communitarian pirate connection existed, in a second plenty of state resources would be allocated to stop this proceeding, the same would happen if an individual or a group starts to make transactions around copyrighted content. In our societies, the priority is to defend the interests of private corporations.

Hacker hearts

One night, folks from the free software community invited me to a night in the cinema. They told me it was going to be a technology-comedy night. The event started with the posting of anonymous moderated messages in the big screen using a local WiFi connection set by Andy, a computer science student. Some of the messages were really funny, some were homophobic, most of them were about flirting. Then we watched memes and videos that were quite old and innocent: images of optical illusions, “funny” TV commercials and photos in which the joke was a misspelled word. I reflected about how sophisticated is our approach to memes nowadays, I thought of our delicious ecosystem of dank memes and vaporwave and I wondered if Cubans are going to walk the same trajectory towards refined digital stupidity.

This question is answered at the middle of the night. One of the hosts, David Arias a local software developer, takes the stage and gives a presentation about virtual reality. With excellent storytelling skills, he tells us about how in 2012 he created a head-mounted VR set very similar to an Oculus Rift. To build the prototype, he used very basic materials as a pingpong ball, a motorcycle helmet and a borrowed PSP.

Let’s remember that because of the US global embargo the access to technology in the island is really limited. This criminal situation that prevents the importing of goods, has forced the Cubans to be extremely resourceful and creative with the materials they have. Famous Cuban artifacts representative of these circumstances are for example the TV-antennas made with metallic trays or the rikimbilis: bicycles turned into two-wheeled motorized vehicles.

It would be very Western-centered to speculate that the Cubans are going to make the same trajectory than ours, such an assumption would imply that technological advances of their own are not being made in the island, that they are behind. But in that cinema there was this young man who was designing a type of technology that was years in advance than similar developments in neoliberal societies.

David Arias’ research on virtual reality, secured him academic positions and several awards.

Free software against the world

Erik, from Firefoxmania, a Cuban community of users and developers of Mozilla services, tells me that the vast majority of Cubans use free software, that the most popular browser is Firefox and that there is a clear predominance of Linux as the most popular operating system.

Last December, mobile data started to be offered in the island. I got quite scared forecasting an unequal battle between corporate tech monsters and the Cuban hacker-spirited practices. I asked Erik what was going to happen with free software in Cuba if the access to mobile data comes with the dirty tricks of digital services made in Silicon Valley, what is going to happen if these services, in order to catch users, install the culture of fake news, digital sweatshops and celebration of consumption. He just replied “why would people turn to proprietary software since free software is objectively much better?”.

Can a nationwide operation of piracy be finished by Netflix? Why would they sign for multinational ISPs if more affordable community networks are being built? Why this nation of creators would enter the digital economy as exploited workers of the digital precariat? Will sixty years of the Revolución be in vain?

Obfuscation should play a role in Communist digital futures, strategies of farce that the white oppressors are going to buy. It has to do more with the hard silent work of communities and not with the insatiable need for individual attention promoted in neoliberalism. This is a lesson from the current digital practices in Cuban society and from the origins of Santería.

I’m glad that Cuba doesn’t have any natural resource that the international colonisers want to extract, this way they can have a certain amount of space to think thoroughly about their digital futures in this critical moment in which mobile connectivity is around the corner. I left the island full of confidence in their people and in their capacities to design their destinies. They have excellent free health and excellent free education. Excellent free digital culture is on the way.

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Danae Tapia

Written by

Chilean writer based in Rotterdam. Mozilla fellow. My interests are posthumanism, sorcery and technology.

Read, Write, Participate

What Mozilla is thinking, building and doing about internet health.