Information Science Fair 2011 on the Island of the Disconnected

Currently on display at Pabexpo, the exhibition center located in the wealthiest part of the city, are computer-related products created within and outside our country. Guests from all over are brought together there, including a large group of foreigners whom I imagine are more interested in taking a trip on our Paleolithic technology than doing business with local firms. The Kaspersky Group, for example, is showing a version of its well-known anti-virus program, developed in conjunction with the national company Segurmática. Everything has been made to look like an exhibition of this type anywhere in the world, were it not for one detail: This is the Island of the Disconnected.

Already well into the year 2011, inhabitants of the “Cuban archipelago” cannot buy a bus, train or airline ticket on the web, we don’t know the sensation of managing our bank accounts online, and purchasing a product through the computer screen is something we have seen only in foreign films. Still, today, my compatriots have never handled bureaucratic paperwork via email, not even the simplest of requests for one’s own birth certificate. Don’t even talk about reserving some vacation on the flashy webpages of the travel agencies Cubatur or Islazul. Among my hundreds of friends, none have managed–from here–to recharge their own mobile phones on those portals that offer the service, without having to stand in the long lines at the ETECSA office. We are a people who have no opportunity to pay our bills through cyberspace and who live as software pirates faced with the impossibility of purchasing licensed versions.

Here we live at a stage that is more characteristic of the first half of the twentieth century than it is of the twenty-first. Thus, the Information Science Fair appears as a glimpse into the future, a shop window that displays to others what we haven’t even tasted. After the visitors return home, they will praise the skill sets of the Cuban computer scientists and remember the tasty Mojito they were given at the farewell party. Meanwhile, we remain in the twilight of the disconnected, turning on autistic computers unable to connect to others. We dream–it’s true–of one day filling out a form on the Internet where a phrase will confirm for us: “Thank you for your purchase, your ticket to Guantanamo has been reserved. Have a nice trip!”

Arches of Defeat

Chunks of concrete, fragments of roads leading nowhere, bridges that don’t link to any shore. Monuments to urban paralysis located along the national highway, unfinished structures that dream of feeling the weight of trucks and motorcycles. People crowd under these unfinished overpasses waiting for transport to take them to some other side, taking advantage of the shade from these arches of defeat, these enormous structures that serve only as umbrellas, the most expensive in the world. With railings that have never felt the warmth of a hand, the unfinished bridges in my country make a face and stick out their tongues, reminding us of the atrophy of our urban development, our ramshackle roads.

Whenever I pass under their deteriorated masses I wonder: What good are these truncated roads without cars? What is the reason for being of these incomplete giants that go nowhere? Were they built when the plan was to fill this Island with highways, like a living backbone branching out in all directions? Several decades later, they are still disconnected from the traffic network, accessible only from above, ironic hosts to vultures and lizards warming themselves on their columns. Monoliths to the immobility of people who, instead of new highways, arterials, roundabouts and avenues, have seen their truncated bridges deteriorate and begin to crack without ever having felt the rolling of a tire.

The Blackout Ends

Seated in the armchair of a hotel with my laptop open, I note the slow blinking of the WiFi transmitter and watch the stern faces of the custodians. This could be one more day trying to enter my own blog with an anonymous proxy, jumping over the censorship with a few tricks that let me look at the forbidden. On the bottom of the screen a banner announces that I’m navigating at 41 kilobytes a second. Joking with a friend I warn her we’d better hold onto our hair so it won’t get messed up from “speeding.” But the narrow band doesn’t matter much this February afternoon. I’m here to cheer myself up, not to get depressed all over again by the damned situation of an Internet undermined by filters. I have come to see if the long night of censorship no longer hangs over Generation Y. With just a click I manage to enter the site that, since March of 2008, has not been visible from a public place. I’m so surprised I shout and the camera watching from the ceiling records the fillings in my teeth as I laugh uncontrollably.

After three years, my virtual space is again sighted from inside Cuba.

I don’t know the reasons for the end to this blockade, although I can speculate that the celebration of the 2011 Havana International Computer Science Fair has brought many foreign guests and it is better to show them an image of tolerance, of supposed openings in the realm of citizen expression. It is also possible that after having proved that blocking a website only makes it more attractive to internauts, the cyberpolice have chosen to exhibit the forbidden fruit they so demonized in recent months. If it’s because of a technical glitch that will soon be corrected, once again throwing shadows over my virtual diary, then there will be plenty of time to loudly denounce it. But for the moment, I make plans for the platforms and to enjoy a long stay with us.

This is a citizen victory over the demons of control. We have taken back what belongs to us. These virtual places are ours, and they will have to learn to live with what they can no longer deny.

The Rebirth of Flavors

Timid colored awnings spring from nowhere, under newly opened umbrellas fruit smoothies and pork rinds are sold, the doorways of some homes are turned into improvised snack bars with striking menus. All this and more grows in the streets of my city these days because of the new flexibility for self-employment. Some of my neighbors are making plans to open a shoe repair, or a place to repair fridges, while avenues and plazas are being transformed by the efforts of private initiative. The straitjacket that gripped individual initiative seems to loosen. Some remain cautious, however, waiting to see if this time the economic reforms will really take hold and not be shut down as happened in the nineties.

In just the few months since the announcement of the expansion in the number of licenses for independent work, the results are encouraging. We have begun to recover lost flavors, longed-for recipes, hidden comforts. More than 70,000 Cubans have taken out new licenses to work for themselves and at their own risk, and thousands more are seriously considering the advantages of opening a small family business. Despite the caution of many, the still excessive taxes, and the absence of wholesale markets, the brand new businesses have started to be noticed in a society marked by stagnation. You see them building their little stands, hanging colorful signs announcing their merchandise, rearranging their homes to accommodate a snack bar or to offer haircuts or manicures. Most are convinced that this time they are here to stay, because the system that so suffocated and demonized them in the past, has lost the ability to compete with them.

Jumping the Barriers

La ciber policia en Cuba from Coral Negro on Vimeo.

Are you one of those who fabricates the lies? Or one of those who believes them? I would like to ask this question of the speaker who deploys a complicated conspiracy theory in this video. If it’s someone who is just sending a message, then the answer is simple: the falsehood is concocted higher up and he is just the messenger. But I fear that part of what he is expounding in front of those grim soldiers — with a constellation of stars on their uniforms — is  his own production, cooked up by himself. His lengthy presentation, punctuated with words such as “enemy,” “operative,” and “the evils,” shows me what can happen when one talks about the most modern of technologies using old-fashioned language. He doesn’t seem to understand the affinities and ties that link sites like Facebook and Twitter, but applies a prism of his own making to them, rather than recognize that individuals make their own decisions to join them and — horrors! — jump the ideological barriers. Although he might be a brilliant computer scientist, this young man failed social sciences.

On this fictitious base they design strategies that will barely hurt the Cuban blogosphere. Meanwhile, believing that the impulse does not come from us, but from others who manage us like puppets, they will develop tactics that will make a lot of noise but generate few results. To recognize that the New Man — their New Man — is tired of being a soldier, repeating slogans, applauding at political rallies, and now wants to have his own space for expression, would be like confessing that they have failed. All the walls and boundaries they impose on us in the physical Cuba, we have jumped over into that infinite space that so robs them of their sleep. If they can no longer control us, let them at least console themselves by dismissing us.

*Thanks to the commentator in my blog who sent me the link to this video, the distribution of which is proof positive that our government has lost the monopoly on information, including its classified materials. Viva Cubaleaks!

Translator’s note: Given the length of this video I don’t think we will be able to prepare a translation. The gist of it is a detailed explanation of how Yoani and other dissident bloggers are classified by the government as counterrevolutionary enemies controlled from the U.S. and Spain. There is a proud enumeration of the “Revolutionary” blogs and the accuracy of their attacks on Yoani et al. The principle criticism aimed at the alternative bloggers is that they are trying to break the “ideological barriers” (put in place by the Castro regime). The term “human rights” is repeated as if it is an obscenity. At one point the slide on the screen shows us Fidel’s “blog” and how many “hits” he has (more than half a million!).

Download a PDF of an English transcript of the video here.

Bitter Coffee

To have a sip of coffee in the morning is the national equivalent of breakfast. We can lack everything, bread, butter and even the ever unobtainable milk, but to not have this hot, stimulating crop to wake up to is the preamble to a bad day, the reason for leaving the house bad-tempered and fit to burst. My grandparents, my parents, all the adults I saw as a child, drank cup after cup of that dark liquid, while they talked. Whenever anyone came to the house, the coffee was put on the stove because the ritual of offering someone a cup was as important as giving them a hug or inviting them in.

A few weeks ago Raul Castro announced that they were going to begin mixing other ingredients in the ration market coffee. It was nice to hear a president speak of these culinary matters, but mostly it was the source a popular joke, that he would say something officially that has been common practice – for years – in the roasting plants of the entire Island. Not only citizens have been adulterating our most important national drink for decades, the State has also applied its ingenuity without declaring it on the label. Nor will they use the adjective “Cuban” in the distribution of this stimulating beverage, as it’s no secret to anyone that this country imports large quantities from Brazil and Columbia. Instead of the 60 thousand tons of coffee once produced here, today we only manage to pick about six thousand tons.

In recent weeks “the black nectar of the white gods” — as it once was called – has become scarce. Housewives have had to revive the practice of roasting peas to ensure the bitter sip we need just to open our eyes. Whether it can be called coffee, we don’t know, but at least it is something hot and bitter to drink in the morning.


He cleared his throat before explaining why they were meeting, in the sober drama that is rarely seen anymore. In his hands he held, like a script, the blue booklet with the guidelines for the Sixth Communist Party Congress, and behind the table those present included municipal and provincial officials. Before yielding the floor, he stressed that they should stick to what was written on these pages and only discuss economics. He stressed this last word to emphasize it, to ensure that they didn’t claim their right to “free association” or demand that they be allowed “to freely enter and leave the country.” E-CO-NO-MICS, he stressed again, widening his eyes and raising his eyebrows to emphasize it again, while staring directly at the most troublesome employees.

With such an introduction, the meeting became a tedious process, one more task added to the workday. Mechanically, dozens of arms went up when they were asked if they agreed with each point. Awkward silence followed the phrases, “Who is against it?” and a certain fatigue could be noted after each, “And who abstains?” Only one young man questioned the current prohibition against buying cars or houses, but a militant immediately took the floor to read a long eulogy to the figure of the Maximum Leader. And so it was every time someone pointed out a problem, others jumped in to emphasize the country’s achievements. The apologists were stationed equidistant around the auditorium and reacted as if they’d studied a script and rehearsed the choreography. The feeling of being at a staged assembly competed in intensity with the desire to leave — as soon as possible — to go home.

The next day the workplace had returned to its routine. A mechanic who had been sitting very close to the president no longer remembered a single one of the guidelines. The girl from the warehouse summed up the discussion of the previous afternoon for her friends with a simple, “Ah… more of the same.” And the manager’s chauffeur skeptically shrugged his shoulders when a colleague asked what had happened. Many experienced that day as sample of what will happen in the Conference Center next April, a sneak preview of the Cuban Communist Party Congress. In just a few months they will see the same staging unfold on their TV screens, but this time it was they themselves who were the actors, raising their hands in unanimity before the stern gaze of the director.