For that mess of cables and circuits to come to life and become my first computer, all I was lacking was the small pump that blows air over the red hot microprocessor. But how to find that in the Havana of 1994, completely submerged in the miseries of the Special Period.* Without that whirring mechanism of blades, the Frankenstein I’d spent half a year assembling would get too hot and suddenly switch off. During those days I thought constantly of Steve Jobs in the garage of his adoptive parents where he created Apple Computer. His inspired genius led me to understand that innovation is more enjoyable than the tacit consumption of something invented by others. A few days later, a combination of a household fan and aluminum heat-sinks allowed me to write in WordPerfect 5.1 and create a university newsletter called Letter by Letter. Hundreds of miles from my improvised workshop, the NeXT hardware division had just closed down and it was still a few months before the Pixar film Toy Story would be released.
Since that time, the evocation of Jobs has accompanied me on all the risky computer adventures to which curiosity and need have propelled me. All around me were many people like the restless Steve, ingenious teenagers who, lacking space — even a garage — and the legal possibility of founding a company, took the road of emigration and ended up taking their talent and their ideas far from here. Despite this massive stampede, here, among various friends, we continued to feed the cult of the guru in black shirt and faded jeans, longing to be a bit like him: bright, clever, understood. When the mediocrity of technological censorship touched us, we projected ourselves onto that adopted boy who became a frame of reference for the world, with his genius impulses and white earbud headphones. He probably didn’t know that we Cubans would have to wait more than a decade to be able to legally buy a computer in a store.
Yesterday, the student who never graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, died at age 56. He left us a bitten apple painted on a host of technological gadgets, and wondering how many more he could have created if pancreatic cancer hadn’t taken him so early. To those of us who never exchanged a word with him, nor withstood the harangues of this CEO, we are left with the myth, the sweet legend of his genius. It comforts me to think that my laughable Frankenstein — built 18 years ago — would have overheated even more without the fresh and inspiring air that Steve Jobs radiated over us all.
The Special Period: In a January 1990 speech, two months before the fall of the Berlin wall, Fidel Castro warned of coming hardships and first used the phrase “a special period in a time of peace.” When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, its 30 years of subsidies to Cuba came to an abrupt end. Oil imports dropped 90%, industry was paralyzed, agriculture shifted from machines to manual labor, food rations sank precipitously and hunger became widespread, followed inevitably by the diseases of malnutrition.