The Wireless Network that Puts the Cuban Government in Check

SNet has turned its users into the best organized and connected group in Cuba outside the ruling party. (Karla Gómez)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 14 August 2019 — Its users cannot talk about politics or religion, but even so, the Street Network (SNet), which connects tens of thousands of Cubans through the Wi-Fi signal, has become a place of citizen freedom and convergence. This virtual web, where people play, chat and exchange content, is now in the eye of the official censors after new legislation that regulates the use of radio spectrum space on the Island took effect on 29 July.

Creativity has been an escape valve in Cuba for decades of material deficiencies and excessive control. As recipes are invented in kitchens to make the few ingredients sold in the markets less boring, many young people use offline tools that replace part of the experiences they might have on the web to alleviate internet connectivity problems.

SNet was born more than a decade ago, precisely, as a space for videogames, forums, social media substitutes and the transfer of files among those who did not have the ability to frequently access the world wide web. With devices bought mostly on the black market and others manufactured by the users themselves, customers began to connect, the first nodes emerged and even administrators appeared to manage a phenomenon that intertwined Havana with invisible threads.

During all this time they existed in a legal vacuum, somewhat tolerated by an officialdom that preferred to have those thousands of young people more focused on learning the latest videogames than on exercising some civic posture. But even so, SNet never pleased the Plaza of the Revolution, especially because it allowed people to connect and create communities beyond ideology and politics. For a government obsessed with knowing every detail in the lives of its citizens, that was a danger.

In their favor they have the largest reasonably organized in. Against them, a system that deeply fears its citizens will unite without being given the order to do so.

 The new legislation for wireless networks gives SNet legality but has put it on the verge of death. The regulations include rigid technical requirements that, if met, would reduce the range, speed and number of users that can connect. It is a regulation that seeks to cut the influence of this network underpinned by NanoStations and Mikrotiks, some of the devices that compose it. The official decision is a way to kill it without prohibiting it, to diminish its importance by limiting its technology.

The users’ response was not long in coming. Last Saturday dozens of people gathered in front of the Ministry of Communications to demand a special license that allows SNet to continue operating. Several of the protesters proposed that the authorities use the network infrastructure to enhance the computerization of Cuban society and that the state telecommunications monopoly, Etecsa, make agreements with administrators that allow access to the Internet through its nodes and antennas

The official response has not been positive and SNet users are preparing for new actions. In their favor they have the largest reasonably organized and connected community that exists in Cuba beyond the official mass organizations. Against them, a system that deeply fears its citizens will unite without being given the order to do so.


This text was originally published in the Deutsche Welle for Latin America.


August, the Cruelest Month

After long weeks under the intense heat of summer, the August days generate widespread irritation. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 11 August 2019 — The poet T.S. Eliot was wrong… or at least his most famous verse does not work in the case of Cuba. “April is the cruelest month,” he wrote almost a hundred years ago, but on this Island that adjective belongs to August, the most difficult time of the year. After long weeks under the intense heat of summer, the days of August generate widespread irritation, a tendency to scream and rage.

To that we must add that the tortuous official bureaucracy becomes even more difficult to circumvent because many state entities work at half strength, many employees in that sector are on vacation and the phones of the institutions can ring for hours without anyone answering. In this eighth month of the year, suffocation and lethargy, despair and anger, are sharpened. Phrases like “better leave it for September” or “you won’t be able to do anything until August passes” are repeated everywhere.

Lovers repel each other with their sweat, buses are rolling saunas and the few air-conditioned offices become a fiefdom that employees defend tooth and nail from “non-authorized persons,” that is, citizens, who try enter to access services and incidentally enjoy temperatures under 77F. Everyone who has a fan in a public place feels themselves lord and owner of the situation, turning it to cool just their face, their desk, their small plot of power.

Oh, T.S. Eliot, how wrong you were with April, how good it seems that you never spent an August in Havana…

Ricky Left to the Rhythm of Reggaeton

Protesters celebrate the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló. (14ymedio / Juan Jaramillo)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 27 July 2019 — “He had to go and he left.” With these words the taxi driver welcomes me. No name or details are necessary, because in the streets of Puerto Rico everyone knows who he’s talking about. While driving through San Juan, the driver tells me how “people tossed out” Governor Ricardo Rosselló after days of protests, in which outrage and reggaeton shook hands.

At a traffic light, the driver, in his 50s, hits the steering wheel with gnarled hands as if it were Ricky’s face. “He didn’t want to leave, but he had to step down,” he insists. Along with his two children, the driver spent every night of last week around La Fortaleza, the official residence of the Puerto Rican governor. “I carried a flag, but in black and white, without colors, because here we are still in mourning,” he says.

While he tells me the details of the nights of protest, we pass through several blocks where balcony after balcony and door after door display the flag with the blue triangle and red stripes one after another. A banner so similar to the Cuban flag that in my fantasies of the recently arrived, I imagine being in Havana the day after a change of government.

This confusion of realities haunts me as the car heads towards old San Juan. So when the driver says “people joined together and it didn’t matter if you were an artist or a mechanic, rich or poor, everyone was together,” I fantasize about some workers who drop their picks and shovels on the railroad line to shout in chorus with novelists and troubadours in front of Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.

The image lasts in my head for a second before I return to Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria is an open wound that crosses the Island. “My brother lost everything and had to move from the town where he lived, spent a year and a half without electricity,” says the taxi driver. Interposing some words in English: babyexpensivedealerfood… a linguistic mix that I hear everywhere in this free state associated with the United States.

Evening falls, headlines around the world point to this place where in the plazas twerking people celebrate the first day without Ricky, the beginning of a new stage, filled with questions. In one of those places, where popular joy, alcohol and hip movements mix, is Alder, a musician who plays the piano and the clarinet. He also dances, but with some care.

“I had sciatica problems last year and I don’t want to be in a wheelchair again but I couldn’t miss this,” he tells me as he glugs down a bottle of a craft beer made by friends. “These are not gone, they remained after the crisis and the hurricane, they are still here,” he says, pointing to the label “one hundred percent Puerto Rican.” Every time he tries to twerk he puts a hand on his waist, “to not do it too hard,” he says.

Beside him, a family has come with two darling and barking mutts, collected from the shelters where they left them when they fled from the hurricane to their families in the United States, who took them in that fateful September 2017. The winds and rains took then more than 4,600 lives, according to a study by Harvard University.

“It was hard because we had to go back to our origins, learn to do things that we hadn’t done for years,” says Nata, a Puerto Rican who has come out to celebrate with her two rescued pets. “There were people here who didn’t know how to live without air conditioning, without their cell phones or without electricity and ‘Maria’ forced us to learn from scratch,” she recalls.

“After that, the telephones did not work so people were in the street. In the villages they had to improvise common pots to feed themselves and the citizenry had to organize themselves to deal with the disaster,” she says. “This all started with ‘Maria’. Without what happened to us two years ago people would not have ended up mobilizing as they have done now, they would not have ended up uniting.”

The tipping point was the recent leak of a chat of almost 900 pages in which Rosselló shared with his close collaborators, his “brothers”, as he called them, hundreds, thousands, of opinions, comments and public policy issues. Sexual jokes and misogynistic jokes also dot the extensive exchange in the Telegram app that ended up sinking his Government.

But the rejection was incubated long before. “This is a rich boy, he doesn’t know what’s going on down here,” says a very thin man on the outskirts of a club that has been closed for more than a year. “He is the son of former Governor Pedro Rosselló González, so he has always had a good life without difficulties,” he explains and heads to a place where, on a rickety sofa, several drug addicts have a peaceful space to inject.

The musicians have been protagonists of the social movement that brought down Rosselló. The voices of Bad Bunny, Residente and Ricky Martin act as a soundtrack to social dissatisfaction and, at the bus stops, young people with wireless speakers blast their rhymes. You can go from one side of the city to the other completing the songs with the snippets that emerge from cars, windows and the voices of Puerto Ricans themselves.

Several phrases call for independence, for taking advantage of the situation to “go beyond and end the colony,” as a young man demands outside a small house near La Puerta de Alto del Cabro bar, a traditional site that has managed to survive despite the onslaught of the big chains. But it is the rejection of Rosselló, the villain of the day, which everyone seems to share.

Alder waited all Wednesday afternoon for Ricky to leave. In the musical studio where he recorded some songs, they stuffed themselves with popcorn, drinks and patience to celebrate the governor’s departure. After seven o’clock in the evening their supplies had run out and “the bastard still did not resign,” he recalls. It was like watching the end of a movie that goes on and on without the credits appearing.

An hour later, they decided to go to the outskirts of La Fortaleza. “It may take time but tonight he’s going, no matter what,” said Adler. In the early morning, he ended up on the bench of a drunk and happy park as if he had been part of the “liberating command” that removed the governor from his post. There was no one on the street who did not feel part of that group as well. They did not need balaclavas or machine guns, they did it with shouts.

Exhaustion and so many impressions mix up everything in my head. I grew up hearing about the two wings, that it is only together that the islands can take flight. Dawn arrives, and on the other “half of the bird” just a few hours remain before Cuba’s official 26th of July event.

Here, Puerto Ricans exercise their civic force against power, and there, Cubans attend the liturgy of immobility, the worn out ceremony of “continuity,” the motto most repeated by Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel to prolong what has already lasted too long. Here they talk and unite, there we shut up and fear. On the same morning, San Juan is a party and Havana a tomb.

Harry drives an Uber for ten hours a day, his real estate business was ruined by the hurricane. Every person I meet has a before and after ‘Maria’. Just mentioning that name makes people emotional, exploding in an avalanche of anecdotes. “I should have left, because a brother of mine who lives in New York was going to help me get settled there, but I didn’t want to leave my parents alone,” he says.

One day after the governor’s resignation the graffiti on the streets continue to recall the long days of demands. (14ymedio)

Skeptical about Roselló’s departure, Harry is one of the few who has not gone to demonstrate or celebrate after the governor’s resignation. “It doesn’t matter, a corrupt one leaves and another arrives,” he says. “Whoever comes will also steal,” he says categorically as we head for Ocean Park in Santurce. A black cloth whips loudly back and forth on a flagpole. “Ricky resign,” it says in huge white letters.

The vehicle turns the corner, passes a Walgreens pharmacy, a McDonald’s and a KFC. Throughout the neighborhood, local businesses try to maintain themselves in the presence of large firms that “sell cheaper and cheaper,” Harry tells me. “Young people prefer to eat a hamburger over a fricasé,” he laments.

Harry has been very worried since Wednesday, when Rosselló announced that he was leaving. “I live from tourism and the people who come here to do business. If they see us as an unstable or unsafe country, they won’t come,” he calculates. He proposes a trip to and from the beach for a good price, but then immediately realizes that I come from an Island; “ah … true you also have enough sun over there,” he says.

I arrive at Río Piedras, where time seems to have stopped. The once populous boulevard is now a street with few businesses and abandoned buildings. A store displays its Made in China merchandise on the sidewalk. Walking, I come across a cart that sells honey, lemon and ginger. I need them because my throat is sore from the Havana rain and the Puerto Rican revelry. I take advantage of the shade and approach the merchant.

“This was full of life before,” he says. Several cats come out of the abandoned house behind me. One, black as night, rubs against my legs to get me to give him something to eat. I cross the street and buy a corn fritter from a woman who has her little post at the entrance to a cafeteria. A recorded voice constantly repeats the list of sales “today only.”

In Río Piedras, near the University of Puerto Rico, people got tired of waiting. A coffee seller evokes the 1996 gas explosion in the Humberto Vidal store that left 33 dead and an indelible mark in the memory of the community. “Afterwards everything went from bad to worse,” he tells me and gives me a cup with a strong and bitter liquid that makes my eyes cross. “We didn’t have to fire a shot and Ricky left,” he boasts.

If it weren’t for a few details of the accent and because the coffee has no hint of roasted peas, I would think I was conversing with any Cuban in a town in the interior of the country. He smooths his hair with hand, raises his index finger and predicts that “already Puerto Ricans are not the same as before, now we know we are strong, that we must respect ourselves.”

Across the street, a Colombian underwear store exhibits bras with lace. “So Cuban,” says the man. I make a move to leave because I suspect that he will repeat stereotypes about my island, the other wing, a wing with its own wounds. I sense that he will recite to me “the conquests of the Revolution,” but I am wrong. “You don’t have this,” he emphasizes with a hint of superiority. “At least we have started along the road.”

I turn to give the cat something to eat but it is gone. The building where it came from smells of abandonment, of that humidity that is encrusted in the walls when people stop inhabiting a place. A nearby graffiti demands that Ricky step down and in the corner a tattered flag beats against a balcony. I squint my eyes and my tiredness or the heat make me see blue stripes instead of red stripes next to a triangle, blood red.

The “Damn Circumstance” of Plastic Everywhere

As long as there is no awareness of the effects of plastic, the region will not be able to make progress on this issue. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 28 June 2019 – A tourist finishes their meal in front of the sea and the wind carries off the disposable plate that a second earlier was on the table. A few yards away a local family enjoys a soft drink from a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle that, shortly, will end up in the waters of the Caribbean. All of Latin America has one of its toughest environmental battles ahead, the one we must fight against the residue of single-use plastics that end up in nature, but there are nations where the first skirmish has hardly been engaged.

In Cuba, plastic bags in the markets have been an inseparable part of life for more than two decades. Considered almost a status symbol in the 90s when they began to be handed out with the opening of the first stores selling in hard currency, they are currently used for a wide variety of daily tasks: from repairing a broken pipe to head coverings on rainy days. You can see them floating in Havana Bay next to the bottles and beer cans in the dark waters that smell like hydrocarbons.

What happens on the island is part of the drama that is experienced throughout the continent. According to a United Nations report, one third of all waste generated in Latin American cities ends up in open dumps or in nature. Every day, some 145,000 tons of waste are disposed of incorrectly and only 10% is reused thanks to recycling or the use of various recovery techniques. Some countries, such as Chile, Peru and Costa Rica, have faced this situation with legal actions, while others, such as Jamaica and Panama, are beginning to draw up regional alliances to avoid greater evils.

But the problem has deep roots in education, environmental training and even into civil society’s autonomy or power to make itself heard. As long as millions of citizens in this part of the world continue to believe that pollution is something far away that occurs only in a distant garbage dump, or in remote oceans, and that they are safe inside their homes, little can be achieved. Nor can much be achieved if we persist in the mentality that places consumerism and the exhibition of material goods above the protection of the planet. If we continue to associate single-use containers with comfort, modernity or purchasing power… we will end up drowning – literally – in plastic.

In Cuba, with all markets under state management, with state control of all television channels on the island, and with a well-oiled state propaganda mechanism, the authorities could have declared a battle against PET bottles and disposable bags, popularly known as jabitas.

To date, however, the government’s attention to the serious problems of the waste that fills our seas and our countryside has been minimal. At this point, the importance of a civil society that promotes these campaigns is clear, as is the need for citizens to have an active voice when talking about the environment.


This text was originally published in the Deutsche Welle for Latin America.

The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Latin America, Battlefield Between Huawei and the United States

Huawei’s presence in Cuba is obvious to travelers as soon as they arrive at the José Martí International Airport. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 1 June 2019 — What happens on social networks does not stay on social networks and any event that affects mobile phones also ends up radiating unsuspected consequences throughout our lives. That is why the current conflict between the Chinese company Huawei and the US administration keeps millions of mobile users around the world in suspense, many of whom live here in Latin America.

China has gained ground in the last two decades in the economies between the Rio Grande and Patagonia, but it has been in the telecommunications arena where it may have taken its most rapid steps. Founded in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, the Asian firm is on the heels of Samsung and is already ahead of Apple on the list of the most important mobile phone manufacturers in the world.

In Latin American countries, the most affordable prices and extensive features of Huawei’s devices have won the favor of customers looking for mid-range or even high-end phones that are not too expensive, in contrast to those customarily offered by the giant from Cupertino. After reaching this side of the world at the beginning of this century, Huawei has led an almost viral expansion, supported by telecommunications projects in which it has been involved with several governments in the region.

In Cuba, working with the state telecommunications monopoly, the Asian company has been the main distributor of the antennas used for the Wi-Fi zones, which, starting in 2015, the government began to open in squares and parks. In a captive market, like that of the Island, Huawei’s traditional competitors – embodied in South Korean and American firms – cannot carve out major pieces of the succulent pie of the computerization of society. Here, the Chinese company has the playing field almost entirely to itself, supported by the Plaza of the Revolution.

In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro recently announced that he planned to make a joint investment with Huawei, the Chinese company ZTE and Russian companies to deploy a 4G network throughout the territory of that South American nation. In Mexico, according to data from the consultancy Statcounter, Huawei ranks fourth in the telephone market. In 14 countries of the region, the market shares accumulated by the Chinese company exceed two digits and in at least four of them it has grown to over 20%.

Not even the accusations made months ago by the United States that Huawei devices could be used by Beijing to spy on their users could dissuade Latin American customers from buying one of these devices, and in the last year the number of Huawei brand phones on the continent continued to grow. Users appeared to be more influenced by their pocketbooks than by fears of violations of their privacy.

So it was, until this May, when the conflict escalated a little more and several technology companies in the United States announced that they will stop supplying technology to Huawei. Google marked the turning point by decreeing that its Android ecosystem would no longer be included on phones sold by Huawei, a measure that also affects updates of that operating system on mobile phones that are already active. Chinese managers have insisted that they can get their own software but, despite their words calling for calm, the alarm is widespread.

While Washington and Beijing test their forces in this technological dispute, Latin America is about to divide again between affinity towards or rejection of one of the parties. Everything indicates that mobile phones will be the cause of the new schism.


NdR: This text was originally published in the Deutsche Welle for Latin America.

The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

‘14ymedio’: Five Years Since That First Day

The 14ymedio newsroom, located in this building in Havana, has been home to a great deal of work, nerves and time pressures these last five years.

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 21 May 2019 – Today is 14ymedio’s birthday. This “informational creature” celebrates its five years of existence between the challenges that remain to be achieved and the satisfaction of having come this far. For any publication to survive five years is a test of maturity, but in the case of Cuba, where the independent media are prohibited and censored, it is a true act of boldness and persistence.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since that May 21, 2014. The dawns became intense, coffee cups accumulated on the tables of our newsroom in Havana, the stories to be told multiplied and, more than once, our journalistic work led to one of the reporters on our team behind the bars of a dungeon, arbitrarily detained.

In this time we, too, have changed. The reports, notes and interviews we did left a mark on the entire editorial board. We said goodbye to some colleagues who emigrated, we tried to console others who decided not to continue publishing for fear of reprisals, and we welcomed new faces. We broke several forecasts that predicted barely a few months of existence, and convinced some skeptics that what we have is information, good journalism and the press.

At the beginning all our editorial communications were made through the Nauta email system, there were no Wi-Fi zones in parks and squares, the diplomatic thaw between Washington and Havana had not begun, cruise ships had not yet docked in Cuban ports, and Fidel Castro continued to publish his delirious ‘Reflections’ in the official press.

In this time, we also extended to other platforms and now part of our content is disseminated through instant messaging such as WhatsApp and Telegram. We inaugurated an information podcast, and we maintain a weekly e-mail newsletter, routinely issue a PDF of the week’s news every Friday, engage in numerous collaborations with various media, and opened a membership program.

There was no shortage of tough days. Moments when it seemed like we were not going to make it. There are still many of those, but every comment left by a reader, a word of encouragement that we hear in the streets or from social networks, someone who manages to make their story visible through our pages and solve their problem, are the greatest stimuli to continue.

The pillars that sustain us remain solid: to perform better journalism every day and to maintain our economic independence, without receiving a penny from governments, parties or groups in power. Our objective is intact. Like the dinosaur in Augusto Monterroso’s story*, we want Cuba to embark on the path of democratic change and for 14ymedio to be there, accompanying citizens with information.

*Translator’s note: Monterroso’s story, in its entirety, reads: “When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

The Cuban Crisis and the Cycle of Survival

The coolers of the neighborhood stores remain empty and in the only “meat” available to buy is canned sardines. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 15 May 2019 — From a balcony, the woman sees the refrigerated truck that supplies the store on the corner. She doesn’t lose a second and shouts: “Maricusa, the chicken arrived!” In a few minutes the whole neighborhood is a hive of people running with bags in hand to the small state market where, for three weeks, they have not supplied any type of meat product. They will still have to wait three hours while the merchandise is unloaded and then there will be a limit of two packages per person.

This scene can occur in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, the city of Camagüey or any small town on this island. The food shortage that has worsened in recent months has made the harsh daily life of 11 million people more complicated. If before you could barely escape the cycle of survival of looking for money — often by illegal means — to be able to buy food, wait for hours at a bus stop and immerse yourself in the black market to buy certain products; now the time needed to put something on your plate has multiplied by three and the difficulties to find it, by ten.

At first, there was no flour, so at the end of 2018 the greatest difficulty was buying bread or cookies. As the Christmas holidays neared, the alarm bells began to go off that the shortages were increasing. Pork, a virtual Dow Jones of the domestic economy, soared in price and by April had reached 70 Cuban pesos a pound, the equivalent of two days’ salary for a Cuban professional. Chicken, ground meat, hamburgers and hot dogs followed. These latter were the food that for years had supported the daily life of hundreds of thousands of families, because it was the product with a greatest proportion in number of units (10 sausages per package) relative to its price.

Cuban officialdom has justified such absences with a mixture of triumphalist and evasive rhetoric. They attribute the deficit to problems with international suppliers, the poor state of the milling industry to the processing of imported wheat, and blame those who monopolize merchandise as the cause of food shortages for all. In parallel, the Plaza of the Revolution avoids using the word ‘crisis’ and has also censored in the national media any mention of the concept of the ‘Special Period’, the euphemism applied to the economic disaster suffered by the island in the ‘90s after the disintegration of the USSR and the socialist camp.

In parallel with the refrigerators in the stores continuing to be empty, the ideological discourse rises in tone. This more incendiary rhetoric seeks to blame the US embargo for the shortages, although economists and analysts agree that the real cause of this fall comes from Venezuela, which has significantly cut oil shipments to the island. Havana resold a part of the crude it received from Venezuela on the international market and thus obtained fresh currency, an injection of life for an economy with low productivity and an excessive state apparatus, inefficient and expensive to maintain.

While many expected that the harsh circumstances would lead the administration of Miguel Diaz-Canel to promote an opening in the private sector, relax controls, lower taxes to promote entrepreneurship and relax the draconian customs regulations, the authorities have, in fact, moved in the opposite direction and have proceeded to ration many foods that until recently could be bought in an uncontrolled way. These measures have awakened the worst ghosts of a population traumatized by what they experienced less than two decades ago.

Meanwhile, discontent has not been made to wait, and this time it is powered by the new technologies that are allowing Cubans to report on and present images of the worsening quality of life. Thus, a one hundred percent Cuban challenge has recently emerged in social networks. With the hashtag #LaColaChallenge [TheLineChallenge], Facebook and Twitter are flooded with photos of lines, crushes of people trying to buy food, and annoyed customers waiting for hours outside a store.

Unlike during those hard years after the fall of the USSR, Cubans now seem unwilling to endure the crisis in silence. Mobile phones and the recently opened mobile web connection service have significantly changed the way the island is narrated. While food is scarce and expensive, citizen dissatisfaction is everywhere in sufficient quantities to become a mechanism of pressure.


This text was originally published in the Deutsche Welle for Latin America.