Blaugust Day 10 – The Cuban Door-to-Door Internet

So here’s something I want to talk about today: This BBC article on how people in Cuba, still almost completely cut off from the internet, are sharing everyone from news to video via a weekly delivery service that’s basically one guy with a portable hard drive going from house to house and copying the contents to people’s computers.

It’s not a long article – go read it.

Now, the backstory…

When I was seventeen, I got the fantastic opportunity to go to Cuba for a few weeks with a wildlife conservation group. Technically we were there to live on a beach and help the local scientists track turtles and survey the local reefs, but years later it’s not the wildlife, but Cuban society, that I remember the most.

Sometime I meet people who have been to Cuba on holiday and I feel like we went to two completely different countries. They remember smart hotels, cheap cocktail bars and beautiful beaches. I remember those things, but I also remember people camped in crumbling ruins of colonial mansions right off the main boulevards in Havana, hospitals with the roof falling in, and sitting in a lush tropical paradise eating canned beans imported from Nigeria.

I spent part of our trip working for a scientist who was a world leading expert on bio-acoustics, his specialty was bats. One night he told us that his brother, who had little education and almost no English, worked as a cleaner in Miami making more money than he did. When we left I gave him all of my stash of AA batteries for his recording equipment because batteries were like gold dust out there.

I’m well aware that I wasn’t in Cuba very long but I do think it was long enough to realise how utterly unsustainable the Castro regime’s attempts at holding the country back in 1960s isolation was. They might have controlled the tiny number of available newspapers and magazines, firmly squashed other forms of media and daubed propaganda across every available wall but even in 2008 the cracks were definitely showing. It was a country on edge, waiting for the moment of change flooding in.

After I came back from Cuba, I was always excited to read any news that might be heralding changes in the country. Some of it was political – such as when two non-Communist party candidates ran for local election (this is a huge deal) but some of it was also social. A few years ago Metal Hammer magazine ran a review of a sample album of Cuban rock bands. Someone had literally smuggled it out of the country just to get one copy into the hands of Western music press, because they were so scared of what might happen if the Government had discovered people writing songs criticising the regime.

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how they want to see Cuba ‘before it changes’ as if Cuba is some untouched unique paradise about to be destroyed by the evil hand of capitalism. So I really hope that articles like this can go some way to changing that view – these people deserve the benefits of a free media and web just as much as we do.

I know that Cuba is not as desperately poor, or desperately downtrodden, or crime-ridden or generally desperate as many parts of the world. By global standards, Cuba is – probably doing okay. Yet Cuba could be doing much better, and the people there knew it. There hasn’t been any grand moment of change but obviously there have been major changes – I knew exactly one person with a laptop there back then (the aforementioned bio-acoustics expert) and along with his car it was the most valuable thing he owned because both were, at the time, utterly irreplaceable.

Now they have tablets and smartphones and, with the ‘Paquete’ they get alternative news, on-demand television, mobile apps and more. Through grassroots filesharing and door-to-door deliveries, the people down at the bottom are taking advantage of a crumbling, elderly dictatorship to move into the modern world that they should have had decades ago. And I could not be happier for them.

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