Before my visit earlier this year, I’d never been to Cuba, though Cuba had certainly been to me. The Miami of my ’80s childhood was a suburban reboot of prerevolutionary Cuba, filled with people who still toasted El año próximo en La Habana (“next year in Havana”) at important occasions. Everything from family letters to fresh-off-the-raft waiters kept us apprised of the increasingly desperate conditions. In Miami, even the dogcatcher had to have a foreign policy toward the island, and Cuba was all anyone ever really talked about.
In Silicon Valley, where I worked at companies like Facebook and Twitter for the earlier part of this decade, Cuba was generally regarded, when it was regarded at all, as a technological curiosity. This socialist worker’s paradise was a time capsule where technocapitalism’s “Make the world more open and connected” idealism hadn’t yet delivered its liberal-democratic fruit. The underlying assumption held that, whether it was Facebook pages for Cuban businesses or Airbnb tourists from Texas, the internet’s arrival would lead to a near-instantaneous transformation of Cuban society from Soviet-era holdout to just another part of the globe requiring a dedicated user support team.
Given the rickety and expensive connectivity, nobody wastes bandwidth trying to stream Game of Thrones.
It seemed like only a matter of time. Yet other than a few rumored experiments beginning in the ’90s, the Cuban government had a highly restrictive internet policy until 2015, when ETECSA’s first Wi-Fi hot spots started popping up throughout the capital. Walk down a street in Old Havana and you’ll note a flock of smartphone-clutching loiterers either standing or squatting in a park as they try to get on ETECSA Wi-Fi. This is Cuban internet, where access to non-state-sanctioned websites is blocked, the government snoops on anything unencrypted, and the service is grindingly slow, when it exists at all. (I’m told that fast internet access is the exclusive domain of state institutions like universities and very large, mostly foreign corporations like hotels. Short of a few government professionals, nobody can check their email or surf the web, legally, at home without permission from the government.) There are even some startups capitalizing on the rarity, shoddiness, and expense of Cuban internet: Knales, a mobile messaging platform cofounded by Diana Elianne Benitez Perera, packages online weather reports, horoscopes, sports scores, foreign exchange rates, and other basic news into text messages that Cubans can read on their phones.
Given the rickety and expensive nature of Cuban connectivity, nobody wastes time or bandwidth trying to stream an episode of Game of Thrones or a YouTube instructional video. ETECSA Wi-Fi, when you can get it, is purely social and communicative: chatting with the uncle in Miami who sends you $200 every month via a remittance company, the nephew who moved to Spain, the cousin outside the capital—that’s what the ETECSA hot spot is for.
Which brings us to the first workaround. Every week, more than a terabyte of data is packaged into external hard drives known as el paquete semanal (“the weekly package”). It is the internet distilled down to its purest, most consumable, and least interactive form: its content. This collection of video, song, photo, and text files from the outside world is cobbled together by various media smugglers known as paqueteros, and it travels around the island from person to person, percolating quickly from Havana to the furthest reaches in less than a day and constituting what would be known in techie lingo as a sneakernet: a network that transmits data via shoe rubber, bus, horseback, or anything else.
Oddly, it works. Cubans can be as conversant as any Netflix-and-chill American about popular shows like House of Cards or Black Mirror, and they drop allusions to the Lannisters and Omar Little constantly. It’s been reported that as many as 3 million Cubans access content via the paquete. And to understand the paquete—as well as the other epic acts of Cuban hackery I’m going to describe—you need a Spanish lesson you didn’t get in high school. An important word to know in Cuba is resolver. While literally meaning “to resolve,” in practice it’s closer to Silicon Valley’s notion of “lifehacking,” but without the humblebraggy lifestyle posturing.
Need to navigate the endless hurdles involved in getting a small business license? Resolver.
Need to bribe a doorman to get into a popular nightlife spot like the ever-teeming Fábrica de Arte Cubano? Resolver.
Need to string 200 yards of cable and an antenna through neighbors’ patios so you can siphon a nearby ETECSA park’s Wi-Fi signal and maybe check your email slowly (and illegally) from home? Resolver.
Cubans are the kings and queens of resolver, the virtuosi of resolver. It’s the only thing that’s kept them afloat since the “Special Period” in the early ’90s, when the Soviet Union and its subsidy disappeared, leaving Cuba’s economy stranded and Cubans themselves hungry.
But arrayed against the forces of resourceful resolver lies another important word: complicado.
Want to talk to the dissident journalists who scoff at Cuban censorship and are routinely harassed and jailed? Es complicado.
Want to get a passport and visa to travel abroad? Es complicado.
My last Spanish lesson: No es fácil. It’s not easy. This is the closing refrain to almost every practical Cuban conversation, usually uttered with a resigned shrug. The island is one immense battlefield of resolver vs. complicado, with a decaying colonial ruin as stage and no es fácil as the Greek chorus.