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The digital revolution in Havana: between liberation and submission

How might Cubans make actual the words of revolution, so that they recall not only past glory, but one that could come? Is digital development part of an agenda of renovation, and in what capacity?

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Yonlay Cabrera, Cuba_20170127, 2017, video installation, capture made with decoder for Gelect HD-HL1209 Digital TV signal (still). Courtesy of Estudio Figueroa-Vives, Havana.“Revolution is to defend values one believes in at the price of any sacrifice; it is modesty, unselfishness, altruism, solidarity and heroism...” This is a claim made by Fidel Castro in a speech dated 1st of May 2000, as seen on a billboard on the long Calzada de Infanta Boulevard, Havana, Cuba, in a slogan like several others spread all over town. These words sound anachronistic today, but they show an attempt by the state to make actual and present the great ideals of the Castro’s revolution, still vivid in the people’s myths, for Cubans and non.

“Revolution is to defend values one believes in at the price of any sacrifice; it is modesty, unselfishness, altruism, solidarity and heroism...”        – Fidel Castro

Across the country, complex and substantial signals of change seem to be currently underway: just recently in 2013 the government allowed the return of private property; foreign companies have begun investment (especially in the field of building renovation, where the state is totally lacking); a unique process of “fair” gentrification is underway in the Old Town (Habana Vieja); and enterprises such as Airbnb and Google have started business in the country, to name just a few. This is a path that hopefully will continue in some way, despite the recent cancellation by Donald Trump of important economic pacts signed after years of negotiations by Obama’s administration in 2014.

In what values does a society in transition, like the Cuban one, believe nowadays? How is the Cuban community able to make actual the words of the revolution, so that they do not recall only the glory of the past, but one that could potentially come? Is digital development part of an agenda of renovation, and in what capacity?

In this text, I’ll reflect upon these and other crucial issues, with the aim of exploring how one of the last remaining Marxist-Leninist socialist states in the world is reacting to one of the results of capitalism – that is, the digital revolution and its products. And on the other side, how is Cuban society relating to the internet, its benefits and risks, after decades of embargoes, economic and political isolation, and fear of the “capitalist” other? When Geert Lovink writes, “our disenchantment with the internet is a fact,” (in ‘Overcoming Internet Disillusionment: On the Principles of Meme Design’) who is the “we” he is talking about? Is the internet, as a mass product, and the possibility of its use, turning into an element of class discrimination in a socialist country claiming the absence of inequality among its citizens?

Is the internet turning into an element of class discrimination in a socialist country claiming the absence of inequality among its citizens?

I’ll go through these topics, presenting perspectives given by the works and the activities of artists, curators, researchers, and activists living and working on the island, whose research focuses on the diffusion of technology and the internet in Cuban society and the implications of this process. I met this network of professionals mostly in Havana during my stay in April 2017, in parallel with my participation in the research project “Horizonte Habana” organized by the University of Ferrara, Italy, in partnership with Universidad Tecnológica de La Habana José Antonio Echeverría, Havana.

Despite the extremely controversial role played by the internet in the current era, as a means of control – abused by commercial companies and governments – and violations of users’ privacy rights, but also as a tool of emancipation, mobilization and free expression for communities, it is undeniable that the internet is not only an object of desire as well as a capitalist good, but it has also arguably become an essential one.

In the form of resolution A/HRC/20/L.13, the United Nations passed in June 2012, not without controversies, “the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet”, stating that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular, freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Right”. The resolution was ratified in 2014, while in 2017 the Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet “re-emphasises that human rights apply online as they do offline: human rights standards, as defined in international law, are non-negotiable. The Charter also identifies principles, deriving from human rights, which are necessary to preserve the Internet as a medium for civil, political, economic, social and cultural development.”

Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, Donde Esta Mella?, 2017, performance, Hotel Manzana Kempinski, Havana. Photo: Yanelys Núñez Leyva. Courtesy of the artist. In countries like Cuba, where streets and squares are displays of state power, enduring traces of counter-voices against the dominant power-holders are normally not present nor evident. Rather, signs of dissent come from transient bodies and temporary gestures. As for instance, the actions of Ladies in White, an opposition movement founded in 2003 by the wives and female relatives of jailed dissidents, who protest in Havana every Sunday and are constantly repressed. Or, the performance Donde Esta Mella? (2017) by artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, which is openly addressed to the intellectuals of his country to shake and awaken their social and political responsibilities.

Signs of dissent come from transient bodies and temporary gestures.

Less striking but more endemic is the daily performance of common citizens, equipped with their technological devices as prosthetics, sitting wherever Wi-Fi hotspots are available, at any time of the day and the night, trying to connect to the internet. Refusing the isolation they experienced for decades, people enact the same human need for connection with others far away that also pushes citizens into conflict zones to shoot with their smartphones instead of escaping. Meanwhile, “the eye continues watching without understanding that it might be witnessing its own death.” (Rabih Mroué, The Pixelated Revolution).

Abel Barroso, Cuban style cyber lounge virtual reality, 2017, sculptures, wood, computers, virtual reality. Photo: Francesco Allegretto. Courtesy of Gallery On Greene.As with everything in Cuba, the internet is a state matter. This informs the way it is managed, distributed, made accessible and controlled. The introduction of the internet in the island in the 1990s stagnated for years due to lack of funding and infrastructure, until a slow improvement of the situation that began in 2007. The condition of the underdevelopment of digital and technological systems in the country is criticized by artist Abel Barroso, whose work is currently exhibited at the Pavilion of Cuba, 57th Venice Biennale 2017. His project, entitled Cuban style cyber lounge virtual reality, 2017 is a reproduction in carved wood of a number of computers fully equipped with all accessories, and decorated with logos of global and local social-media brands and engines for search online. Screens that manually change images show, among the others, photo-portraits of the artist in different environments attempting to connect to Wi-Fi with an oversize wooden smartphone. Using traditional materials with a renovated aesthetic, by means of humor and irony and the interaction of the viewer, Barroso gives evidence to the peculiarity of Cuban’s situation.

The internet is accessible only through a card that costs the equivalent of €1,30 and gives access to a one-hour connection.

Currently, no private homes are provided with the internet, although the government claims that this situation is only temporary. By 2015, Wi-Fi hot spots have become readily available in Cuba, although only in specific streets, squares, and parks (aside from public offices, hotels, and occasionally at B&B’s), but disseminated apparently without a clear logic, urban plan, or specific response to the needs of citizens. The internet is accessible only through a card distributed by Etecsa (the national, and only telecommunications company) that costs 1.50 CUC, the equivalent of €1,30 (at the time of writing), and gives access to a one-hour connection. This amount is quite high for the pockets of an average Cuban citizen, whose salary, in the best cases, corresponds to around 20 CUC (€17,00) per month.

In Western countries the digital phenomenon has been often accused of generating alienation in users, while in Cuba access to the web and its products implies a series of private and relational practices that have contributed to the appropriation of public space by citizens. In Havana, individuals or groups gathering together around Wi-Fi hot spots are becoming a form of human signage that shows the presence of technological infrastructure not otherwise indicated. They are normally equipped with headphones, as their main activities are chatting on social media and making calls. Facebook was forbidden until 2013, but having a private account is now allowed. Zapya is the most-used app for file sharing, while Imo is used for video calls with friends or relatives abroad. Furthermore, the public dimension of the internet’s consumption has generated new configurations of informal economy: rumours reported include the story that benches under the shade have become profitable in some areas of the Habana Vieja, where they are rented by the inhabitants to internet surfers.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, Indian Summer Diary, 2016, performance and video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cq_FVCS3Iw. Photo: Claudio Pelaez Sordo. Courtesy of the artist. Understanding the public sphere in its complexity and multiplicity, Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara explores spaces of representation and reflects upon the internet as a political means of emancipation that allows one to cross physical borders and restrictions. Indian Summer Diary (2016) came out of the experience of two temporary visa refusals to the artist, when invited to participate to the residencies On the Road and On the Road Part 1, in Toronto, Canada. As a reaction, he simulated a ten day program of activities that instead took place in a private apartment in Havana. One video per day, each one minute in length, was uploaded to YouTube and Facebook, generating dozens of views and comments. Playing with humour and irony, the artist conveys a critique of the limitations of mobility that affect Cuban citizens. As well, he emphasizes the perception of the Other and the projection of the self into the Other, through mutual observation over the screen.

Here, social media is not only the means, but also the message.

Similarly, Unidos por el wi-fi (2015) is a multilayered project that deals with the overlapping of public spheres – the sensorial and the digital one – as well as with the concept of privacy. Commissioned by Wifredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art in Havana, Otero Alcantara’s intervention, entitled Proyectos personales proyectos colectivos consisted of covering the sidewalks around the art institution where Wi-Fi hot spots are available, with pillows. Aware of the inefficacy of this intervention, Alcantara built a paper house that provided some form of intimacy to digital users. In the third phase of the work, Bodas de Papel, he celebrated the first wedding anniversary to his wife living in the US, by offering her a video of a pole dance performed in one of the most crowded Wi-Fi areas in Havana. The video was shot with a smartphone camera through Imo video calls, and later uploaded to Facebook. The performance, realized in front of an audience of passers-by but conceived for online circulation and consumption, received thousands of views. Here, social media is not only the means, but also the message.

Presentation of Museo de la disidencia en Cuba, Havana,19th February 2017. Courtesy of the artists. The apparent fascination shown by Otero Alcantara’s work for the emancipatory potential offered by the internet also brings attention to the system of censorship and control of knowledge flows operated by the government at different layers: top-down restrictions exercised by the state include blogs by activists and political dissidents such as 14 y medio, independent newspapers or pornographic content, and due to the economic blockade, some American websites.

Museo de la Disidencia en Cuba is imagined as a space of resistance that can exist only online.

Following this concern, together with art historian and journalist Yanelys Núñez Leyva, Otero Alcantara founded Museo de la Disidencia en Cuba (2016), an online platform initiated to explore and revisit the concept of “dissent” as stated by Collins Dictionary. Museo de la Disidencia en Cuba is imagined as a space of resistance that can exist only online. Depicting on its homepage all crucial political counter-figures from the history of Cuba, such as Hatuey, José Martì, Fidel Castro, and Oswaldo Paya, the website aims to offers an historical overview of the main events that have besieged the country since sixteenth-century Spanish colonization up to the so-called Black Spring of 2003, and further, to current times, including persons, organizations, or events which in one way or another have contested the ruling power in Cuba. The platform aims to focus attention on the following questions: what does “dissent” mean today in Cuba, and who are the current symbols of the opposition? Museo de la Disidencia en Cuba aims also to provide spaces for dialogue and artistic creation – exhibitions, public programs, blogs, publications – that go beyond Cuban society. The platform exists also in a CD version that was presented during public evening events to all citizens who could not connect to the internet.

The plurality and speed of knowledge circulating in Cuba, and the right of Cuban citizens to be as constantly updated as any other citizen in the rest of the digital world, are also crucial questions. In this sense, it seems worthwhile to mention the case of the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia: it is available as an app functioning offline, containing information updated up to two to three years ago. An ambivalent response to this gap is the Weekly Package, a hard disk containing a one-terabyte collection of films, soap operas, music clips, news, e-books, anti-virus app, magazines, commercial subjects, but also more engaged products. There are now many versions of the Weekly Package circulating across the country, but the biggest phenomenon is mainly centred in Havana. This “offline internet” is a sort of alternative way for the people to watch a heterogeneous variety of audio-visual products and materials otherwise not accessible due to the limited bandwidth, but also a tool for the government to monitor the dissemination of knowledge and information. It is distributed at the cost of around 2 CUC, which people often buy in groups or further circulate through one-to-one peer file sharing. These audio-visual products and their contents are selected within the web and illegally downloaded by groups of contents curators spread across the country, and national creators such as Studio Odisea are behind the phenomenon, under the silent authorization and the ultimate oversight of the government. Upon payment however, it is possible to insert other materials into this collection.

The plurality and speed of knowledge circulating in Cuba, and the right of Cuban citizens to be as constantly updated as citizens in the rest of the digital world, are also crucial questions.

Questioning issues of copyright and online piracy – which are not part of the agenda debated in Cuba yet – as well as the modes and flows of information, artist Nestor Siré takes the Package as a sample and intervenes in its space. Repeating the Package’s structure, he creates an ART Section with files containing 90% art-related content, which is not only aimed at artists and art specialists, but also a wider audience (teenagers, elders, professionals, technicians, housewives, and retired people). Central to the ART Section is Folder=gallery, an independent exhibition space for works specifically conceived for it. The purpose of this successful project is obviously to try to reach an audience larger than the art community, but also, even more importantly, to stress the participation in the production and distribution of content as a form of agency and civil resistance.

ART Section has a monthly volume of five gigabytes of content and it respects the rules of the officially-sanctioned Weekly Package (no pornography, no openly political subjects). Questioning the kind of products, their cultural origin and their different nature changing over the time in relation to economic and political dynamics that Cubans have access to, Siré together with American artist Julia Weist, developed ARCA. It will be shown alongside many other projects in the exhibition 17.(SEPT) [By Weist_Siré Records]™ , opening on 17 September 2017 at Queens Museum, New York. It is a seventy-two terabyte super-server containing the contents of fifty-two weeks of the Weekly Package. It is the only comprehensive archive of the Package, and its construction and deployment was designed around the legal and logistical restrictions of the current political climate. In addition to presenting a near-complete record of Cuba’s digital consumption for one year, the archive also captures a form of media that has been largely absent in the country for the last half-century amid a political regime of aspirational socialism: advertising.

The spread of digitization in Cuba, compared to its process of development in other countries, became the subject of the exhibition GlitchMix: not an error (March–May 2017) curated by Cristina Figueroa at the Estudio Figueroa-Vives, in collaboration with Embassy of Norway. The error and the aesthetics of the defect in contemporary art became a pretext to reflect upon the manipulation of technological devices and corruption of data and software in the time of post-truth. Works and perspectives of young generations of Cuban artists such as Yonlay Cabrera and Fidel Garcia have been put in relation with one of the pioneers of digital art, Mark Amerika. With the video installation Prisionizacion (2016–17) by Fidel Garcia, two characters, one in front of the other, illustrate the damage resulting from geopolitical conflict. The works takes as a point of reference the experience of the relationships established over time among inmates and the jailers, giving evidence to the physical or psychological traumas and behaviors that occur as consequences of isolation.

Fidel García, Prisionización, 2016-2017, video installation. Courtesy of Estudio Figueroa-Vives, Havana.Cabrera’s Cuba_201170127, 2017 is a video installation composed of six different screens that explores the notion of the glitch in its purest sense. The videos, playing simultaneously, are the same recording of a fragment of a Cuban National Television News broadcast on January 27, 2017, with signal interference made with a device for decoding digital TV signals. The endless repetition of the loops that surround the viewers creates an hypnotic and pervasive effect that clashes with the changing abstract signals in the devices, as a result of the decoding of analog to digital frequencies. In this piece, the actual possibilities to manipulate media and information at any level clashes with the impossibility to control holes in the system. In his research Yonlay Cabrera reflects upon the increasing digitization of people’s lives, exploring physical relation and human interactivity with technological devices and social media, and the question of control and surveillance in relation to machines and the state. In this concern, it seems worthwhile to mention, among his works, the text piece on the wall: Internet es el opio del pueblo (Feinman, 2007) (Internet is the opium of the people) (2015). In the piece, he quotes Argentinian philosopher and writer José Pablo Feinmann, who repeated this sentence as a slogan in his TV program on Channel Encuentro. The work also proposes a commentary on the power that both analogue and digital, or so called “old” and “new” media, have in terms of shaping the minds and ideas of people.

Luis Gomez, Cuban “Fresh” (insolent?) (after House of Card. R.S), 2014, and B-Side (Fresco Cubano), 2014. Photo: Luis Gomez. Courtesy of the artist. Luis Gomez, one the most trenchant artists in the current Cuban scene, includes the critique of the digital in a wider commentary about contemporary art as a corrupted economic system. The work Cuban “Fresh” (insolent?) (after House of Card. R.S) (2014) that includes B-Side (Fresco Cubano) (2014) is a multimedia installation composed of two standing panels of recycled wood, one leaning on the other, and a pillow on the floor. At the back of one of the panels, a series of A4 papers in plastic folders display printed documentation from Facebook, emails, and messages sent by mistake. By means of cynicism and the grotesque, Gomez deconstructs the relations of power that play out within the art context, such as the social bonds emphasized by the digital. He criticizes a capacity for apparently enlarging networks and connections among professionals thereby erroneously suggesting that art is global. With his work, he dismantles and makes ridiculous both the dynamics occurring in the art system, and its actors.

“Big data and Big Tobacco are similar,” claims Pirate Bay co-founder Peter Sunde.

“Big data and Big Tobacco are similar,” claims Pirate Bay co-founder Peter Sunde. This odd analogy – particularly pertinent to Cuba – actually implies a comparison between the deadly consequences of tobacco for human beings, and the current stage of damage that US and EU societies have reached. “At its inception, the internet was a beautifully idealistic and equal place. But the world sucks and we’ve continuously made it more and more centralized, taking power away from users and handing it over to big companies. […] The internet was made to be decentralized, but we keep centralizing everything on top of the internet.” Here Sunde points out that in the last ten years, the five giants of Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook have bought up most every up-and-coming tech company or website, creating a situation not far from a monopoly.

The scenario depicted by Sunde is dramatic: by owning the information and data of people, companies will have an unimaginable influence on every single gesture of each person’s everyday life. As there are no signs of change to this indicated by Europe and the US, could we imagine a different scenario for countries like Cuba that are approaching the digital now and under far different kinds of political conditions? With due differences, we could say that the Big Brother attitude towards the daily lives of citizens typical of socialist power structures might be comparable, somehow, to the kind of control and surveillance that big enterprises are exercising.

What if socialist countries like Cuba turn their ideological opposition to capitalism into a point of strength against the excessive power of companies and their violation of the rights of citizens?

In this sense, don’t corporations and socialist ideology look for the same things: data?

And now for a paradox as provocation: what if socialist countries like Cuba turn their ideological opposition to capitalism into a potential, a point of strength against the excessive power of companies and their violation of the rights of citizens?

Since 2010, Finland has become the first country in the world to make broadband internet a legal right for every citizen. This means that the Finnish government had to define for itself what the internet actually is, along with a series of digital policies to protect the rights of citizens. In the words of Finland's communication minister Suvi Linden: “We considered the role of the internet in Finns everyday life. Internet services are no longer just for entertainment.” If access to the internet would be recognized as a fundamental right also in Cuba, as with the health care, education, and housing that have been provided for free by the state as a result of the revolution, and if the government would take a position in this regard instead of showing fear towards the digital and its potential benefits, could we not imagine a digital revolution in Cuba starting from here?

About the author

Marianna Liosi is a curator and researcher based in Berlin. She graduated in Visual Arts at IUAV, Venice and she’s currently a PhD candidate in Humanities, University of Ferrara (Italy). In her research, she explores the aesthetics of social, economic and political dynamics, with specific attention to media, technology and the question of spectatorship and its generative role. 

She was Guest lecturer at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (2016/17) and she gave talks at Künstlerhaus Bethanien (Berlin), Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme (Paris), University of Geneva, Festival für Fotografie (Leipzig), HKW (Berlin). She has curated exhibitions, film programmes, and workshops, among the most recent: Between Broadcast, in collaboration with Between Bridges, Berlin, 2016; Regarding Spectatorship: Revolt and the Distant Observer, Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, Berlin, 2015; Leisure Complex, Savvy Contemporary, Berlin, 2014, When spectators work, workers observe, Kunsthuis SYB, Beetsterzwaag, The Netherlands, 2014. In 2015 she was curator in residency at Delfina Foundation, London within The Public Domain – Season 2.

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