RESIDENCY PROGRAM BLOG POST BY JULIE RAUSENBERGER
Someone once told me that you can look at Cuba in three different ways: through the eyes of a tourist, through the government’s perspective, and through the Cuban citizens’ perception. When I first traveled to Cuba in 2016 as an anthropology student studying solidarity tourism, I mostly experienced Cuba as a tourist. I traveled almost all corners of the island and participated in a volunteer brigade. However, I felt that if I wanted to understand Cuban cultural practices, I needed to understand Cuba’s revolutionary project as established by the Castro regime. I also needed to understand why national hero José Martí is (in)visibly present on almost every street corner and in almost each library. And, apart from politics, I needed to understand the economic logic behind the two circulating currencies: the peso cubano and the convertible. And so, I have spent the past two years learning how to look at Cuba. Looking at Cuba as a tourist was easy compared to looking at it through the eyes of the state, but both proved to be necessary exercises which prepared me for my return to Cuba this year as a graduated anthropologist to conduct research on the everyday lives and of Cuban citizens. And here I am as an ethnographer facing the challenge now of understanding Cuba and the way its inhabitants experience and perceive it.
I returned to Cuba in April 2018 for my doctoral research on everyday digital practices of Cuban citizens. As a social scientist, I am particularly interested in monitoring whether (and how) the access to and usage of digital media and technologies lead to the rise of social inequality in Cuba, and which implications participation in the digital world has for local communities. In which ways does the digitization of Cuban society lead to the reconfiguration of space and place? In which ways does it change the role of certain social actors in their respective communities? And how has the rise of the Internet in Cuba – mostly through the establishment of public Wi-Fi hotspots – influenced the everyday lives of Cuban citizens? Moreover, Cuba is a unique research setting that offers the opportunity to rethink dominating Western assumptions on digitization (and on the very meaning of the digital) as Cuban citizens have been inventing alternative solutions to bypass a number of digital limitations in recent years. They have created El Paquete Semanal, a weekly package containing music, movies, series and magazines which circulates the island through flash drives, and a group of gamers has created a cabled Street Network (SNET) which connects desktop computers from house to house and functions as an ‘internet without internet’. I am here now to study these alternative practices from an ethnographic perspective while Cuba is going through its own ‘digital turn’.
UNPACK: Gate Keeping & Opening Doors
Starting my research at the UNPACK Studio in Havana did not only allow me to distance myself somewhat from ‘the tourist bubble’, it also offered a unique opportunity for me as a researcher to build further on existing networks which the coordinating local team at UNPACK in Havana has developed over the years. Thanks to UNPACK, I have been able to start developing valuable relationships in my research domain through, what we ethnographers often call, ‘gatekeepers’. In Havana, Omar Estrada, visual artist and Unpack Studio’s curator, and I shared the studio. He introduced me to other artists, and I was coordinated by recently graduated professional journalist, Laura Rodríguez Balbuzano, who has presented me to her friends and colleagues, amongst whom Max Barbosa, a professor in Communication at the University of Havana. Their collaboration and friendship has been a blessing.
I feel humble thinking back about their help, friendship and support, and realizing that ethnography is all about social relations which are sometimes – and especially in the initial stage of explorative research – challenging for an anthropologist to develop as a ‘stranger in the field’. Hence, my choice to collaborate with UNPACK proved to be a decision of great outcome precisely because of its role of ‘gatekeeping’. Omar and Laura have opened many doors and I am grateful to them because they have granted me access to precious resources, institutions, people and field research sites in Havana, while always keeping a careful eye and control on the ethical negotiation of such access and collaborative processes. This is particularly important in Cuba, a country characterized by a cultural practice of sharing or sociolismo (the exchange of favors among friends), their informal networking and word-of-mouth.
HIGHLIGHTS OF MY STAY: Exploring Everyday Digital Practices
Public Wi-Fi Hot Spots
In 2015, national telecommunication enterprise ETECSA has introduced public Wi-Fi hot spots in Cuban parks and hotels. The number is growing at a rapid pace and the price has lowered from 4.50 CUC per hour in 2015 to 1.00 CUC per hour in 2018. Although very recently, internet at home has also become available, few Cubans are using it. First of all, the infrastructure is not available in all areas of Cuba and, secondly, it is economically prohibitive for most Cuban citizens (who earn 30 CUC per month on average). Public Wi-Fi hot spots thus remain the main place to connect to the World Wide Web and hence, formerly empty or marginalized parks now become trendy hang out spots once Wi-Fi signals are available, and public space becomes redesigned. However, while these parks serve as points of socialization, they simultaneously feed a certain degree of individualization because people frequent these parks decreasingly to talk with each other, but increasingly to focus on personal activities with their mobile devices.
When I visited some of these parks with Wi-Fi in Havana, I also noticed that these places are becoming the ‘place to be’ not only for internet users, but also for street vendors selling food and drinks, or renting out seats to make the clientele’s visit more comfortable. Hence, connecting to the internet at a public space can be hard at times because the infrastructure of the city is not adapted to accommodate so many people in park. Moreover, internet consumers look for the few spots of shadows to escape from heat and to be able to read what is displayed on the screens of their mobile phones without the reflection of the sun. When it rains, there is hardly any shelter to be dry, although it might be time to connect because few users are connected then.
Connecting to a Wi-Fi hot spot is a challenging experience for the human senses because there is a constant disruption of sounds and smells surrounding the user: cars, trucks, motorcycles and other vehicles are constantly passing, while dust, the smell of gasoline emissions and sweat mingle in the air and ultimately stick onto your skin. People use ear plugs and lean over their screens to fight this struggle, as well as to get a little sense of privacy, of which there is very little in a public space where everyone hears and sees what you say and do online.
The recent opening of public Wi-Fi hotspots in Cuba has also given birth to new practices and technologies, which make internet connection accessible to a broader target group of consumers. The newly improvised profession of el connectify, a clandestine distributor of multiple Wi-Fi signals through the help of a software program that turns a device into a Wi-Fi hotspot (such as Connectify) and a Wi-Fi antenna, is a typical example of adaptive practices with digital technologies in Cuba. In most cases, one official ETECSA connection of 1 CUC per hour is then being redistributed and sold for 10 pesos Cubanos (less than 0.50 CUC) per connection. This means not only that internet connection becomes more affordable for those Cuban citizens who have economic difficulties and who can otherwise not afford to go online, it also means that it is a business for the connectify who can easily earn up to 10 CUC per day distributing a Wi-Fi signal.
During my conversations with a Connectify in Havana, I learnt that this practice is, hence, an illustration of how creative ways are used to bypass existing limitations regarding digital technologies. Whereas some defined it as a service or an act of ‘solidarity’ amongst citizens and an arena to defeat social-economic and digital inequality, others considered this intervention as a purely professional activity that added on to their meagre official wages.
During my research stay at UNPACK, I also had the opportunity to monitor the distribution and consumption of El Paquete Semanal (The Weekly Package), yet another ‘semi-legal’ (illegal but subtly tolerated by the government) digital practice which has been invented by Cuban citizens to take part in the circulation of local and global media. It is a weekly package of 1 terabyte containing pirated digital media (films, music, TV shows, news, applications, …) and which circulates the island through hard drives. Consumers copy its content on their memoria (flash drive sticks). In the Paqueterias (selling points of the Paquete), audiovisuals are sold per piece or per package, for prices ranging from 5 pesos cubanos to 5 pesos convertibles, depending on the copied amount.
El Paquete Semanal is a digital practice in Cuba that was invented in the 2000s as an alternative and creative solution for the dispersion of digital media in Cuba. It shows a continuation of the cultural practices of sociolismo (the exchange of favors among friends) and resolver (improvising solutions) as it is characterized by collaborative efforts within informal social networks. Hence, it highlights the role of human agency in matters of digital access in Cuba.
Finally, I have been digging into the local phenomenon of ‘Street Net’ (S-NET), also simply referred to as la red (the network). This is an ethernet cabled network that comprises a loop of routers, cables and modems which links households with computers outside state control in Havana. It is an ‘internet without internet’ as it is a local infrastructure that connects citizens with each other and allows them to play games – mainly the popular DOTA – and share data, chat or discuss news. It has its own forums, portals and social media website, such as Facebook del Barrio (Facebook of the neighborhood), and has about 30.000 users in Havana. There are a few administrators per covered area of about 5 kilometers who carefully monitor whether the actions of the users in their area comply with the rules of S-NET. They – and their houses – function as servers. The network (la red) maintains itself through a monthly membership contribution of 1 CUC.
Thanks to Omar of UNPACK, I had the honor of meeting Nestor Siré, a Cuban visual artist, who tries to ‘bring the illegal to the institutional space by creating an art space that allows for more digital freedom’ as he describes it himself. He explained that digital connectivity in Cuba is a complex phenomenon to grasp: “There is a contraction… on the one hand, there is little internet connection, but on the other hand there is a hyper connection, people use their time online very strategical and constantly find solutions for a more effective efficient use of their connecting time. Moreover, when I was in New York to give a talk about El Paquete, I gave an example of the very popular series of Games of Thrones. I talked about an episode and noticed that no one had watched this one yet in the USA but in Cuba people had. It means that the seasons arrive in Cuba even before they are officially distributed. Isn’t that hyper connectivity?”
The cultural logics behind digital media practices in Havana
Although my time in Havana at UNPACK has been short, because my research duties would continue in Santiago de Cuba for now, I quickly learned that the distribution system that characterizes digital media and technology consumption in Havana follows long lasting cultural patterns in which (almost) everything is shared due to local necessities and exigencies. Things have been circulating mainly physically from hand to hand, and the digital – almost paradoxically – also continues to be circulated mostly manually. Digital distribution follows physical and human collaborative networks and infrastructures of sharing and caring that have existed long time before ‘the digital turn’ arrived in Cuba.
Julie Rausenberger (MA in Social and Cultural Anthropology) is a PhD Candidate in Social Sciences at the Visual and Digital Cultures Research Center (ViDi) of the University of Antwerp in Belgium. She is currently staying for 4 months in Cuba to conduct ethnographic research on everyday visual digital practices in Havana and Santiago de Cuba in collaboration with UNPACK Studio and Universidad de Oriente. She is recruited within the FWO (Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek) funded project ‘From the peripheries of the wired world’ (promotor Prof. Paolo SH Favero). Within the framework of this project she is working on her PhD under the provisory title “Connect Me If You Can! Rethinking digital inequality in the globalized age through an ethnographic study in Cuba” which is supervised by Prof. Paolo SH Favero and Prof. Philippe Meers. It aims at studying the implications of participation in the digital world and observing the diverse temporal and sensorial reconfigurations that digitization entails from the point of view of social actors and communities in Cuba. The overall goal of her project is to explore this scenario and to critically analyze matters of inequality in relation to digitization.
Julie has been traveling to Cuba since 2016 for research on volunteer tourism; Afro-Cuban religions; fashion and youth cultures. Her research has been published in international peer-reviewed journals and presented at various international conferences in Europe and the USA. In 2017, she won the Second Prize Winner of the Jorge Pérez-López Student Paper Award of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE) and she was an Emerging Scholar Awardee of the Religion and Spirituality in Society Research Network. Currently, she is in Santiago de Cuba to continue her research and to participate in an ethnographic field school on Visual and Media Anthropology organized by the University of Victoria (Canada). She attended the Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) annual conference at Universidad de Oriente in May 2018. She will return to Havana by the end of June 2018 to continue her doctoral research. You can contact her via Julie.firstname.lastname@example.org. For examples of her writings and publications, please visit
Focus Group with adolescents on their everyday digital practices at Espacios Adolescentes A+ in Habana Vieja:
Focus Group with the editorial team of the magazine Somos Jóvenes in Centro Habana: