WITH YOU
AT A DISTANCE
Mobile Version in progress.
Please view on Desktop.

Intro

A digital zine that aims to explore the grey areas of Internet access in Cuba.

Based on written letters and emails sent from people that were living on the island over the last 20 years, the following essay proposes a reflection on the rights to digital connectivity as a way to put in practice individual freedom.

Developed as part of the Virtual Grounds program promoted by Digital Justice Lab and Trinity Square Video.

Creator, Writer & Researcher
Amanda Gutiérrez Gomes
Concept Designer
Felipe Sena
Website Designer
Marcia Diaz
Community Outreach Coordinator
Mari Zhou
Copy Editor
Amanda Ghazale Aziz
Virtual Grounds Program Leads
Emily Fitzpatrick
Nasma Ahmed
Special Thanks to:
Carlos Vega, who I'm grateful for allowing the usage of his personal letters and paintings. 

Gustavo Piqueira and Jose Gutiérrez, my inspiring mentors. 

Virtual Grounds participants and the teams of Digital Justice Lab and Trinity Square Video for support and guidance.

CHAPTER 01

THOSE FROM HERE

AND FROM THERE

Leaving is a tragedy, an internal and silent fragmentation. One of the great dramas of the Cuban revolution has been the exile of hundreds of thousands of its citizens. Political disagreement, ideological persecution, economic difficulty, family reunion, disappointment, or hoping for a better future.

In any case, saying goodbye is a two-way road that inevitably creates sides: those from here and from there. Our people are made of split history and split hearts.

Even though I left Cuba very young and was raised in Brazil, the Caribbean island had a great influence in my life. I grew up seeing my father helping, in the most unimaginable ways, his compatriots that lived on that side.

If a relative was sick in Cuba, my father would find a way to send them the necessary medicine for their treatment. I witnessed how my dad sheltered newly-arrived Cubans who needed a place to stay until they got on their feet in a new country.

I also saw him elaborate countless plans to help out a family member or a friend who wanted to leave Cuba.

This, unfortunately, is not a unique experience. Many exiled Cubans feel the duty to help out others that, like my father, were disillusioned with the promises made by the communist revolution.

They live constantly looking back and carry the island wherever they go. Despite the distance, they hold their cultures and heritage with them, showing that some wounds never heal.

Now in his middle-age, Carlos––"El dulce" (The sweet) as he calls himself––is an energetic and talented Cuban painter. He is my father’s childhood best friend, both raised between the imported Soviet-style buildings of the Alamar neighborhood and the crystal clear tropical waters of Cuba's coast.

Like many of his countrymen, Carlos used to move between legality and illegality. In a country where every company is property of the government and the State sets prices for everything, Cubans make an additional income on top of their official salary through the informal market that exists in the island.

A man of charisma with a restless and questioning soul, Carlos’s personality traits caused him many problems living in a regime with many rules and few explanations.

Through the years, my father and I witnessed from a distance his adventurous attempts of finding a way out.

This is the record of the saga Carlos and his family experienced in leaving Cuba, portrayed in the letters and emails he sent to his great childhood friend over the years.

"My brother: you will understand, there is no paper. I am determined to leave as soon as possible for Spain, I am saving money and I hope that in the high season I will get out, if it does not work, maybe I will sell “Willy” (affectionate name of his car). About the reality that we’re living here, I will not tell you anything. Just read this newspaper and see for yourself. If you can help me with the "escape plan to Spain", that would be great. Ask Eduardo about infrastructure issues and rental prices."

In 2008, Spain had sanctioned the "Grandchild Law", thus opening a new possibility of migration for Cubans of Spanish descendancy. For the three years the law was in place, it became a phenomenon on the island as Cuban families saw the Spanish passport as a key to their way out.

By that time, Carlos and his wife already had their Spanish citizenship. So, it was easier for them to fly anywhere with an European passport. The challenge was with his two daughters and how they were going to strategize and execute a plan to get them all out of Cuba.

For his youngest daughter, who was under 18 and eligible for the “Grandchild Law”, the Spanish citizenship was their best bet. Though they still needed external help to get that.

Brother, I need you to enter this website: www.cgehabana-citas.es to request an appointment for Carla's Spanish passport as quickly as possible. here is Carla's personal information:

Carla XXXX XXXXXXX
Date of birth: XX/XX/XXXX

If other information is needed let me know. Also, when possible,
I need you to send me a list of art galleries in Coral Gables and their websites. Brother, you are my internet. Thank you so much.

Brother,
you are my
Internet.

Unfortunately, his oldest daughter was 21-years-old and could not apply for a Spanish passport. Therefore, plan A was to try her luck on the North American Diversity Visas Program. A "visa lottery", as it's called in Cuba, is literally a random draw of green cards annually promoted by the American government. Another option, amongst many, for Cubans to leave.

I am writing to you because I need your help once again, you know that the internet is a luxury here and I want to find out if there is availability for an interview at the North American embassy for November or December of this year and if so, I would need you to book two interviews, one for me and another for my boyfriend. I can send you the passport information of us both. Let me know if you find something out. Thanks a lot for everything.

Brother, my girl is not going to do anything about what she sent you, now they have raised the price of the interview and it is a lot of money, we'll wait. Anyway, thanks for everything and send greetings to Sandra and Gabo. My mother is much better.

Since plan A failed, four months later entered plan B: in February 2015, Carlos’s oldest daughter––who graduated as an orthodontist––embarked on a plane to Venezuela on an official government mission called Misión Barrio Adentro (Into the Neighborhood Mission).

This mission, a unique “product” of Cuba's regime, deserves a detour for more explanation. Exporting healthcare professionals has been a Cuban political instrument since the 60's to cultivate relationships between the island and other countries around the world.

In recent years, it has become Cuba's largest source of export income––in 2018, for instance, this policy yielded more than 6.4 billion dollars. Currently, there are 30 thousand Cuban doctors on missions in 67 different countries. For many of these healthcare professionals, this is a unique chance to leave Cuba and as soon as they reach the new country they desert the mission.

Which brings me back to Carlos's oldest daughter.

Brother, on the 10th of february the girl went to 'venz' (Venezuela) , 4 days were enough, then she left. Her email is xxxxxxx@gmail.com. Greetings

Hello Jose... what a joy to receive your email. Well, I arrived in Bogotá on February 20... I stayed on the mission only for 5 days and left for Mérida. I stayed there for 4 days until I managed to cross the border. That journey was not easy at all because I was alone all the time... actually it was a very dangerous adventure.

Thank God I am well and tomorrow it will be 1 month since I presented my papers at the American Embassy in Bogotá. The approval of visas for Cuban doctors is taking almost 50 days. I am in a place called Kennedy, in a very comfortable and quiet apartment.

My number is XXXXXXXXXX. I don't like this country, I'm crazy to get to the 'yuma' (Slang for United States) and start my future new life, because the truth is that Cuba is getting worse every day. You can email whenever you want… I have internet on my cell... something that is very normal in any country, of course... but for me it is something extraordinary and new. I hope everyone is well over there. A hug. Dened

EXTRAORDINARY

EXTRAORDINARY

EXTRAORDINARY

Brother, it hurts to see all the talented people that have left, that are leaving, and that still will leave. Many years before Christ's birth, Confucius said that a good government is one that attracts outsiders and keeps insiders happy. All the best, brother.

Since the girl left I have not shaved, as a promise. Only when her visa arrives I will shave and use the lotion you sent me (by the way it reminds me of the smell of your dad). The shirt and pullover are very nice and arrived in good time, thanks and regards. PS: Do you remember the image of Bin Laden? More or less, I'm looking like that.
It sucks to be old, bald and bearded.

During the period in which his daughter was crossing borders and waiting on the visa that would define their future, Carlos––on the other side––was waiting anxiously for an email with updates from her. In May of 2015, she made it to the United States. The family's plan would continue, leading up to their reunion outside of Cuba.

Brother, what a shame to be president of a country that everyone wants to leave. If he had a drop of shame, he would quit and go fuck himself.

Brother, it's so sad that I no longer have friends in Cuba. I have many acquaintances, but it is not the same. There are places I go that make me sad, because the people I love are no longer there.
The "in-xile" is as bad as the exile. Greetings.

I'm leaving, can't handle this anymore. On Tuesday the 21st at 9:45 am by American Airlines, Carlito 'El dulce' (completely saturated) leaves. I just spoke with 'the big head' and he didn't pay attention to my request about the shelter while I wait for the papers in Miami. (But that isn't going to stop me). At the time I received your message, I was buying the most recent Pedro Juan Gutierrez's book, it is an interview by him to himself, when I finish it I'll tell you my thoughts. Greetings

I thought that the final straw was the feeling of hopelessness, now I know that it's actually the feeling of disgust.
Everything here disgusts me.

Brother, how good it will be to be able to see each other in the 'good place' and finally meet my nephew. Greetings

This was the last email Carlos sent to my father from inside the island.

CHAPTER 02

CUBA'S D.I.Y

INTERNET

Cuba is generally regarded as an “exotic” paradise. A socialist Caribbean island where Western techno-capitalism was dismissed and instead replaced by out of the ordinary Soviet resources, setting the tone of a time capsule country that arouses curiosity and polarises opinions.

What may seem nostalgically beautiful to the foreign eyes, and what attracts waves of tourism, for Cubans, has been practically their only option for more than 50 years. Their daily life relies on limited supplies and outdated equipment.

However, to better understand Cuba's current state and how they navigate some of these obstacles, you need a history lesson you probably didn't get in high school. In the course of the Cold War, Cuba and the Soviet Union were united by an ideological and military bond.

By that time, the island had insignificant local industries and heavily relied on its powerful socialist sibling. Food supplies, medicine, equipment, technology, infrastructure, oil, and even cartoons landed all the way from the Soviet Union to Cuba.

With the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1991, all the exchange between both countries ended and Cuba sank into its worst economic crisis in recent history.

In face of this critical period, known as the “Special Period in Times of Peace”, the government solution was to control the population's access to basically everything. From food to electricity, everything was rationed to a minimum possible for survival.

For instance, the “libreta” (booklet) is an heritage from this economic crisis that is still in use to this day. Every Cuban citizen receives a ration booklet that allows them to buy small quantities of basic goods such as rice, beans, bread and sugar each month for low prices that are subsidized by the government.

What has been keeping Cubans afloat from all the control and limited access were their very resourceful personality traits. They are queens and kings of workarounds, or ––as they call it in Spanish––"resolver".

Just beneath the surface in Cuba there is a bustling informal ecosystem where Cubans have come up with pretty innovative bootleg solutions to overcome the barriers that kept them in isolation for almost six decades.

And, of course, when it comes to digital connectivity,
improvisation has been the rule.

Welcome to the Cuban's
underground network:

EL PAQUETE SEMANAL

The Weekly Package

A simple USB memory stick represented a significant change in the way Cubans communicate and consume entertainment.

Underground bloggers and independent journalists started the memory stick phenomenon by literally passing hand to hand a flash drive with their censored articles for the population to read.

Over the years, the system has been improved to what is now a giant illegal enterprise called "El Paquete Semanal" (The Weekly Package): a black market of pirated media that is clandestinely shared on every corner of the country each week through memory sticks. In this package it is possible to find anything that you would normally browse on the Internet.

Every week, the memory sticks contain 1 Terabyte of different materials that are compiled, organized and transferred by a human web of runners and dealers. Contents of the package range from music, Netflix series, Hollywood movies, and video clips, to news websites, software manuals, classifieds, and advertisements.

The Weekly Package costs 2 CUC for the population. To obtain it, you must either go to a dealer to fill up your own flash drive with the content you desire or a dealer can deliver it to you at your house.

The package enables Cubans to gain access to online content without having to be online. This is how Cubans access information and entertainment from outside the island, it is their homemade, offline Internet.

Mercedes* graduated as an Engineer, but never got to work in her field of study. Instead, she got a job at a government's national bank.

Luckily for her, in the beginning of Internet access in Cuba, banks were considered a "vital sector for the economic development" of the country.

Therefore, she was provided with an email account and connection to a few websites allowed by the State. Quicky, she became the communication bridge between her friends and their families that were living outside the island.

Although illegal, many workers that had a key position inside a government company played the role of messenger just for the sake of helping friends and family that did not have this privilege.

Subject: a message from Mercedes*
Hello cousin, it's me, who else? The bridge of communication between Havana and São Paulo. Let's jump to today's report: FOR LUISA FROM HER SISTER AIDA: FRIDGE IS BROKEN, PLEASE SEND AN EMAIL OR CALL JUAN CARLOS IN THE BAD COUNTRY, SHE NEEDS 50 BUCKS TO FIX IT.

* The names have been changed.

One common underground way to access the Internet is through account sharing, in which authorized users illegally sell their access to those without an official account.

“These contacts that I made were completely from the left, they were young boys who were in a key position in some government entity - I'm not going to mention names, right? But, anyway, they had access to several accounts and they sold them, because they also had to live, they were in a government key position, but they still had no money.

For instance, I remember once it was from the aquarium, there was one guy who was selling an account of the National Aquarium and the police caught him."


- Carlos Vega, Cuban painter. Interview on August 2020

The account sharing costs between 1 to 2 CUC (the average monthly income is around 30 CUC) for only 60 minutes of access.

Because of the high price and low time of connection, people that purchase this access normally use it solely to send emails and stay in touch with family members living outside of Cuba.

My friend, you were a fortune teller when you told me that on this side (referring to Cuba) there is nothing certain about the internet. The dude that used to sell me his government access was put in jail for 4 months in Villa Marisa. You know, he left there saying he was Tutankamon.

FROM YUMA
TO CUBA

Here is a common way for the Cuban population to connect that is not exactly illegal, yet so out of the norm, that it is worth mentioning it.

See, if you talk to a Cuban in the streets of Havana, you will soon hear a story about a family member or a friend living in the “Yuma”. While there is not a formal translation to English for this word, in practice it would be something like “abroad”.

Normally Yuma refers to the United States, but it can also be any country in the world––almost as if the country they are talking about is less important than the fact that it is somewhere outside.

The Cuban obsession for the Yuma has a historical explanation. Since the nineteen-thirties Cuba has been a country of emigration, this means that more people leave the island than enter.

Currently, 38% of the population claim to have family living outside and around 1.6 million people of Cuban nationality are abroad.

So, what would you do if you want information from a blocked website in your country, or if your Internet access was too expensive and slow? Cubans have created a route to the exterior by asking their cousins, parents, or friends to browse for them.

Brother, the people from the art expo are asking me for links related to my work on the web or social networks. What is that? Do I have that?... What the fuck do I answer? Or should I just tell them that I have nothing and that's it? I am afraid that they would see myself as what I really am: an internet illiterate.
Tell me how it would be better to reply. Greetings

Brother, I would like to have a presence on the web, what should I do? I need you to guide me. Someone told me about “artelista” (online platform to buy art) . How to access that site or others that promote and commercialize art? Cheers

Brother, there is a photo that marks the end of the Second World War, in it you’ll see a group of Yuma soldiers raising the flag all together. Could you send it to me this way? Cheers

Coming Soon

INSIDE
CUBA’S
INTERNET
ACCESS

A BRIEF TIMELINE