What We Talk About when We Talk About Development

Posted by Sam Kellogg — MA candidate in Media, Culture, and Communications at NYU. This post was written in the summer of 2017, based on research funded by the Tinker Grant. 

On paper, and according to many observers, the Cuban Internet is many years behind the times, behind the curve. In a formal sense, and according to a linear development model in which countries must develop one step after another along a set path, this is true. Infrastructure is certainly lacking, though this is changing—new fiber-optic cables have been laid in Habana Vieja and new public (though not free—see my previous blog post) wifi hotspots and Internet cafes have been opened across the island. The reasons for the lack in infrastructural development are multiple and layered: government hesitance to adopt the Internet is certainly part of it, though the long-term effects of the US economic blockade have inarguably been devastating to Cuba’s ability to build a robust web architecture, particularly because so much of the Internet’s global development (in terms of physical infrastructure but also in terms of intellectual property, patents, and standards) has been dominated by the United States. There isn’t time to go into further detail here, but regardless of the reasons for Cuba’s relatively slow Internet adoption, what I like to call the “back in time” narrative can be summed up well borrowing the words of a friend of mine, a well-respected Cuban. He told me that Cuba’s Internet infrastructure is about “twenty years behind,” pointing out that the public wifi hotspot model is fundamentally the same one used by other Latin American countries like Perú a couple decades ago. Larry Press has written astutely from this perspective, arguing that Cuba might be able to leapfrog development stages in order to catch up with the rest of the world.

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Poster art in Clandestina: “Welcome to Prehistory!”

While this modal developmental model could be useful when comparing countries on a macro scale, it is limited if we want to understand what’s happening on the ground in Cuba. I would argue that the changes that the Internet has already wrought in Cuban society can hardly be appreciated if we stay at a high level, and argue instead for a ‘thicker’ approach of social and cultural change. From a hardware perspective, the antennas that the Cuban telecom company ETECSA is using in public wifi parks, mostly from Chinese technology giant Huawei, are fast and functional, and while the scratch-off, single-use login card system I described in my last blog post might seem antiquated, the system sits within a line of tried and true models for selling pre-paid access time going back to phone cards in the 1970’s. As a Cuban blogger and independent journalist I spoke with put it, “at least it’s something,” and compared with five years ago when access in cities was almost exclusively through expensive tourist hotels, the difference is almost night and day. Beyond that, though, the Internet and technology that Cubans use to connect is unrecognizable from those of 1997, and it is this fact that makes Cuba’s integration into the global internet at this moment so difficult to understand using linear development models.

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Wifi antennas and scratch-off Internet cards.

The same journalist I was speaking with about web access asked me more generally what kinds of differences I noticed in Cuban society after almost five years being away. While the infrastructural changes are significant, and the boom in tourism and the explosion of private businesses are probably the most obvious and significant changes, on the street subtler social shifts having to do with digital consumer literacy (and capitalist accumulation) are emerging. Many Cubans, particularly those in Havana and those of my generation who grew up during or after the height of the special period are tech savvy to a degree nearly on par with youth in the United States. And, similar to youth in the United States, they are quickly learning how to turn their tech and social skills and cultural capital into hard cash.

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Let’s take music—its consumption and production—as an example. One consequence of Cuba’s new internet aperture, in conjunction with a global boom in cheap smartphone production, has been a shift in the way new music is discovered and consumed by Cuban youth: whereas in previous decades Cuban music TV and radio channels were the primary means of musical delivery (and, importantly, these mediums retain their primacy in the campo outside urban areas), today platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Zapya dominate for many: I hardly ever visited a wifi hotspot without seeing a group of teenagers huddled around a smartphone screen, the unmistakable rhythm of reggaeton blasting out of its tiny speakers. Kids with phones watch video’s they’ve downloaded on street corners at night while an older generation sits nearby playing dominos under a streetlight. Up and coming Cuban reggaeton artists invest heavily in making music videos, as one video producer explained to me, and now expect to reap publicity as much through social media internationally (followers and likes—let’s remember that the rest of Latin America is paying attention to Cuba’s cultural production) as through domestic television channels. In the case of reggaeton acts, increased Internet access has allowed artists and managers to tap into transnational, social-media oriented, advertisement-driven consumer economies, and new patterns of mediated consumption and production have likewise changed how young Cubans socialize, online or on the corner.

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All this is to say that though Cuba’s Internet adoption may look ‘behind’ by the numbers, we risk a grave misunderstanding if we leave it at that. The planned socialist economy of the 1980’s is almost unrecognizable (though the queue remains a feature of life for now), and on the streets of Havana the Internet appears to be one of the most important and obvious factors reshaping Cuban society. As one ICAP representative told me during a conversation with her, the world is very different now than it was thirty years ago, and so the definition of socialism must also change—according to Cuban Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the Internet has a part to play. At the same time, economic inequality is on the rise, and though the Cuban state’s campaign to digitize Cuban society is still in its infancy, greater access to the Internet in many areas has already brought far-reaching changes to Cuban sociality and economics that seem to diverge from the party’s Marxist-Leninist ideological foundations. To understand how these contradictions play out, we’ll need to pay attention not only to bandwidth speeds and cell-phone ownership statistics, but the messy social confusion of the calle, for in Cuba as elsewhere it’s still in the calle or the parque, not online, that social life is largely played out.

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