“Wait, are you serious…”
“You’re saying that you build your ‘apps’ offline, run to a local wifi ‘hotspot’, and pay 2 CUC an hour just to test the code before you bring it back over here?”
“Si…it’s what you have to do here in Cuba."
We all shared a laugh.
“…you guys are f*^$#%@& crazy!"
AngelHack CEO Sabeen Ali, and I were seated in an antique apartment, 5 stories above ground and about thirty minutes outside of the city. We were talking to our new friends about the tech scene in Havana, Cuba. We were here to get a glimpse of the approaching peak of innovation, and how the people would integrate technology into the culture.
We wanted to find out who these people were, and what they wanted from the rest of the world. To our knowledge, internet was only available for government employees and students. Our team in Cuba was on a mission to find out more about internet, the developer community, and other technologies. Our goal was to see if hosting a hackathon in Cuba would be worthwhile.
As we sat in this humid apartment in Havana we learned from our new friends that locals were recently given the opportunity to access public wifi at around 2 CUC (.87 cents to the U.S. dollar) per hour of usage.
"So, how do you log on?"
"You have to go to certain street corners that have public wifi."
"Como? What do you mean?"
"Uh, you just have to see if for yourself."
We, coming from a world where high speed internet is almost as abundant as water (how you doin’ California drought), were anxious to see how this all worked. Our driver was waiting outside. All four of us hopped into the Japanese modeled car, and hit the road. As we drove on, we continued the “tech in Cuba” conversation as more than a few old, beat up 1950 Chevrolets passed us on the highway.
The youth of Cuba want better access to internet to build innovative software, to access new movies, video games and music, and to experience that connection that the rest of the Western World has on demand. What became obvious was how the Cuban people have always been a strong, innovative, and savvy community. Since the Cuban government has had little trade with the rest of the world due to the distaste in capitalism, the Cuban people have showcased their ingenuity by using items that lay around the country for a variety of uses. From making a house fan out of a washing machine motor, to replacing a car part with something out of a lawnmower, or much like today, making a web application without wifi, this group of people continue to make something from nothing. With all this ingrained innovation, I’m curious what tech scene will look like once they gather these “nuts and bolts” that everyone else has had access to for years.
We were getting closer to the street corner where locals could access wifi, our “tech-sherpa”, Mike, pointed outside his window. Cuba's hunger to see outside of the island was obvious as an entire street corner of people shuffled around as if they were in line for a concert. I was eager to hop onto the network and connect with family back home. Mike helped me login to the network, and he graciously paid the 2 CUC for usage, but as I soon found out, the connection was slow and eventually I gave up. Unlike my impatient-self, many others were fixed to the screens of their mobile devices, tablets, or the less common, laptop. It seemed we were witnessing a new form of revolution.
On top of the limited accessibility, and low bandwidth, online access is generally 2-5 USD an hour, which is a huge chunk of the average Cuban’s weekly salary (20 USD weekly, on average). Oh, and not to mention, only available in luxury hotels, or select public areas like the one we mentioned. When they do receive this access, it’s usually slow, with video or photo uploads taking hours, or even days in time. Try and imagine that for a second, as you read this article, listen to your favorite song on youtube, and upload some code to github…
We were in the midst of a culture that was stuck in time, but eager to move itself to the present. Internet is new to Cubans, which may be surprising to you since we have had it for so long. The available internet consists of low connections, limited bandwidth, and high costs, but for some reason the people seem to make due with what is available. This poor wifi is the result of limited funding, lack of government support, and high operational costs that impede on the country’s economy. Certain professionals such as state workers, artists, academics, are allowed more access to still limited internet.
Beyond innovation, this culture is crafty and savvy in the sense they will find a way to get what they needed. Want to catch up on your movie binging? Update your music playlists? Well, looks like you need to contact your local “paquete” distributor and pick one up for a few CUC. These packages range from various contents, but all include U.S. popular culture that is more than difficult to access on the island. You can either bring your USB drive, or they provide you with one. It is quite the hassle, but if this is the only way to get Drake’s new album, watch the new season of Game of Thrones, or see the new Star Wars movie, then so be it.
To get more insight of tech in Cuba, we met with our friend Yondainer Gutierrez. He had created a startup, Alámesa, that has been referred to as “the Yelp of Cuba", and gives its’ customers a weekly report of local culinary hotspots that are slowly building up since families can now own small business. When asking Yondainer how to use his app, he grabbed his laptop from his bag and asked if I had a USB stick. I randomly had one on me, so he went forth with uploading two folders into the drive. He handed it back, “ok, ahora lo tiene! ” Very confused, I prodded with more questions, and began to understand that anyone who wanted the app had to visit our friend here like I did, and download it onto a hard drive. People constantly ask me if Cuba is this “time capsule” that everyone makes it out to be. Honestly, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but in moments like these, I certainly did feel lost in time, again.
The Communist Party now encourages the formation of cooperatives (state owned businesses that are sold to state workers), self-employment has increased, and how the U.S. - Cuba relationship is beginning to mend itself. Many Cubans are running their own businesses, such as restaurants, and even software developers are being contracted by private companies outside the country for outsourced projects. Entrepreneurship is slowly blossoming here, but in it’s own way, and for the sake of country, and not a personal agenda.
With that being known, Cubans will have a completely different startup ecosystem than Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, and Mexico City. I hope you readers understand that Cuba is much different than the rest of the world, and won’t be your next "Silicon Valley". The people here harness a savvy thought process that I personally believe will create successful ventures on their own terms, and in their own way. In all honesty, it’s refreshing to see people building out new ideas from basic needs, and not because a venture capitalist might wiggle his way into Havana, Cuba.
On our way back to the “casa”, we decided we were feeling a bit hungry and decided to get some food instead. A few of our new friends that we hadn’t had the chance to meet in person, were dining at a local restaurant owned by a local entrepreneur. Of course, we accepted the invitation, and began our walk through Havana’s dimly lit, and vacant streets. Our amigos were from “UCI” (U-si), a university for computer science students that was about thirty minutes outside of Havana. As we arrived, we were greeted by four smiling faces at a lively restaurant in the heart of the city. For hours, over mojitos and plates of ropa vieja, we spoke about innovation, the possibility of a hackathon in Cuba, and the future of technology here on the island. The group was thrilled to see so much interest, and were honored to be a part of the generation that would be leading this charge into this new, yet preserved, Cuba.
The current Cuba is a country that I will probably never get to experience again since there is so much change coming these next few years. The culture shock was steep, but the people were so familiar to me. The passion, and the light of creating new that consumed everything they did, reminded me of many others who are cursed with the urge to innovate. I am more than honored to have had the opportunity to witness the instigation of ingenuity, thirst to create something from nothing, and how to stay humble through the process. The feeling of cutting away from all the noise we have in western society was refreshing, but it was time to get back to the states where inboxes were always full, and the internet was always solving problems and creating new ones at the same time. I would like to say I have much hope for Cuba, but really, they don’t need it. I know my “Cubanos” will find their way.
The day began to end, so we decided to head back to our “casas”. My team and I got in our car, and drove along the Malecón with the windows down, and the sun setting. As we passed the recently opened U.S. embassy, and looked out across the bay at a fort where Spanish rule once took place, I knew history was here, but times were changing. I could only think back on college, and learning how this country built an economy that relied on key exports such as tobacco, sugarcane, and other raw materials. Enter years, and years of political change, I’ve personally been able to witness the potential that Cuba’s youth can instigate by making technology a key commodity in today’s economy, and pivot this culture into something new. To many people’s surprise I’m sure, the people here are doing just fine, life is good, but tomorrow’s Cuba looks much different than today.
Hasta la victoria, siempre!
Matt Wright (Mateo)