Inside Cuba's Tech Revolution
Inside Cuba's Tech Revolution
Robin Pedraja, a lanky 28-year-old former design student from Havana, walked into the Cuban government’s office of periodicals and publications early last year seeking approval for a dream: starting an online magazine about Cuba’s urban youth culture. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans in recent years have been able to obtain licenses for small businesses, albeit only in a limited set of service categories such as restaurants, hair salons and translation. Media remains under strict government control. An online magazine? Pedraja was laughed off even before he could finish his pitch.
He decided to publish anyway, without identifying the magazine’s creators. The first issue of Vistar came out last March. “We had nothing to lose,” he tells me on a recent visit to his office, a room the size of a walk-in closet in his Havana apartment. Vistar is packed with attitude and eye-catching photography, covering music, art, ballet, food and celebrities. “It’s a reflection of a new Cuban generation,” says Pedraja, who grew up among artists and musicians in Havana. Soon the artsy young Cubans who were reading Vistar all seemed to know who was behind it. So Vistar published its masthead a few issues later, with Pedraja’s name at the top, e-mail address included.
Sixteen monthly issues into his supposed transgression, Pedraja has yet to hear any official objections. That’s not unusual in Cuba’s murky legal environment. “There’s an attitude among some government officials that ‘I’m not going to authorize something, but I’m not going to prohibit it either,’ ” says Carlos Alzugaray, a retired diplomat and former head of Cuba’s mission to the European Union.
More surprising: the success of an online magazine in a country where only a tiny minority have access to the Internet. Cubans by and large can’t have home connections, and access at hotels costs about $7 an hour, out of reach for most. To circumvent that problem, Vistar’s readers–a best guess is somewhere in the tens or hundreds of thousands–share the magazine through memory sticks or hard drives. Pedraja in turn supports himself and more than a dozen staffers through advertising–also remarkable, since advertising not tied to the government has been virtually nonexistent in Cuba for 50 years. “ We’re not waiting for modernization,” Pedraja says. “We’re pushing forward, adding our little grain of sand.”
Those grains are starting to accumulate. Cuba’s frosty relations with the U.S. are thawing quickly, but even before President Obama’s historic decision in December to begin normalizing relations, Cuba’s private sector had been undergoing a massive transformation. Back in the mid-1970s Fidel Castro began moving in fits and starts to open up the economy to entrepreneurs in a few business categories. In the last few years, however, since Fidel’s younger brother Raul took over, the number of licensed cuentapropistas (roughly translated as “those who are on their own”) has soared to more than 471,000 across more than 200 approved professions, from upholsterer to children’s pony wagon operator, as of 2014. At least another million of Cuba’s 5 million workers are engaged in some form of official or unofficial private sector activity.
The word “Internet” may not appear on any approved government list of professions, but that isn’t stopping young Cubans, such as Vistar’s Pedraja, from harnessing the digital revolution. Smartphones are common, but they lack data connections. With no legal way to send or receive payments through credit cards or PayPal , charging for an app via Google's GOOGL -0.94% Play or Apple's AAPL -1.82% App Store is not an option.
No matter. Go behind the scenes in Havana, as I did, and you’ll find a swirl of tech action, overlaid by the kind of stunning creativity forged by necessity. It’s a world of memory sticks and human middlemen, physically dispatched to conduct what in the U.S. would be a frictionless digital transaction. There’s enough progress that Airbnb announced in April that it would expand into Cuba–and has already nabbed 10% of the 20,000-plus rooms for rent that have long been a mainstay for locals looking to supplement the meagre official wages, which average about $20 a month. Enough progress that Netflix NFLX +0.00% and Google are dipping in their toes. Enough that one Cuban entrepreneur has launched the island’s first “big data” startup, collecting information on all these private businesses that it will market to foreign companies interested in local investment.
Driving all of this: Cuba’s Millennials, who have the same ambitions and (relative) tech savvy as their peers in Miami, a mere 220 miles northeast. While they’re tired of the stifling conditions they live under, they’re not interested in politics. They say they want to improve their lot and have normal lives, and they dream of the kind of basics–widespread Internet access and the ability to tap into the international financial system–that would crack the economy wide open for them and, yes, for foreign competitors. “I want to continue to live in Cuba,” says Yondainer Gutiérrez, who has started AlaMesa, a thriving website and Android app that’s something like the Yelp-meets-Open-Table of Cuba. “But I want to live in a different way.”
Centelles, who became public about his affiliation with Revolico in 2012 after he moved to Spain, says the site gets 8 million page views a month and 25,000 new listings daily. About half of its traffic comes from outside Cuba–most of it from south Florida–where the site makes some money selling ads. In Cuba, where Revolico has no legal standing, it charges for “premium” listings, which get promoted on the site. Associates of Revolico collect the payment for those listings unofficially, and in cash.
Similarly, AlaMesa’s success underscores the hunger Cubans have for the kinds of apps and services that are taken for granted in the rest of the world. Started by Gutiérrez and four friends in 2011, AlaMesa is eager to promote Cuban culinary culture. Going door-to-door, the group checks out restaurants, examines their menus and lists them on the app, if the restaurants agree. More than 600 restaurants have, in nine Cuban provinces, and 30% of them pay, in cash, to get promoted on the app.
Again, the user market is twofold. Foreigners planning a trip to Cuba can download the app while at home. In Cuba it’s passed along, like Pedraja’s online magazine, by devoted fans. While the site has grown to 6,500 monthly users from Cuba, the United States, Spain and other countries, and 2,800 are registered to receive its newsletters, the business is far bigger offline.
To call these ventures bootstrapped would be a wild understatement. On a stiflingly humid late June morning Vistar’s Pedraja agrees to meet in the lobby of the Havana Libre, a hulking hotel known as the Havana Hilton before the 1959 revolution. After a few minutes we head a few blocks over to his home office, upstairs from a handmade ceramics shop on a leafy street in the Vedado section of Havana. The front room houses a 1970s washing machine, a threadbare ironing board and a couple of faded armchairs. Through the kitchen is an air-conditioned room that’s so small you can touch the walls on opposite sides of the room if you stand in the middle.
A colleague of Pedraja’s is working on the next issue at a desk with two computers and large displays. Leaning against one wall, Pedraja talks fast–like most Cubans–with an intensity that’s tinged with pride and impatience, like a teenager who’s tired of being told what to do. “They should let us Cubans do other kinds of business that are not restaurants or fixing cellphones,” he says.
Pedraja, the son of a musician, used his art-scene connections to land interviews with some of the country’s biggest celebrities, including Kcho (pronounced ca-cho), a reclusive contemporary artist of international renown who graces the June cover, and to publicize events that even connected Cubans didn’t know were going on. Vistar, which now publishes in English and Spanish, has more than 100,000 downloads, 60% of them from outside Cuba. When it ran a photo contest promising an iPhone to the winner, it received more than 3,000 submissions. “It’s an era of transition in Cuba where we needed a publication to cover these things,” Pedraja says. And it’s an era where good ideas are copied–there’s now also a slick digital magazine dedicated to Cuban sports–creating nascent industries that are expected to quickly accelerate now that the genie is out of the bottle.
Robin Pedraja [left], founder and creative director of Vistar, a digital magazine about Cuban youth culture, and his friend Yondainer Gutierrez, co-founder of AlaMesa, a Web site and mobile app that Cuban restaurants CREDIT: Alejandro González
If these scrappy startups are Cuba’s budding BuzzFeed, eBay and OpenTable, then El Paquete Semanal (“the weekly package”) is more akin to the Google and Comcast of the island. Think of it as the Internet-in-a-box for an unwired country or, more precisely, the Internet on a terabyte portable hard drive.
El Paquete began some half-dozen years ago, compiled by a small, shadowy group of friends in Havana every week. It’s a massive digital trove of recent movies, TV shows, magazines, apps, software updates and other digital goodies made available to Cubans, often mere hours after they become available elsewhere in the world. It’s copied and distributed on portable drives to 100 people, who distribute it to 1,000, and so on, and then it’s delivered through an informal network of human mules who travel in public buses to every corner of the island. Most customers get the drive at home, where they exchange it for last week’s drive and the equivalent of $1.10 to $2.20. (Distributors selling to other distributors charge ten times as much.)
How many people get El Paquete is impossible to know, and not all versions are identical, as people operating in nodes along the network add or remove content. But virtually all of the taxi drivers and others in Havana I asked said they get it.
El Paquete’s creators have kept a very low profile, but perhaps in a sign of Cuba’s growing openness–and the growing boldness of its entrepreneurs–the man many in Havana’s tech circles know as El Transportador, or the conveyor, agreed to meet me. Elio Hector Lopez lives in a ramshackle block of apartments known as a solar, which can charitably be described as a tenement. To get to his second-floor apartment, we walk through a courtyard where street dogs snooze in the shade, up a cement staircase to a long corridor lined with modest apartments that get their power from a maze of jury-rigged wires. Lopez’s unit is dingy and dark, with a couple of grimy armchairs and a two-seat sofa.
“The Paquete has become something that’s necessary for the country,” he says, as we sit down across from each other. “People see it as a form of Internet.” Google executives have come to see him, he says.
Lopez, 26, was an economics student and toured Europe with a theater troupe. At 18 he began collecting digital music and distributing it on thumb drives and CDs to deejays across Havana and the rest of Cuba. Within a year or two he met up with a small group of like-minded types who had done the same with movies, TV and software, and they agreed to team up.
El Paquete was born, and while the original members are no longer together, it remains the creation of a loose band of collaborators. How exactly they manage to keep El Paquete current, compiling so much data so quickly on everything from the latest app and digital magazine to Jurassic World or a new episode of Game of Thrones –not to mention updates of AlaMesa and Vistar–Lopez refuses to say. “These things are complicated,” he says with an evasive smile, though he admits much of the video content comes from pirated satellite TV. Sitting at the head of the principal network that connects Cuba to the digital world, Lopez says he feels a keen sense of responsibility. While he’s happy to make a modest living, he’s not interested in fortune or fame, and El Paquete is certainly not run like a company. “Some of the distributors make more money than we do, because they have a larger network of customers,” he says. That’s fine with him.
Those are the same notes coming from Airbnb. Cuba has always been the original rent-a-room market; thousands of locals, marketing via word of mouth, have generated money this way for years. These hosts are poised to play a more critical role as the American détente promises to flood the country with new visitors the island’s hotels won’t have the capacity to absorb. What’s more, Airbnb’s efforts have the potential to supercharge these cuentapropistas (even if they will also presumably squash the crop of Cuban middlemen who currently help hosts promote their rentals)–and underscore the peace-and-empowerment message that the Silicon Valley startup espouses. “The primary reason for doing this right now is to show people how connecting individuals in different countries can bring countries closer together,” says Airbnb cofounder Nathan Blecharczyk, who was visiting Havana last month.