In the western half of Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, two city parks have become, in their own ways, destinations. They are the same size, each occupying a full city block, and both are neighborhood parks surrounded by houses and ringed by fiery orange-blossomed framboyan trees. Both are crisscrossed with paved walking paths, dotted with park benches, and broken up by dappled patches of sun and shade. They are gathering spaces for young as well as old. Both spaces recall something of both the traditional Spanish American park-plaza and what architect James R. Curtis describes as “socialist public space” in his paper on Vedado’s Parque Coppelia. But each of the two parks, beyond offering shade and green space, also have a special draw.
To the east, Parque Lennon features a bronze statue of the late Beatles singer John Lennon, which forms an indispensable stopping point and photo opportunity for many of the thousands of tourists who flock to Havana each year—particularly those who book a tour in one of Havana’s iconic American cars. Ernesto, a local resident who lived near Parque Lennon where dozens of classic convertibles filled with camera-toting tourists stop each day, told me that he once did a Google Image search and found countless nearly identical photos, of the statue but also of some of the houses and buildings nearby. He shook his head and laughed as he related his findings. “My home is famous,” he said.
The other park, officially named Parque Wifredo Lam after the celebrated Cuban painter but better known to locals as “el parque wifi,” is only a few blocks away and is frequented for entirely different reasons by both tourists and locals. It is here that Ernesto spends many of his afternoons and where he did his perusing of Google Images. Fixed halfway up the telephone poles that ring the park are Chinese-made wifi antennas, offering public Internet access to park goers. ETECSA, the state telecommunications company that oversees infrastructural development and administers the Internet in conjunction with the Ministry of Communications, now claims 432 such public access points across the island. While Havana is better served than other parts of the country—rural areas in particular being underserved—it is notable that all fifteen of Cuba’s provinces, as well as the historically isolated Isla de la Juventud, now have at least a few public connection spaces. Access is, in principle, far better than it was in 2015, when the program began with only 35 sites across the island. Still, private connections in homes remain extremely rare, so, for most, parks and similar public spaces remain the only sites of connection.
However, this public Internet is not accessible for free, nor does it function in the same way that Internet access does in other parts of the world—whether in Peru, Myanmar, or the United States. I spent two months in Cuba during the summer of 2017 learning about the adoption of the Internet and other digital communication technologies in an effort to understand how these entangled global networks of digital information, capital, and power are reshaping the ways that Cubans relate to one another and to the world. We might characterize the era since December 2014, when Presidents Castro and Obama jointly announced the reopening of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, as post-thaw—acknowledging, however, that the broad economic and sociopolitical changes underway precede and go far beyond this particular diplomatic event. This “dramatic announcement” serves as something of an anchor-point or threshold for recent scholarship grappling with change in contemporary Cuba, as William M. LeoGrande’s introduction to the Summer 2017 issue of Social Research covering Cuba attests. This article is a preliminary mapping of some of my thoughts regarding digital mediation and Cuba’s engagement with global data economies at this moment of shifting relations, and offers an initial sketch of a new form of informal, largely immaterial, labor being performed around Cuban wifi parks that I refer to as tarjeterismo. To describe this new form of labor, however, we first need to unpack how people actually connect to the Internet in Cuba’s wifi parks, and how this plays out in public spaces.
The process of connecting goes something like this. Visit your local public connection point (often a park), turn on your device’s wifi (cell phones are by far the most common devices, though laptops are increasingly common), and connect to the public network named WIFI_ETECSA. Once connected, a pop-up screen appears: this is Nauta, ETECSA’s portal that almost all internet traffic passes through on its way to the global Internet. There are terms to agree to in both English and Spanish—perhaps acknowledging the enormous boom in U.S. tourism since the beginning of the thaw in 2014—and spaces to type in a username and password. Enter your username and password correctly, and you’ll be connected to the Internet. If it has been a while since you last connected and your phone has notifications turned on, prepare for a flood of pings
Both Cuban citizens and foreign residents with an official carnet de identidad are able to register permanent accounts with ETECSA using an email address by visiting an ETECSA branch and opening an account with proper identification. This account can be used to log in to Nauta and access the Internet. For those without a permanent account, the only option is to purchase a single-use scratch-off Internet tarjeta, each with a unique 12-digit username and password. These cards, too, can be purchased at local ETECSA branches, where one must present a valid form of identification—a passport, in the case of visiting foreigners. The lines are frequently long, and not all access points have ETECSA branches nearby—this is the case with Parque Wifredo Lam—meaning that if you’re out of time on your single-use card and need to send an email, you could be in for a long, hot afternoon haciendo la cola (“waiting in line”) to procure another. This is where tarjeterismo comes into playErnesto, who lives near Parque Lennon, is one of a growing number of Cubans who have taken to supporting themselves through the illegal sale of Internet access by standing in line at ETECSA branches, purchasing single-use tarjetas, and reselling them at up to double the price to visitors at wifi parks. Sales happen discreetly, befitting the criminalization of this reselling, though a few minutes spent wandering in any park will reveal who is selling and for how much: crossing the street, as an obvious foreigner, “tss, tss, tarjeta amigo” invariably announced my arrival. A quick negotiation, a confirmation of price, a hip belt or wallet is opened, and cash—2 to 3 CUC—is exchanged for a slip of paper representing an hour of connection time.
The business model works like this: Ernesto goes to local ETECSA branches in the morning, purchasing tarjetas to replenish his supply, and then heads to the park. He can only purchase three tarjetas at any given branch each day, so many tarjeteros and tarjeteras conscript friends and family to stand in line as well, or hit several branches in a morning. Ernesto also suggested to me that a few extra CUC to the right ETECSA agent would allow him to supercede the daily limit, though most of the people who sell tarjetas whom I spoke with said they didn’t engage in this kind of practice.
At the park, Ernesto has “territory” on one particular corner where he sells his wares, and tends to be consistent with the hours he sets—when he leaves, one of his friends takes over the corner for the evening, and another friend is there before he arrives. It isn’t a 24-hour operation, but it’s close. Together these men are business partners of sorts—one of Ernesto’s partners described their group as a “mafia,” though the degree to which this was macho posturing was unclear. For several of them, though, selling tarjetas is their primary source of income. As Ernesto and one of his friends were incarcerated for many years, they have found trouble getting legal employment. They don’t want to return to the activities that landed them in jail in the first place, however, so selling tarjetas is a relatively low-risk hustle that allows them to make money on their own terms.
Cristina, another tarjeta salesperson who I got to know, has a similar arrangement with some of her friends on another corner of the park. Like Ernesto, they set up shop soon after the wifi was established in 2015, and thus have something of an established presence recognized by park goers and other sellers: their territorial claim is legitimized by their consistent presence as well as their early arrival. Encroachment on any established territory is seen as extremely inconsiderate, if not aggressive. When several younger newcomers set up shop selling tarjetas and marijuana on Cristina’s corner, she was livid. She was also worried: she told me someone had been stabbed not long ago over a territorial dispute. Still, Cristina’s strong relationships with park visitors who make a point of purchasing from her over other sellers means her territory isn’t under immediate threat.
The business of selling cards is not highly profitable, and can be dangerous. Cristina has been picked up by police for questioning, but was released due to lack of sufficient proof. Others describe similar experiences of police run-ins, though the obviousness of many tarjeteros and tarjeteras renders inconceivable the proposition that police aren’t aware of the practice. Rather, interventions seem somewhat arbitrary, though the stakes remain high: first-time offenders are fined 1,500.00 moneda nacional (~$60.00 USD), which is unaffordable for many Cubans. Thus, one run-in with the police, even though she wasn’t charged, was enough to make Cristina cautious.
Not cautious enough to make her stop selling tarjetas, however. Her precarious position in the increasingly hollowed-out post-Special Period Cuban economy means she must supplement her two other jobs—one cleaning an Airbnb rental in Havana and one cleaning a government building—with her business in the park. “Nobody can survive on the state salary anymore,” she told me, frustrated. “Hay que inventar.” She lives with her brother, son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter in a walk-up apartment some blocks away. Without family abroad to fall back upon, she’s found tarjeterismo to be a necessary side job.
Over the course of my research, I came to understand that, while selling cards is how tarjeteras and tarjeteros are compensated for their presence in the park, selling access time is far from the only service they provide. Because many spend much of their day in the parks, they become nodes for the transmission of gossip and news in the neighborhood, and can often procure other illegal goods and services for park goers, whether that be a taxi ride in an unlicensed car or a bottle of off-label cooking oil. Of course, this alone does not necessarily differentiate them from other park visitors.
Tarjeta salespeople also perform a crucial service at the interface between the human and the technological network. As any park goer will tell you, connecting to the wifi does not always go as smoothly as I alluded to in my description above. In the long shadows of the evenings, when the sun has fallen below the rooftops to the west, the park swells with visitors calling friends and relatives over imo (the preferred video chat app), watching music videos on YouTube, and chatting on WhatsApp, as explored in Zoe Garcia’s comic short film, Conectifai. During popular hours, all of these connections can quickly overload the system, and speeds often slow to the point that it becomes impossible even to log in. Even at less busy times, for mysterious reasons perhaps having to do with leftover cookies or improper wifi settings on individual phones, it can be a frustrating struggle to connect. In these situations, tarjeteros will often coach users in strategies to reset the connection, suggest other antennas to try, offer times to return and try again when the connection isn’t as crowded, and generally serve as informal ETECSA help agents. Assisting Cristina one afternoon, I spent fifteen minutes with an elderly Spanish tourist and her Samsung Galaxy attempting to log in. Thus, tourists, confronted for the first time by the (to their sensibilities) unintuitive Nauta portal and ETECSA’s mysterious, variably functional, infrastructure are the most common beneficiaries of this unpaid connective labor.
To what degree, then, does it make sense to understand tarjeterismo not only as a kind of informal business model or underground economy, but as an essential, if unacknowledged, component of Cuba’s Internet infrastructure? If, following critical infrastructure scholars Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, we understand media infrastructures as situated sociotechnical systems, I argue that tarjeteras and tarjeteros play a crucial role, not unlike switchboard operators of old, in allowing data to flow in Cuba. By troubleshooting issues and teaching new users, and by drastically streamlining the process of procuring access time through their supplies of tarjetas, they have become integral and valuable participants in a complex sociotechnical system that serves to connect many Cubans to the Internet. Their work is affective and largely immaterial, smoothing the particularly troubled interface between the Internet and end user that exists in contemporary Havana. Though some are nominally able to support themselves on this work, the true beneficiaries of this labor are not the tarjeteras and tarjeteros themselves but ETECSA and the same beneficiaries that reap profits whenever more people go online: global technology giants like Facebook and Google.
Thus, I assert that Cuba’s wifi parks are useful not only for thinking about Cuba’s possible futures in the post-thaw, post-Special Period era, but also for thinking about increasingly integrated global information societies—societies that philosopher Gilles Deleuze termed societies of control. Here, many of the social and material relations that have been black-boxed or obscured in the “developed” world are out in the open: media infrastructures and technological systems that are intensely disruptive and that continually break down are, time and again, propped up, maintained, fixed, translated, recycled, and reimagined by people who are all too often forced to the margins and made invisible. If we ignore these modes of unglamorous labor, lost beneath the blinding sheen of Silicon Valley techno-utopianism, we participate in this marginalization.
On one hand, greater Internet access in Cuba has opened up new communicative and collaborative possibilities for ordinary Cubans that seem to be positive—I’m thinking here of the increased time spent chatting with family and friends abroad, possible thanks to relatively affordable Internet video chat applications which are far cheaper than long-distance phone calls. It is true that, in comparison to the trickle of letters that made their way across the straits of Florida during the 1970s, today’s technology, political climate, and digital networked culture enable a veritable flood of interpersonal communications across the “sugar curtain.”
On the other hand, the current state of Internet access and infrastructure, rather than flattening hierarchies or democratizing Cuban society, seems to be reinscribing long-standing structural inequalities along the lines of gender, race, class, and ability. That many tarjeteros I met were Afro-Cuban, have no family abroad, are elderly or unable to work for some other reason, is not a coincidence. If it is increasingly difficult for Cubans to live off official state salaries, particularly in Havana where tourist dollars have drastically inflated prices for food and goods, then the tarjeta economy, and the larger underground data economy, offers a means for underserved Cubans to make ends meet.
I asked Cristina one evening what she hoped for in Cuba’s future, what she wanted to change. Her answer was direct: higher state salaries. Like things were in the 1980s. Salaries are far too low now, she told me, and the government knows it; everyone knows it. Does she think things will change soon? No. Maybe one day. This sentiment concerning the state economy and the constant need to invent new ways to make ends meet was common amongst those selling tarjetas. The inscription at John Lennon’s bronze feet a few blocks away reads: “Dirás que soy un soñador, pero no soy el único” (“You say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”). And Cristina and Ernesto are far from the only Cubans who have turned to tarjeterismo, hustling connectivity in public parks, to keep their dreams alive.
The names of my interlocutors were changed to protect their identities.
Image: A wifi park during the heat of the day in Vedado, Havana, Cuba. Photo by author, July 2017.