Revolutionary Technology in Cuba: Four Days of Helping Each Other

By on October 12, 2017

American media puts out countless articles about Cuba’s tech sector as a business opportunity. Some reports celebrate Cuban innovations borne out of necessity, like media deliveries by flash drive and massive mesh networks, but the larger story sends companies searching for cheap labor and new markets.

What could possibly go wrong? For decades, Cuba has seen tech used against it, including USAID’s recent attempt at deploying a Twitter knockoff they’d use to spark protests.

But if we want to see things improve, we could ask,

What are the possibilities for decolonizing technology and the way we build it?

This Fall, I’m co-organizing a visit to Havana with a group of programmers, media producers, and researchers, because I believe our Cuban counterparts have so much to share with us—including questions of their own.

Last Spring, this group of nine organized our first visit to Cuba. It began as an idea with Joshua Weiss, who I met after a talk in Berkeley, California. He’s been back and forth to Cuba for five years, studying their emerging Internet and how people make sense of it. The rest of our group do work in faraway but similar contexts, from black voter engagement in the U.S. to indigenous land mapping in the Amazon. We all saw a chance to learn how technology and solidarity go together.

It’s no surprise that international audiences ignore Cuba’s free technology community and its revolutionary potential. But without first-hand experience, even the open source movement leaves Cuba off the map of places where technology works for people.

As allies, we need technology with revolutionary politics at the center.

During our week-long visit at the end of March, we met with a dozen active members of Cuba’s open source and free technology community. One day, we talked with a Cuban who lost his jobs after taking computer classes at the American embassy. The next day, we toured the Google studio in an art center that offered workshops, laptops, and free WiFi (password: abajoelbloqueo, “down with the embargo”). We also saw presentations from software collectives struggling to stay rooted in Cuba or doing commercial work for foreign clients. Everyone is working through contradictions.

We found that Cubans are proud of how they define and solve community problems. Their whole approach to technology is about helping each other, not “helping others.” That view is part of the dominant mindset responsible for consumer apps that separate people, instead of uniting us. It assumes one side had the answers.

We have to unlearn our one-way mindset if we hope to build tech for solidarity.

The last day of our visit, we and our Cuban counterparts decided how to bring these ideas to life: 4 days of talks, workshops, and projects as part of, a free technology gathering in Havana.

Join our group at CubaConf

  • We’re organizing a group of 24 people to join us in Havana, Nov. 6–9.
  • By meeting 200 technologists at CubaConf, we can build on conversations from last Spring about sharing our struggles and helping each other.
  • Our group so far includes 14 people working in programming, media production, social research, and community organizing. More than 50% come from backgrounds underrepresented in software and technology.
  • We’ll run open sessions and work on projects based on common interests, including personal expression on social media, diversity and inclusion, cooperative enterprise, socialized infrastructure, and disaster relief.

Help support our organizing

  • Based on our trip last Spring, we estimate airfare, accommodations, and event fees at $800–1,400 per participant. Our goal is to minimize costs, especially for people with limited means. So, our core group is working collectively to raising $25k from funders committed to digital rights and international solidarity.
  • We’re inviting people to join our core group by mid-October, or join as a participant no later than October 25th.

Want to join?

Photos by Lauren Brown, Heraclito Lopez, Joshua Zane Weiss, Gavin Morgan, Helena Gonzalez, and Danny Spitzberg

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