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 CubaConf.org, a free technology gathering in Havana.
Photos by Lauren Brown, Heraclito Lopez, Joshua Zane Weiss, Gavin Morgan, Helena Gonzalez, and Danny Spitzberg
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