I can't really believe the files I'm seeing.
Entire folders full of videos with names like "The best of girls falling," "Handcuff Fail!" and "Sexiest Wheel of Fortune Ever." Full Mumford and Sons and Jason Derulo albums. A very bad-looking movie called Jurassic City. Episodes of 2 Broke Girls and Modern Family and CSI and Criminal Minds.
I am sitting in a communist computer club for children in downtown Havana, and I am being pushed pirated material from around the world by the Cuban government.
To my left, a preteen is playing a pirated version of Halo. To the right, another is playing World of Warcraft on what seems to be, but is not, the internet. In the other room, there's a guy checking his profile on a Cuba-only Facebook knockoff.
There are exactly 603 other "Joven Clubs" just like this one scattered throughout Cuba's cities and small towns, with an additional handful of mobile "Ciberexpresos" fashioned out of old train cars and pulled by semi-trucks.
Every Joven Club ("Kid's Club") building is painted an inviting bright blue. The insides, however, are more reminiscent of old elementary school buildings, with sterile fluorescent lights and rows of computers cobbled together. It's rare to see one that still has all of its original parts, and the government itself estimates that at least 25 percent of all equipment at the clubs is totally broken.
It's in these clubs that the communist regime is, perhaps, trying to lay the groundwork for a future cyber battalion. Or maybe it's trying to indoctrinate the country's youth so that they become pro-revolutionary and good communists. Or maybe it's just trying to teach kids how to use computers. It really depends on who you ask.
"They're trying to train a level of tech savvy revolutionary Cubans so that they can use them as programmers for the military or for a cyber police unit," Jose Luis Martinez, communications director at the Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba told me. "It's not just 'How can we do this, but how can we use this to our advantage and to push our agenda?'"
This purpose is actually outlined, more or less, in an article published in an early issue of Tino, a bimonthly magazine published by the Joven Club, an official government publication. According to the article, the purpose of the Joven Club is to "direct young people's capacity to learn and understand information technology and electronics, with students getting training in current political, cultural, and social affairs."
"The result of this work will be reflected in … the seasoned army of men who Fidel [Castro] will trust to perform great works with valor and grace," the article continues.
To this end, the Joven Clubs have classes on using Microsoft Word and Excel and basic computer programming and literacy. In addition to various propaganda contained in Tino, there are quite informative articles about complex topics, such as how to repair broken circuits and how to root your Android phone or how to set up a server on your computer. While I was at the Joven Club, I saw no such training taking place. Instead, I saw people gaming.
Most agree, then, that one of the main purposes of the Joven Clubs, outside of vocational training, is to convince young Cubans that they do not need to use the real internet; that the nationwide Cuban intranet is good enough.
In their everyday lives, enterprising Cubans have found ways to access western media not typically available in Cuba, using lots of different methods. People trade USB drives filled with pirated games, movies, and, news that are smuggled in from Miami every week in a product called the paquete. Teens have used illegally imported routers to create local mesh networks that allow them to play video games and trade files.
As a result, Western media once totally restricted by the government has become so commonplace and so demanded that, rather than trying to arrest those who have the paquete or ban video games, the government has had no choice but to attempt to compete with these capitalist, free market, open information movements.
And the 604 Joven Clubs appear to be the front lines of this battle: Last year, the Cuban government introduced the "Mochila," a direct competitor to the paquete replete with pirated—but government approved—content from around the world in an attempt to kill the popularity of the paquete. The Mochila consists of roughly 350 Gb of data, is available only at Joven Clubs, and is a collaboration between several different government agencies, including the Ministry of Culture and the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television.
"With these clubs, they're saying to the population, 'OK, you want the internet, well, play video games, we don't care, look at local Cuban Wikipedia and government-sponsored websites and use our social networks. Download the media we want you to see,'" Martinez said. "They're creating the illusion that these people are connected to something and are hoping this will be good enough."
And that's why the Joven Clubs appear to be so, well, fun. It's why Joven Clubs have their own World of Warcraft ladder tournaments and it's why the Cuban government is actively pirating and disseminating American movies, television shows, and music, as long as they're approved and innocuous. (Is it a bummer for Mumford and Sons or Jason Derulo, I wonder, to be among the few Western musical acts considered by the communist government to be unthreatening to their regime?) It's why there is essentially an entire section of videos on the Mochila that mimic those that tend to go viral on the regular internet, and it's why you can get pirated versions of "foreign magazines," as long as they're about baseball or soccer or weightlifting.
In an interview with state media last year, Raul Vantroi Navarro Martinez, the director of Cuba's Joven Clubs, said that the mochila "is a cultural concept for a package that does not reward vulgarity or banality, but provides knowledge, and has a very essential appeal."
Employees at the club are trained to be helpful and welcoming. The government is not trying to hide the fact that these clubs exist, and the staff welcomed me when I walked in. One employee was thrilled that I wanted to pirate the content on the Mochila, in fact.
Over the course of about 15 minutes, a woman in the foyer took my passport and created a login and password for me as I anxiously wondered whether she would actually let me use the computers. Finally, she gave me my username (jkoebler) and password (jkoebler). This would allow me to access the Cuban intranet, which consists of government-run websites and video game servers. I paid about a quarter for two hours worth of browsing time. Another employee led me to the back, where he showed me exactly how to download the Mochila, or backpack, the couple-hundred gigs worth of pirated material available to anyone.
"If it's downloading slowly, once that guy is done, you should switch to the other computer," he told me, gesturing to what was clearly a newer machine. "That's the best for the Mochila. Take whatever you want."
Though the employees were welcoming to me, they did not allow my photographer to hang around or talk to me and made him leave the building altogether because he hadn't registered. Anytime I approached someone using a computer in an attempt to talk to them, the employee approached me and helpfully but firmly had me return to the computer I was assigned to. Surveillance cameras watched my every move, and I can only assume that the computers themselves had monitoring software, as well.
After I logged in, I was surprised to see copies of Halo, World of Warcraft, DOTA, Warcraft III, Call of Duty, and dozens of other games sitting on the desktop. I opened up a web browser and tried to navigate to Google and a few other websites, which of course did not work, because I was only connected to the Cuban intranet. I opened a new tab, and realized that the Joven Club homepage for the day was for the club's official World of Warcraft server, which has several thousand players within Cuba. It's surprisingly sophisticated, with an auction house in which players can sell items for in-game currency, a ladder that ranks the highest-level players, and apparently, a whole thriving WoW community.
The Joven Club server even has its own official WoW rules: "Don't use hacks—this is the most basic rule and doesn't need more explanation;" "Don't bother or mistreat others;" "No profanity," "Don't abuse exploits;" and this being a communist country, "Above all, do not sell your account—if you are found trying to sell your account, you will lose access forever."
I didn't have the time or patience to start playing WoW, so I opened up the Mochila and started screenshotting material—in addition to the content I've already mentioned, there were thousands of books, many of which were revolutionary (the complete works of Leon Trotsky, the complete works of Cuban national hero Jose Marti, who led the fight for independence from Spain in the late 1800s, works by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara). As far as foreign news, there were copies of the Fitness USA magazine and AS and Sport, both soccer magazines published in Spain. There were also copies of every issue of Tino. I snagged many of the would-be viral videos, most of which seem to come from a Canadian show called Just for Laughs: Gags, and logged off after my USB drive filled up.
Whether Cubans are responding to the Joven Club initiatives is up for debate. Henry Constantin Ferreiro, an activist who lives in a Cuban city called Camaguey, told me that no one downloads from the Mochila, and that few people, relatively speaking, actually go to Joven Clubs or play games there.
"We have our own internal networks, and people know that what they're getting at the Joven Clubs is not real," he said. "No one wants to use the Cuban version of Facebook when they know the real one exists. And there are much better programs and files available in the paquete than there are in the Mochila. People see it as a transparent attempt to control what they watch."
Fidel Alejandro Rodriguez, a professor at the University of Havana, told me that the Mochila and several other Joven Club projects have mostly been failures, but he doesn't necessarily believe the government has created them in an attempt to control its people.
"You have to realize the structure of the state isn't that tight, so you have some institutions that kind of do what they want and run wild. In this case, they saw the paquete was popular, so they made the Mochila as an alternative," he said. "In some senses it's a good idea because you have some classic movies and other things available that you can't find in the paquete."
"But you have the state competing against a creative thing that only happened because of its initial restrictions that's inherently a commercial, capitalist form of distribution," he added.
The Mochila, everyone agrees, is losing.
"Those who make and distribute the paquete are very efficient, because it is their business, so they don't work as slowly [as the government]," Isabel Perez, a professor at the University of Havana, wrote in a June analysis of how files move around Cuba. "The Mochila initiative had little impact on the public. The socialization and distribution mechanisms were not effective, and the Mochila proved to be a proposal with too many internal barriers."
The Joven Clubs, which have existed since 1987, could soon be experiencing major changes as well, as Cubans are increasingly demanding expanded access to the real internet. Earlier this year, the country released a five year broadband plan that calls for much expanded broadband access to people's homes (current penetration rate: 0 percent). By 2016, the Joven Clubs are supposed to be turned into internet cafes with broadband access to the global internet (which will doubtlessly be controlled and monitored, at least at first). In any case, it's obvious that as western culture trickles slowly into Cuba, the status quo is no longer cutting it.
"It's always political. The internet opens tiny cracks of information that flow into the island and then you have this sense of 'the fortress is under attack,' so the government's first reaction is to defend, defend, defend, try to control their behavior," Rodriguez said. "But that's not working so well anymore. People want and need this, so it has to happen. It will happen."