In true Global Girl Gang fashion I was connected to Jauretsi Saizarbitoria by our mutual friend Mia Moretti, after I read about her talk on connectivity and it's resulting changes in Cuba. My husband is a Miami Cuban, so I have a lot of personal interest in anything about this largely isolated island nation. Ironically, Jauretsi and I struggled to connect across several mediums, yet after a series of bounced emails and missed messages her story arrived, and it was well worth the wait.
Firstly, tell me a little bit about you, Jauretsi.
I’m a Leo, a media girl, an ex-New Yorker, and present expat in Cuba, who’s on a constant journey trying to figure it all out. I’m sure the insatiable curiosity stems from my roots, being part Cuban, part Basque — 2 proud (with a capital “P") cultures, obsessed with independence while finding their place in this world. I sort of laugh about it. It’s in my DNA.
Where did you grow up?
Miami Beach, where it all started, the land of the Cuban exiles. It’s also the land that set my thermostat. Love heat. Hate winters. Big ocean girl.
What do you do?
Currently, I’m a Producer in Cuba, supporting all things that are the New Cuba. I’ve worked on everything from documentaries to music projects to art consulting to tech initiatives. I also now provide travel experiences, bringing lots of great industry friends to the island to immerse themselves in the new Cuba.
You run the "New Cuba," tell me about that... What is the mission?
It’s funny because I called it The New Cuba early on, not quite sure what it would be. I just knew that I wanted to explore all things “New Cuba," and that I didn't want to be limited by sector. So today, the New Cuba (both the website editorial and my services) tends to observe and honor this new incarnation through the lens of culture. The mission is to break from this cliche that Cuba is stuck in the past. It’s actually an emerging market, bursting with new energy and fresh ideas.
Cubans are very proud, and there is a very rich history there. What do you think people in Cuba would want the rest of the world to know more about them as a country, beyond the obvious politics?
The thing with young Cubans is that they have been raised their whole lives with a strong narrative pushed onto them from their own society. Then there is this outside faction of "Anti-Castros" who are also pushing their own agendas onto the residents. I think the younger Cubans are more awake than we understand. They are trying to create a new definition of what it means to be Cuban, and how they want their society to move forward. I think they want to be seen as individuals, looking to join the world market. The lack of global media on the island contributes to this information black hole, but we’re slowly seeing a DIY market emerge, with young creatives expressing themselves through fashion, film, tech, and design. This is a youth culture that wants to maintain the fruits of the revolution, yet discard what didn’t work. How this plays out is a mystery, and only time will tell.
Cuba is changing a lot right now. What do you attribute that shift to?
This year will be the most transformative year Cuba has had in generations. This April 2018, Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother) is stepping down from power. That means it’s been 59 years that Cuba has been ruled by a Castro. Most of the present mechanisms are still in place with the new government, but make no mistake: this is a big tectonic shift, both mentally and spiritually. For the first time in 3 generations, Cuba will be living a post-Castro world. The States' difficult new mission will be to win the hearts of their youth, and to help fix a broken economy. The reality is that there is a lot of work to do. We are in unchartered territory.
You recently gave a talk on "Wifi" parks in Cuba - what are these?
In the summer of 2015, after normalization talks began between Cuba & the USA, Raul Castro launched several public wifi parks for Cubans to be able to go online. It is more complicated than it sounds though, because one cannot log onto the internet without these little scratch-off cards by Nauta (by the only phone company, ETECSA), which can cost $1-3 CUP per hour. Tourists pay more per hour. There are multiple ways to go online in Cuba, but let’s just say it’s a gruelling daily task compared with our spoiled western culture of possessing cell data on our mobiles 24/7. Nonetheless, this limited access to internet has cracked the game open, and brought the world wide web into Cuba.
How strictly is the internet controlled?
Internet is sparse in Cuba. Period. Mostly, it is just weak and expensive. Many Cubans are resourceful bandits with getting online- sometimes legally, sometimes not. Blocked websites are a complicated conversation. Cuba tends to block strong dissident sites, whereas the US blocks lots of sites that foster business (i.e. Paypal, Venmo, Chase Bank) and practical services (Ebay, Amazon, Apple, etc). In the end, it’s the Cuban people who suffer without goods. As I mentioned earlier, the young Cubans seem tired of being pawns in this political tug of war, and are just trying to build careers, hopes, and dreams with the limited resources they have in order to bust out of this surreal situation. Internet autonomy is one of their final frontiers to tackle.
Do you think that connectivity is a positive or negative for Cuba?
Like most things in life, it is a double-edge sword. The internet is something that mirrors a society. If you have an intelligent relationship with your searches, you can yield infinite intelligent results. If you search garbage in, you get garbage out. I have faith in the Cuban people, who are highly educated and hungry to self-teach themselves skills not acquired on the island. But of course they are human beings like everyone else- for example, I have witnessed this pull of narcissism creeping in through the dreaded "selfie-culture"- but I think we need to stop coddling Cuba, and let them become what they will become. The Internet is both a positive and negative force that the young generation will need to reckon with as adults, and as they evolve out of this paternalistic culture that has been thrust upon them.
How is technology informing youth culture there?
Well, there is the “paquete." It’s too long to define in one sentence, but in short, it is a massive download of the weekly content from around the world. These hard-drives get passed all around the island. Since it is a street operation (not government created), the unspoken rule is that the makers include no politics and no pornography, but I've seen everything from a VICE doc series to a feature film on Snowden. To me this all seems politically informing on a different level, although none of the programming pokes at Cuban politics. The contents of the paquete have acted as a different kind of school teacher, sharing other-worldly point of views. As stated earlier, the internet has lots of fluffy crap as well, so the paquete also contains Korean soap operas and bad RomComs. So depending on the viewer's point of departure, a young Cuban can extract what he/she wants from this 1 terabyte roundup of world content on a weekly basis. The onus is on the individual in terms of what he’s seeking to learn.
What do you see as the future of Cuba?
This is the million dollar question. What is the future of Cuba? I’ll just say that even a cuban today cannot even answer you with 100% assurance on who will be the next president this April. There is a lot of mystery, but one thing is certain. The playing field is completely changing this year, and the soil is fertile for redefining this Revolution.
Can you give me some tips for an outsider planning to visit? Especially given that the country doesn't operate in the same way as many tourist destinations.
The best tips for Cuba are (1) Bring a bag of donations always, from toiletries to electronics (2) Stay in a home rental versus staying in a hotel. The homes are much more of an authentic experience that puts you in contact with a Cuban family (3) Always bring more cash than you think. Remember, for Americans only, nothing issued by a US bank works in Cuba, that means no ATMS, no Credit Cards, no Traveler's Checks (4) Brush up on your Spanish to try to immerse yourself in the local culture. It’s a two-tier economy, so you’ll want to leave the tourist economy and experience the local pesos market to better understand how the “other half” lives. Keep your eyes open, and don't fall into the tourist trap too much. This is advice for any world travel (5) Have fun, turn off your phone, and learn to disconnect. Put on all your “out of office” alerts ahead, because the internet is a bitch to get anyways. A trip to Cuba can be a bit of a digital detox, so just lean into it and don’t fight it.
Tell me your favorite Cuban phrase.
No es facil, pero no es imposible. (it’s not easy, but it’s also not impossible)