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How Castro accidentally created a generation of gamers in Cuba

From the 1950s revolution to the 1990s "Special Period" and beyond

Cars and art of Havana
| Photos by Brian Crecente/Polygon, collage by Emily Haasch

Young Cubans love games; love networked gaming in particular despite the low rate of internet penetration, love collecting games, love playing them alone and together, love making them and would even be willing to buy them legally, if only they could.

But despite having what appears to be an almost intrinsic, overwhelming love of all things video games, the underground media that covers technology and gaming in the country and the gamers themselves say that Cuba's gamer generation faces nearly insurmountable odds before the simple act of playing, critiquing and creating games normalizes.

This struggle between what Cubans want and what Cuba's government allows and supports, experts say, is in many ways a snapshot of many of the struggles the country faces.

The place Cuba finds itself today socially, economically, politically can all be traced back through the country's own history and the history of its more than half century ruling family: the Castros.

In 1952, Fidel Castro was a lawyer running for a seat in the country's Chamber of Representatives, but over the course of seven years of petitioning, armed attacks, popular uprising and U.S. intervention, Castro managed to displace dictator Fulgencio Batista. Castro soon proved himself as much the dictator as Batista, sweeping the country for resistance groups and imprisoning or executing them. As the socialist revolution went from a populist movement to a radical one, thousands of Cubans fled to the U.S.

By 1960, Castro had purged all opposition, not just in government but also among the universities, closed down any newspapers that didn't support his reign and taken over the radio and television stations. The government seized nearly all private land and businesses and started setting prices for items and salaries for people. Fidel Castro soon appointed his brother, Raul, as the commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and created a neighborhood watch group called the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.

A CDR sticker on an apartment window
Brian Crecente/Polygon

In 1961, years before the advent of the video game industry, the U.S. imposed trade sanctions against the country, a form of which continue today. By 1965, Cuba formally became a communist country with Fidel Castro its First Secretary.

Castro has maintained control of the country through a variety of challenges, including the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had supported Cuba politically and economically.

The country's "Special Period" kicked off in the early '90s in response to the loss of the Soviet Union as a major supporter. The period resulted in more than 80 percent of Cuba's trade disappearing and major cutbacks on electricity, transportation and food. It also opened the door for more private investment in state-run enterprises and, over time, the legalization of certain private businesses which led to a booming business in home-run restaurants and bed and breakfasts.

One of many home-run restaurants in Havana
Brian Crecente/Polygon

In 2007, Fidel's brother, Raul, became the acting president of the country. In 2008, Fidel officially resigned due to ongoing illness. While some hoped the transition of power from Fidel to Raul would lead to an easing of government control in the country and a normalization of condition, that's not what happened.

While then-president Barack Obama officially restored diplomatic relations with Cuba last year and relaxed some of the trade and travel restrictions to the country, president Donald Trump has since promised to back out of a deal Obama set in motion as his tenure wrapped up.

Fidel Castro’s death late last year threw the already complicated relationship between the countries into further turmoil, with Obama not attending the funeral, but sending a representative. Most of the Cubans I spoke to in March in Havana worried more over the impact that Trump’s election would have on the country than Castro’s death.

"When you consider the amount of power, of personal power, Fidel Castro amassed over 47 years you would think it would be logical that things would change a little once that power was transferred to Raul," says Sebastian Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institution at the Florida International University. "They did change in a way, but not in a significant way."

Instead, Arcos says, Raul managed to create the illusion of change without really changing much at all. To understand why so little really changed with the transfer of power you have to understand the relationship the two brothers had, Arcos says.

"They always operated as a team," he says. "They were operating as a team from the time they were together at school. They covered for each other and protected each other.

"They did this in the Sierra Maestra mountains [while on the run from Batista's army] and then again in the days of the Cuban Revolution when there was an internal struggle within Castro's 26th of July movement."

Images of Fidel Castro adorn Havana in the wake of his death
Images of Fidel Castro adorn Havana in the wake of his death
Brian Crecente/Polygon

In that last case, there were those within the movement that wanted to reinstate the country's 1942 constitution while another faction, which seemed to be led by Raul Castro, wanted to create a totalitarian regime.

"When members of the group went to Fidel to complain, Fidel would go into a rage and accuse Raul of putting the revolution in danger by conspiring to develop a secret communist government," Arcos says. "But the reality, as history proved, was that both were working a a team. Fidel was the good cop and Raul was the bad cop."

That act, Arcos says, continues to this day, well past the day Fidel died, although it has evolved.

"This time the game was different," Arcos says. "Fidel was to back up Raul. Fidel was the guy trying to hold everything back and Raul was the progressive, the reformer, the technocrat. Under Raul, things were going to get better and many people believed this within Cuba and outside."

But Arcos says it was a lie created to seek more foreign investment, especially from Europe, Asia and the United States.

While Arcos says that Raul Fidel, who now leads the country, still maintains the edicts of socialism in Cuba, some things have changed.

"That is undeniable," he says. "Cubans can now stay in the hotels once reserved for tourists. Raul approved the sale of cell phones and developed a company to operate cell service and access to the internet."

Under Raul Castro, Cuba now has cell phones and limited public access to internet at parks.

It was the addition of the internet, coupled with a generation of gamers growing up on consoles smuggled in by their parents and the advent of vast underground gamer LAN networks spread across the country, that helped kickstart the gaming culture in Cuba.

While many Cubans in their 20s and 30s play games today, their gaming habits are distinct from gaming cultures found around the world. Network gaming is massively popular in Cuba, but those matches never include anyone outside the country because of the limited access to slow internet. The games they play are nearly all pirated and even the networked software they use is often hacked and modified to work around the restraints of the illegal street networks. Gamers tend to hold onto their consoles longer, relying on expert repairs to eke out the most from their systems. And while a burgeoning esports community is growing in Cuba, those involved feel trapped by the inability to compete against anyone outside the country.

People gather around Havana’s Wi-Fi parks to hop online for an hour at a time
People gather around Havana’s Wi-Fi parks to hop online for an hour at a time
Brian Crecente/Polygon

And the internet itself, when you can access it, is still well below the standards of most countries in the West.

"To give you an idea of the pace of change, there are now over three million cell phones in Cuba, but that's still far less than there are in Haiti," Arcos says. "The internet penetration is still the lowest in the western hemisphere."

That's because of a number of other issues, not least of which is the country's economy.

"The economic structure of Cuba is twisted in so many ways," Arcos says. "There is a significant underground market in Cuba that [has] access to all sorts of things."

And while the products of the black market, things like game consoles, games, movies, Wi-Fi routers and other electronics still aren't affordable to many of those living in Cuba, those products still tend to spread throughout the country.

On top of the issues of an economy propped up by a black market and some of the core elements of socialism and communism, like a cap on what an individual can own or operate, there are concerns inside the Cuban government over just how open they should be to the internet.

"There is a struggle within the Cuban government about this," Arcos says. "They are weighing the benefits of what they could get from more access to the internet by the average Cubans and the peril that represents for the current regime which is in total control.

"They are terrified of the free flow of information. They have been controlling all media for 60 years and they are not willing to let that go."

A web of cables and wires stretches across Havana’s colorful streets
A web of cables and wires stretches across Havana’s colorful streets
Brian Crecente/Polygon

Already, a Street Network has given birth to a slew of indie newspapers and publications, including several dedicated to the coverage of gaming and technology.

"I don't have any faith in the expansion of the internet because it is so controlled by the regime," Arcos says. "It's not that it's happening despite resistance. The government is slowly expanding internet access, using it as a privilege given to people they feel can be trusted. I don't foresee average Cubans in a town in central Cuba having regular access to the internet."

And even in Havana, where the internet is most available, coverage can be spotty.

"You have to go into these Wi-Fi places," Arcos says. "You're supposed to buy a card that the monopoly sells for the equivalent of two dollars. But the cards are quickly exhausted. Hovering bands of people who do have cards for sale sell them for three or four dollars.

"Once again there’s a black market and the access is slow and spotty. And there are obviously pages you can’t access.

'It's similar to what the Chinese do, but in China they have vastly superior internet."

Issues of internet access aside, Cubans wanting to play games also have to contend with the inability to buy many games legitimately because of trade embargoes, Cuban censoring and because of the excessive cost of the content.

The average income in Cuba, according to economist Carmelo Mesa-Largo, is less than a U.S. dollar a month. Some salaries are close to 1,000 Cuban pesos a month; some medical doctors make that.

But to compare it to the U.S., you have to then convert the Cuban pesos to the Cuban Convertible Peso, a currency only used by tourists known informally as the CUC. The official rate of the CUC is 80 CUC to the dollar, according to the Cuban government. But Arcos says that the real rate is set by the country's thriving black market, which sets the rate at anywhere from 24 to 25 CUC to the dollar.

"When you convert salaries you end up with $25 to $30 a month," he says.

The Cuban government argues that isn't a fair comparison because of the subsidies the Cuban government gives its people. The government subsidizes food by giving Cubans basic staples like rice, coffee and sugar at a much lower price. But often it's hard to find those items because they sell out so quickly.

Street art in Havana
Brian Crecente/Polygon

Healthcare and higher education is also provided to the Cuban people free of charge.

During my time in Havana, I stayed in a house rented by a young couple and grabbed a light breakfast every morning at a nearby cafe run out of a home. Often I would follow that up with a walk down the street to a nearby park where I could find people wandering around looking for signs of hopeful internet users. It was as simple as walking up to one and saying how many internet cards I wanted. I could buy as many as I wanted, each granting me an hour of unreliable internet access, for $3 CUC. Sometimes I’d also walk over to a nearby cell phone repair shop and buy different tickets for time on the cell phone I was using in the country.

As a tourist I wasn’t as exposed to as much of the daily hustle of most Cubans, a sort of secondary economy that keeps the country afloat, but it was still evident everywhere. The local store often only stocked one or two items, piling them up in great stacks until they sold out. The food and drink at local restaurants were often impacted by what happened to be available that day. And the streets were filled with beautiful, dated cars from the U.S. and Russia, often owned by over-qualified drivers who found they made more money as cab drivers than as teachers, engineers or mechanics.

Arcades never really came to Cuba, not officially. But a form of them did, powered by consoles and set up in the family rooms of entrepreneurial Cubans. These pop-up arcades are a good example of both Cuba’s side-job economy and the grey area between what is explicitly illegal and what is accepted, in which most Cubans live.

The home arcade typically consists of a television, a modded console packed with games and a couch set up in a darkened room. The owners of these little play centers charge by the hour, just pocket change, to let neighborhood kids come in and play the games.

Many of the people I interviewed told me that their first experience with games was either on hand-me-down smuggled consoles or whiling away the summer in one such arcade.

There was a short period of time, thanks to a change in the law about ownership of homes and the introduction of licensed businesses, that these arcades flourished.

It wasn't until 2010 that a change in the law by Raul Castro allowed Cubans to buy and sell homes. Before that homes, often given to people by the government, were passed from family member to family member or traded between home owners. Castro also made it legal for someone to obtain a license to operate a private business and hire employees.

One of the many beautiful cars of Havana
One of the many beautiful cars of Havana
Brian Crecente/Polygon

With the advent of the 2010 laws, Cubans were allowed to own no more than two homes each. This opened the door to a second home that could be operated as a business. These small businesses quickly flourished, growing beyond what Castro had expected and allowing things like the resale of clothing, electronics and the rise of legally operated small movie theaters and arcades.

A government crackdown in 2013 did away with the licensed home theaters and arcades, but failed to completely stop people from running arcades out of their homes in secret, where they still exist today.

While all of this seems to speak to a country undergoing a new sort of revolution, be it digital, gamer or internet, actual, lasting change coming to Cuba will likely be a much harder journey.

"It's going to be much more difficult than the rebuilding of the infrastructure," Arcos says. "The infrastructure is terrible, but it will be a lot easier to rebuild than to rebuild the minds of the Cubans who have gone through three generations in this toxic environment."

The game industry of Cuba

You just read one entry in Polygon’s 12-part series on video games in Cuba. Check out the rest on our hub.

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