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The editors of El Toque work in a park

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The underground game journalism of Cuba

Cuba’s game journos

The editors of El Toque work in a park
| Photos by Brian Crecente/Polygon, collage by Emily Haasch

Roving bands of robbers, government spies, risk of detention, suppression or worse: Game journalism in Cuba comes with the sorts of risks one might not typically associate with coverage of a multi-billion dollar entertainment business.

But as with any form of unregulated expression in the communist country, the coverage of video games isn't quite like game journalism in the United States and countries under less oppressive leadership.

Those who cover the burgeoning, semi-legal worlds of technology and video games know they run various risks. They can potentially land a gamer, an entrepreneur, a network administrator in prison or have their gear confiscated. While they fight to tell the stories of this growing tech culture in Cuba, they also know that if they attract too much attention for themselves or their subjects, bad things can happen.

Despite the risks, independent coverage of gaming continues to expand in Cuba. Among the top tech and gaming publications is El Toque, which receives its funding from an international NGO based in the Netherlands to "empower young women and men to unleash their own potential for social change."

I meet with two of the site's full time editors during a recent visit to Havana. Alejandro Ulloa, video coordinator of El Toque, and Alba Leon, content editor for the site, spend their days working from public parks where they can easily access the country's limited internet.

The two are among the dozens of young Cubans sitting on benches with laptops open, wandering the mostly-concrete park, cell phone in hand or relaxing under the few trees, tapping away at their computers when I find them.

Settling in beside them, I ask how often they work out of this park.

"We rotate from park to park," Leon says.

I was surprised. "Not the same park? Why not?"

"In the first place, Wi-Fi is not always on," Leon says. "In this park, it's always on but the other park we used to work in, it sometimes fails.

"I like to change places for matter of security also because this is one of the most safe places to work in but for example, in central Havana, there are a lot of burglars and they can steal my laptop. They can steal my camera.

"Also, well, you know, you never know who might be listening."

El Toque editors Alejandro Ulloa and Alba Leon work on the publication in a park
El Toque editors Alejandro Ulloa and Alba Leon work on the publication in a park
Brian Crecente/Polygon

El Toque mostly runs freelance work and these two are responsible for editing everything that comes in from 40 to 50 young writers, videographers and photographers from around the country. That work entails not just copy editing, but also protecting their writers and the subjects of their stories.

The publication once ran a story on the country's rampant street network, an expansive series of cabled and wireless connections that runs throughout Cuba that is as unofficial and mysterious as it is illegal.

"Were you worried about running that story because you thought it might lead to the confiscation of equipment," I ask.

"We try not to expose them too much because they buy this equipment with their own money," Leon says. "I don't know if it is illegal and I worry about [the government] trying to find their location to confiscate it and I'm not sure what they would do with that equipment: sell it, store it.

"So we have to be very careful when these guys talk to us and protect them so we don't give a motive to the police."

Alba Leon edits content for the site
Brian Crecente/Polygon

Being careful means not giving too many details in their stories and sometimes using fake names, she says.

The two try to update the site daily Monday through Friday, but that often depends on the state of the internet and the backend technology they use to run the site, which Leon calls very old and ineffective.

There are also concerns of things like weather, since they work outside, and the staying power of their laptops, which tend to only give them four to five hours before they have to find a power source. Internet in Cuba is also highly controlled. Most people have to resort to Wi-Fi parks, which means waiting in line at a government center to purchase $2 scratch-off cards which give the user a login that is good for an hour of time. Those official centers tend to restrict how many hours a person can buy at a time. Often a person might stand in line for hours to buy time, only to find out that the limit is two hours.

A substantial resale market has grown up in response to the inefficient government system, so most parks are replete with people wandering around the park, loaded up with stacks of the cards, which they sell for a $1 or $2 mark-up.

The limited power, limited internet, weather and safety concerns all make for a challenging work day for El Toque.

"So we try to manage our time and internet time efficiently," says video editor Ulloa.

Citizen journalism in Cuba grew up along a slow, circuitous, technocentric route, starting in 2004 with the rise of independent bloggers. By 2007 those personal blogs had become more journalistic, according to Ted Henken, an associate professor of Sociology at Baruch College and author of "From Cyberspace to Public Space? The Emergent Blogosphere and Cuban Civil Society."

What's intriguing about the growth of indie media in Cuba is that it has managed to blossom despite a government monopoly on mass media and, according to Henken, one of the lowest internet access rates.

He calls Cuba multimedia publication Cachivache a pioneer in the space and notes that most of these indie sites basically started up in the past 24 months.

An offline version of Cachivache

"Cachivache is amazing because of the quality of their journalism," he says. "It’s for nerds, a culture of technology and its use. The topics they get into include detailed analysis of a video game or a recent sci-fi comic book. Or very narrowly focused robotics, or an interview on the paquete."

Many of those who work at Cachivache graduated from a Cuban university, but didn't want to work with state run media because it didn't allow them to make money, he says.

"So they walk this fine line," Henken says. "They're not directly political and steer clear of politics, but they're also not working with a script that was pre-approved by the government.

"They're trying to be a part of the Cuba world without running afoul of the people who control this world.

"They're trying to fight the power with more tolerance."

Where El Toque seems always on the verge of running out of money, time, perhaps even government patience, Cachivache seems to be in a much more comfortable position. Cachivache is named after a special sort of junk unique to Cuba, the sort that finds a new life in the hands on Cuba's hacker and modder culture.

While the publication covers the video game culture in Cuba extensively, it also strives to cover the key people in the broader social scenes related to technology and new media, says Rafael "Rafa" Gonzalez, one of Cachivache's editors.

"We like to say that we are a digital media because we're not just doing a website but also podcasts and videos," he says. "We use any resources that we can use to tell our stories."

Cachivache is the result of a dream that three of the group shared while studying journalism in school about eight years ago, Gonzalez says.

The group was drawn to the internet because it saw it as a chance to tackle journalism in a way traditionally not allowed in Cuba.

"The digital space was very free," Gonzalez says. "It was a free way to try to make the things that I would like to do because in Cuba the traditional media, I mean newspapers, print media, the radio and television, it's pretty archaic.

Cachivache talks about the process of creating their publication
Members of Cachivache talk about the process of creating their publication
Brian Crecente/Polygon

"Digital media is young so it doesn't have this weight of history. There is a little space for experimentation and so our beginning was in this, in this digital media."

Cuba saw an explosion of blogs starting in 2004, well before Cachivache was formed, he says, and several of the group started experimenting with that.

Then in 2015, David Vázquez contacted Gonzalez and Javier Montenegro, both former journalism school classmates, about something he was working on. When they got together and started talking they got back onto the subject of their j-school dreams.

"We started to think about how we might make that magazine that we were talking about for a long time," Gonzalez says. "In the last three months of 2015 we started to figure out how we could do this magazine and we launched it in February of 2016."

Medium is Cachivache's main platform, used to reach an audience outside of Cuba, but in the country they rely on a local blogging platform and an app to reach the Cuban audience.

In some ways, the group is copying an approach created by the paquete, a thumbdrive used to pass around restricted and pirated media content throughout Cuba. People can hop onto their site or app for just a few minutes and download everything for reading, listening and viewing later, offline.

They've also managed to get their content on the Street Network, so those most interested in the sort of stories they tell, can easily find them.

While Gonzalez says the magazine likes to "talk about the intersection of culture, technology and society," Montenegro says that video games is one of the topics they cover most.

A member of Cachivache works on the publication
A member of Cachivache works on the publication
Brian Crecente/Polygon

"We talk about video games in the USA and Europe," he says. "But in Cuba there is not much to talk about, but like, we are a generation who revolves around playing video games. We think that it's an essential part of our culture, even when we are not connected."

Like many Cubans in their 20s, those who work at Cachivache have all played video games since they were kids, mostly on systems time-shifted one generation back from what children in other parts of the world played on.

They played at private arcades, passed around friends' games and even took to the country's Joven Clubs, a sort of nationalized, computer-centric after school program.

Daniella Fernandez, the site's community manager, was brought in after the site was launched. A social communications major in college, she was brought on to help expand the impact of the site's journalism through community outreach.

"I entered the office as a recommendation of a friend of mine who is a journalist who had worked with these guys before and I loved it," Fernandez says. "I loved every topic, everything they did, because it's a really wide topic, magazine-related. You can see literature but you can see video games. You can see startups in Cuba. It's a lot of topics and it's amazing, the concept they developed as a way of not being, of Cuba not being backward or sideward of what's happening in the world. We consume the same comics and the same TV series and the same movies and literature people are consuming of our generation, of millennial generation, all over the world.

"So I was really proud of working with these guys."

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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