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Cuba’s Communist Computer Club for Kids
WRITTEN BY JASON KOEBLER
August 28, 2015 // 08:30 AM EST

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.

“In this location you can copy ‘the backpack.’ With a USB drive you can
copy TV series, music, magazines, and other digital materials both
foreign and domestic.” Image: SoyCuba (Cuban state media)
“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.”

Source: Cuba’s Communist Computer Club for Kids | Motherboard –
http://motherboard.vice.com/read/the-communist-computer-club-for-kids

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