Cuba has two economies now: the national Communist economy for the majority; and a quasi-capitalist one for foreigners and the elite. Each has its own currency: the Communist economy uses the Cuban peso, and the capitalist bubble uses the convertible peso. Cuban pesos are worth nothing. They can’t be converted to dollars or euros. Foreigners can’t even spend them in Cuba. The convertible pesos are pegged to the U.S. dollar, but banks and hotels pay only 87 Cuban cents for each one—the government takes 13 percent off the top. The rigged exchange rate is an easy way to shake down foreigners without most noticing. It also enables the state to drain Cuban exiles. A million Cuban-Americans live in south Florida, and another half-million live elsewhere in the United States. They send hundreds of millions of dollars a year to family members still on the island. The government gets its 13 percent instantaneously and most of the remaining 87 percent later because almost every place that someone can spend the money is owned by the state. ... A single restaurant meal in Havana costs an entire month’s salary. One night in a hotel costs five months’ salary. A middle-class tourist from abroad can easily spend more in one day than most Cubans make in a year.
In Cuba, where Wi-Fi is both slow and terrible, you will be an emissary from the future, a hint of the degeneracy to come. You’re a full-on mainlining internet junkie with the world’s uproar piped into your head 24/7, your emotional landscape terraformed and buffeted by whatever some narcissist just posted on Instagram or some windbag on Twitter. But like the “not even once” warnings around drugs like meth, you know that after the internet is in Cubans’ pockets, it’s over. Even backward, bitter-ender communist Cuba will become part of the vast data Borg ... The real irony is that if the internet does topple the government and bring democracy to this democracy-starved island, it’ll happen just as democracy itself is being undone by Facebook and every other filter-bubble-creating, political-polarization-amplifying, algorithm-optimized feed. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, and also oversimplifying, because the Cubans—the very resourceful Cubans—haven’t exactly been sitting around sipping mojitos as the digital revolución passed them by. They have workarounds. Oh, do they have workarounds. ... the first workaround. Every week, more than a terabyte of data is packaged into external hard drives known as el paquete semanal (“the weekly package”). It is the internet distilled down to its purest, most consumable, and least interactive form: its content.